Becoming My Own Superhero
Almost three years ago, when I started thinking about the fact that my kids were leaving for college in less than a year, I signed up for an executive education class at Harvard Business School aimed at middle-aged alumni. Titled as The Reflective Leader, it was advertised as a three-day journey of self-reflection that would use structured exercises to guide a consideration of one’s life and career with the goal of uncovering one’s essential purpose. That purpose would hopefully inform one’s second stage. It felt like the perfect way to think about how I would focus my time after the kids left home, so I signed up to attend. When the pandemic hit, the class was obviously cancelled. Rescheduled as a virtual course in 2021, I planned to attend by screen, but there weren’t enough takers, so it was only in October of 2022, my kids now juniors in college, that I returned to campus to partake of whatever great advice HBS could offer me about the rest of my life.
As I sat in a familiar tiered classroom with about seventy other alums, my first realization was that I was one of the oldest attendees. Almost everyone was considering a transition of some kind, but I don’t think anyone else was there to figure out empty nesting. We moved between lectures with classroom exercises conducted mostly with your seat neighbor and group discussions, always with the same group of eight. And because we didn’t really know one another and made promises to be open, honest and confidential, we shared very personal stories and fears about ourselves and our lives. Not surprisingly, I found myself dwelling in the thoughts I have discussed here many times – what it might have been like if I had not given up career for family, or if I had better-balanced the two. I also found myself wondering again why I discounted my accomplishments, which my group was quick to point out were impressive and extensive, even if they were not lucrative or professionally-titled. And given where we were, I felt left out in some ways – the lectures and materials were focused on reminding the group that family and friends should be at the fore as you age, yet I had already been operating from that place for twenty plus years.
On the last day of the program, we had to take a stab at our purpose. And each member of our discussion group had to do this for one another as well. The theme of my purpose was unanimous: supporter. The cutest version was that I am the superhero in everyone else’s story. Along that line, I left HBS convinced that I should focus my time on teaching and writing about how partners who focus on family can feel “lesser” in society or how young moms (and sometimes, though rarely, dads) who take a step back in parenthood should consider how to stay in the workforce and find better balance. I told Jim all about my thoughts, and with his support, I dwelled in that topic and idea for about a week. I started reading articles about mothers and the professional track; I envisioned the research and teaching I might do. But, throughout, I struggled with whether this was a big idea or just me dwelling in my own mishegoss.
And then I took a walk with Ann.
My dear friend Ann was a section mate at HBS. Ever since, we share book recommendations and travel ideas. By chance, our kids chose to attend the same colleges, so we brunch on parents’ weekend. We both run, though she is a far better athlete, and have even had the same hamstring surgery. Ann had significant professional success before she stopped working to focus on family after her first of three children was born. When her last child entered pre-school, she planned to return to a career. She didn’t end up going back to professional life, yet she has never seemed to struggle with that decision. Whenever we get together, we walk and talk for as long as we can, and this time, I decided to ask her why.
Ann started by confirming my suspicions about her incredible athletic ability. She was an all-American athlete in high school; she still holds a record for something around goals in one game in New Jersey over thirty years after the fact. She doesn’t mean it as a boast at all, but she believes (and I fully agree) that she could have been an Olympian if she’d focused on one sport. The year she planned to return to work, Ann’s husband, Brian, said to her, “You have always wanted to play tennis. Why don’t you take a year to learn tennis and then go back to work?” Well, she did, and, in the process, rediscovered her passion for competitive team sports. Ann runs six miles almost every day with the same group of women and then will play tennis competitively that afternoon. She can hike for miles after she runs before sunrise. She plans to coach a high school team when her last child goes to college. The reason Ann doesn’t struggle with her decision to give up career is because she knows her passion, and she is lucky enough to be able to pursue it. She spends her time excelling at what she loves.
I think I knew already but Ann helped me confirm: I don’t want to be anyone else’s superhero (other than family or friends in need of support) – I want to be the superhero in my own second story. I know I have spent much of my adult life advising and supporting others, but it’s now my turn. I am not sure what that means yet, but I do know that how I feel about working with the written word is how Ann feels about competitive sports. And after walking with Ann, I find myself newly motivated to pursue a second stage that prioritizes that activity in some way. I am also feeling confident that I will find great self-fulfillment from pursuing tangible goals doing what I excel in and feel passionate about.
Since my walk with Ann, I have started down several paths that would allow me to spend significant time working with the written word. A few of those have dead-ended, and I’m still pushing on others to see where they might lead. I am optimistic that one will persist to fruition. In another development, I have also engaged with a woman I met at the HBS program who started a business supporting ambitious professionals transitioning to life as working parents. In what seems a bit like fate, she could use my help, and I am thrilled to potentially have found a way to support the mission of helping women navigate the parent transition that feels tangible and impactful. I have no idea yet whether my work with her will lead to significant and/or long-term involvement for me, but I hope it does.
Today my HBS discussion group met to share where we are six weeks after the program. I told them I had decided I want to be my own superhero, and then expanded on what I am doing to make that happen. I’ll just say that there were a lot of smiles.
I was excited to tell them, but it’s a little scary too. To date, only Jim really knew what I’ve been musing on for the last month. And now I’ve gone even further by publishing this entry. Suddenly, my plan feels less like an idea to explore and more like a commitment. That’s a good thing. I think.