People often tell me that the most appealing and positive aspects of adulthood’s second stage are its slower pace and all the pursuits that extra time affords — from walking on the beach and taking naps to reading a book in an immersive way (not just a few pages to fall asleep) and signing up for classes.
I understand what they mean. For most of my adult life I held down very taxing full-time publishing jobs while also writing freelance articles on the side, commuting three hours a day when I was in town, raising two kids singly, keeping up a house, etc. Although I still work a demanding job with many moving parts, life has slowed down some since those child-rearing years, when a flight to a meeting in a far-flung locale with a stack of magazine proofs in hand was my idea of down time.
Now that my kids are out on their own and I live in a small apartment where I both live and work (no commute!), I can more easily focus on one core endeavor at a time instead of, oh, 10. And I’m more able to make space for non-work activities without feeling that something critical is being short-changed or falling by the wayside.
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During the years of peak juggling, I believed that the aim to “have it all” was a worthy goal, yet I never bought into what many of my cohorts blithely accepted: that all the balls in a complex juggling act would stay airborne. Of course, like most of us, I did the best I could to prevent any one of them from crashing to the ground, but some inevitably did. Nonetheless, I reaped a large measure of fulfillment from all the things I was able to take on and move forward — the things I really prioritized.
Key to Achievement and Progress: Deep, Focused Commitment
Motivation and performance researchers tell us the keys to high-level achievement and continuous growth are a mindset that accepts intelligence and talent as non-static attributes and a habit of sustained effort and deliberate practice. Distractions interfere with the chain of refinements that carve the path to success and satisfaction.
Since, for many boomers, much of what once provided great meaning has shifted, be it kids, a partner, a job or friends — they are seeking fresh ways to inject purpose into their lives. Making sustained effort a goal can lead to learning and fulfillment, maximizing the benefit of having fewer pulls and tugs on attention. A concept I came across some time ago can perhaps provide extra guidance for those who find themselves at this juncture.
The Magic Formula for Learning
Back in the '80s, I wrote an article for Child magazine about Nintendo just after it was released and began revolutionizing how both kids (and adults) played and socialized. In the course of my research, I interviewed Nicholas Negroponte, the director of the M.I.T. Media Lab at the time, to field his thoughts about the "revolutionary new technology" and its potent grip. He emphasized its educational potential and its relationship to the intense engagement of kids interacting with the Nintendo "universe."
The games they were playing were not easy, he told me, not by a long shot. But the children were having fun and as a result, he said, the machine and all its future spin-offs would end up bolstering learning in unforeseen ways. Negroponte shared two magic words that his colleague, Seymour Papert, later wrote about in a column for the Bangor Daily News.
… it is not easy to find the right language to explain how I think I am different from the "touchy feely … make it fun make it easy" approaches to education. Way back in the mid-'80s a first grader gave me a nugget of language that helps. The Gardner Academy (an elementary school in an under-privileged neighborhood of San Jose, Calif.) was one of the first schools to own enough computers for students to spend significant time with them every day. Their introduction, for all grades, was learning to program, in the computer language Logo, at an appropriate level. A teacher heard one child using these words to describe the computer work: "It's fun. It's hard. It's Logo." I have no doubt that this kid called the work fun because it was hard rather than in spite of being hard.
Once I was alerted to the concept of "hard fun" I began listening for it and heard it over and over. It is expressed in many different ways, all of which all boil down to the conclusion that everyone likes hard challenging things to do. But they have to be the right things matched to the individual and to the culture of the times. These rapidly changing times challenge educators to find areas of work that are hard in the right way: they must connect with the kids and also with the areas of knowledge, skills and (don't let us forget) ethic adults will need for the future world.
Hard Fun Is Not Just for Kids
Those two words have never left me. Hard fun has come to serve as my guiding principle for my Adult, Part II life. What I took away from my conversation with Negroponte and my reading of Papert’s work is that hard fun might just be the best way to keep the kid-like spirit alive in grown-ups, throughout their lives.
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By combining our newfound liberty with our habitual dynamism and going after things that involve just the right kind of challenge, we can sustain vitality in a meaningful way: feed and sharpen our brains, energize our outlooks and find joy.
So, in this second half of adulthood, I suggest we take aim with laser-like focus at a selective set of hurdle-filled undertakings and commit wholeheartedly to surmounting them. The immersion will clue you in to what particular pursuits make you want to be a devotee — remember, your dedication needs to give you enough of a lift to let you stick with it.
To be sure, we should also be putting our feet up, taking walks in the moonlight, reading to a child, chatting with friends and roaming around places we’ve never seen before — rest and relaxation, too, are essential to well-being and the integration of knowledge.
But just in case you’ve been thinking that later life is all about taking it easy, you might also want to consider taking it hard.