I’m standing in a small demonstration kitchen in Paris, nervously gripping a pastry bag as my teacher explains the intricacies of making choux buns. Despite the challenge and my anxiety I’m grinning from ear to ear, because I’m deep in the middle of a late-in-life gap year, something I wasn’t sure would actually happen.
At 70, I may seem too old for a gap year, but I realized I needed a structured bucket list for at least 12 months after retirement, rather than simply retiring and seeing where life takes me.
A writing coach—young enough to be my daughter—actually helped me figure out a workable approach to this new era in my life. She suggested I look at the things I’d dreamed of doing when I was still working and give them each a try, free-writing daily about each for the month I was exploring it.
“Give it a year,” she suggested. “Just explore and write about what you’re doing, and I think you’ll find the perfect direction for your writing.”
Searching and Sampling
My writing teacher’s advice was incredibly helpful. I made a list of things that I wanted to accomplish. It was like a bridge between working and being retired. I wasn’t having to think about filling up the whole rest of my life, which made the future less intimidating. Instead, I was pursuing activities I’d said I really wanted to do—learning to speak French, figuring out how to do a TED Talk, actually cleaning out my garage, drawers, and closets, transforming a backyard shed into a pool cabana, taking on something new, and returning to something old.
I didn’t accomplish anything earth-shattering, but I took a deep dive into my own life.
The French baking class was one of my goals for the year and, as a two-fer, I was also accomplishing my goal of learning French.
I wouldn’t say I mastered any of the objectives on my list yet, and I haven’t quite sent in my application for that TED talk, but I realized that my French was much better on this trip than it was when I traveled to France a decade ago. And, I almost outdid Marie Kondo with my pile of discards that spark absolutely no joy. The garage cleaning came as a result of emptying a backyard shed of things that two or three previous owners of my house left there, and now I’ve made room for people to change clothes before they dive into the pool.
I focused on each item on my list for six to eight weeks, including conducting some research and interviews with experts and other retirees. Then, I wrote about my experiences five days a week. I didn’t accomplish anything earth-shattering, but I took a deep dive into my own life and a collection of things I’d been saying I wanted to do for years.
Gap Year, The Sequel
What I realized fairly quickly into the experiment is that this was like the gap year that so many of my former students took between high school and college or between college and their careers. It was a time to reflect on where I’d been and dream about where I was going. I could put my toe in a few different bodies of water, write about how it felt, and either go further or scratch that off my list.
What surprised me was that a daily routine began to develop organically. I had a structure because of my writing project, but it was a structure based on “assigned exploration.” In other words, there were limits and boundaries built in, which helped me to relax and go with the flow. Throughout the process, I kept thinking about how many other women my age must face similar challenges with retirement.
It was a time to reflect on where I’d been and dream about where I was going.
I’m sure there are millions of women just like me, who grew up believing we could have it all and do it all, and we did. We had careers and we raised families, becoming experts at keeping many plates spinning at a time. As one of those women, when I reached retirement age, it wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it would be to come to a stop, or even to slow down.
A grown-up gap year turned out to be an ideal solution for me. As I stood on the bridge between a long and interesting career and an unknown future, I could remember my strengths, skills, and experiences, as well as my dreams. That year of structured reflection let me see how the past and the future could come together.
It also reminded me that, even at 70, I have a lot in common with young women who are just starting out. We’re all in transition, figuring out what we want to be and do for the rest of our lives.