Elderhood: The Second Mountain

By Laura Hansen, MA, PCC

In a series of recent conversations with one of my executive coaching clients, he told me that early in his career he had prided himself on being a “talented jerk” (his term). He reflected on the first company he had worked for where that behavior was an accepted, even celebrated part of the culture. He had been highly rewarded for it and had an impressive list of accomplishments behind him.

But he sees he also left a trail of broken relationships in the process. And he sees that today, the “talented jerk” approach is threatening to derail his career, bar him from the leadership opportunity he wants, and prevent him from making the contributions he wants to make.

Based on the 360 feedback he received, and some deep self-reflection, my client now realizes he needs to shift his orientation from being a “talented jerk” to being an “Elder.”

What does it mean to be an Elder?

Elderhood is one of the three main developmental stages of human life after childhood and adulthood. But this stage of human life cannot be identified solely by age any more than adulthood is identified solely by age. (There are many 19-year-olds who have moved into adulthood just as there are some 40-year-olds who never really left adolescence.) Being an elder is a specific social role — one that requires new forms of maturity and new approaches to life that go beyond those of one’s adult years.

One of the misfortunes of the developed world is that many people are so focused on adulthood (adult tasks, adult powers, and adult responsibilities) that they give scant thought or attention to the next stage of human development. In fact, there are some adults who do not realize there is a next stage in human maturity. One reason many adults fear their loss of adult powers and adult privilege is because they do not realize that the next stage of human life is one of growth, that new types of power accompany it, or that this next stage has special joys that are unknown to many adults.

How does Elderhood lead to freedom?

Elderhood freedom is one of the most important aspects of this third stage of human development. Adulthood may be characterized by accomplishment and responsibility, but elderhood offers the fullness of human freedom. The freedom to become more of who we truly are. And from that place to make perhaps our most meaningful contributions.

I’ve read a couple of authors recently who explore this journey of Elderhood. Connie Zweig, in her book The Inner Work of Age, offers a radical re-imagining of Elderhood for all generations. She explores how to use inner work to attune to your soul’s longing and emerge renewed as an Elder filled with vitality and purpose.

Zweig suggests a range of contemplative practices for self-reflection and discovering ways to step into Elderhood and share our talents and wisdom to become a force for change in the lives of others. As Elders, we can let go of past roles, expand our identity, deepen self-knowledge, and move to a new stage of choosing to be fully real, transparent, free to be our true selves, and be of service to others.

Some of the questions that Zweig asks us to consider are “Who is the shadow within that stops you from stopping?” “Who is your Doer, Driver, or Loyal Soldier?” Realizing these shadow aspects of ourselves, and ceasing to be run by them, is essential to becoming an Elder.

Elderhood is a Journey

In The Second Mountain, David Brooks writes about Elderhood from another perspective:

“Every so often, you meet people who radiate joy — who seem to know why they were put on this earth, who glow with a kind of inner light. Life, for these people, has often followed what we might think of as a two-mountain shape. They get out of school, start a career, and begin climbing the mountain they thought they were meant to climb. Their goals on this first mountain are the ones our culture endorses: to be a success, to make your mark, to experience personal happiness. But when they get to the top of that mountain, something happens. They look around and find the view… less than fully satisfying. They realize: This wasn’t my mountain after all. There’s another, bigger mountain out there that is actually my mountain.

And so they embark on a new journey. On the second mountain, life moves from self-centered to other-centered. They want the things that are truly worth wanting, not the things other people tell them to want. They embrace a life of interdependence, not independence. They surrender to a life of commitment.”

The journey of becoming an Elder requires leaving past roles (like the “talented jerk”) behind and shifting from working solely in the outer world to including inner work with the soul and becoming authentically who we are.

If this journey of Elderhood is compelling to you, you might want to explore the books by Zweig and Brooks. Or you may want to take some time to reflect on these questions:

  • What are your life philosophy and core values? What can you do to live/work from that philosophy and those values?
  • What would it look like if you made it a priority to make people better?
  • What are the contributions you wish to make?  What legacy do you wish to leave to your family, your colleagues, your community?

Executive Coaching Can Help You Realize Your Potential

For a deeper dive into developing your skills as a leader or to explore the journey of Elderhood, contact  Laura Hansen, PCC for an executive coaching consultation.