Life's Third Act -- Generating Wisdom and Purpose!

Recently, a dear friend of mine of many years, Béla Breslau, sent me a link to a TED (Technology, Education & Design) talk by Jane Fonda, now age 77, on what Fonda calls “the third act” of her life. Fonda has always fascinated me by her luminosity and by the many ways she has re-invented her work and her self throughout her life.

Since both Béla and I are also people who have grown with re-inventing ourselves many times over-- and, like Jane Fonda, are into our third act of life-- I interviewed Béla to explore the patterns we’re noticing from this perspective as we move into our latest careers-- Béla a proprietor of a B & B in western Massachussetts and a Shintaido movement instructor, and me a career & life transitions coach. I began to realize that Béla, Fonda, and myself were talking about a certain kind of professional and personal growth-- one involving shifting perspectives and growing into one’s true purpose.

Concerning shifting perspectives, Béla-- who has a flair for friendship-- mentioned a new friend in her 20’s going through major changes. “It’s hard,” she commented, “being kind to yourself at that age, separating yourself from your parents’ expectations. It’s hard to have the more authentic perspective that life experience and awareness can bring.” Fonda, when she was 60 and examining the pattern of her family and other relationships from her past, gained the new perspective “that a lot of things that you used to think were your fault . . . really had nothing to do with you. It wasn't your fault; you're just fine.” This is valuable learning, that this shift in perspective can build your confidence from within to go forward in new directions that call you.

What about growing into and feeling our sense of true purpose? When you’re living successfully in your own terms, you can feel your purpose from within. For some of us that takes time and involves moving from the external sense of purpose that key others in our lives-- parents or teachers or peers-- try to assign for us. As Béla notes, she did not live out her parents’ purpose for her, which was to marry a nice Jewish lawyer and have a traditional Jewish family. Instead, she headed to the west coast and switched gears a number of times-- becoming a lawyer, a realtor, a fundraiser, and a long-time practitioner and teacher of the martial art form, Shintaido.

It is in her third act now, however, that she notices her purpose is “to help people in their journeys through life. I really love teaching and sharing, particularly with women, helping them validate their own strength, and share their own messages and abilities in the world.” So she teaches a “softer” form of Shintaido blended with yoga, not as a martial art form, but as a way of allowing people to open to their authenticity by enjoying and paying attention to their bodies in motion. As a mother, too, she is happy to allow her daughter to become the person she really is on her own, particular career and life path.

The purpose of Fonda’s life was initially an external one of trying to please her father, actor Henry Fonda, by becoming an outstanding actress herself, and then her first husband, Roger Vadim, who directed her in the space sex fantasy film, Barbarella, in 1968. Contrast that with her 1978 film, Coming Home, in which she is the wife of a traumatized Vietnam War army officer and the lover of another war veteran whose heart has opened with his injuries. As she gained stature and confidence in her acting career, she refused to take on roles that had no value or meaning to her.

Now, in her 70’s, Fonda has dug deep into what really does have meaning for her. Her discovery?-- that “it's not having experiences that makes us wise, it's reflecting on the experiences that we've had . . . that helps us become whole, brings wisdom and authenticity. Her goal? To be “an example to younger generations so that they can re-conceive their own lifespans.”

In other words, in our third act, from our deepest learning from the obstacles and successes in our lives, we can become the teachers and mentors we would have liked for ourselves. We can help others live from more authentic perspectives that generate an inner sense of purpose-- and culminate in rewarding career and life paths.

As yet another person in her third act-- famed author, Isabel Allende, now age 71-- says in her TED talk-- “I try to stay passionate and engaged with an open heart. I’m working on it every day. Want to join me?”


Jane Fonda’s TED Interview:

Bela’s B&B in Massachusetts:

Isabel Allende’s TED Interview: