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Knitting a New Life

If you missed the live online chat with Jane and her guest, professional knitter Betsy Lee McCarthy, you can catch the conversation here.

Today's participants:

Jane Pauley: AARP's "Your Life Calling" Ambassador

Betsy Lee McCarthy: Professional knitter and author of Knit Socks!

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Jane Pauley: Hello everyone! Welcome to my first Live Chat as part of my new role as AARP's "Your Life Calling" Ambassador. These chats will follow my monthly Today show appearances where we'll be featuring people in mid-life who are reinventing themselves in new and different ways. Today, we have Betsy McCarthy with us, a former health care executive who left a six-figure income to pursue her passion for knitting. During the next hour Betsy and I look forward to taking your questions and comments on reinvention.   

Comment from Linda T.: WMAQ editor 1975 to 1989. Got a Peabody, got my daughter through college, took a buyout from NBC-General Electric, bought an historic house in Key West, became a tour guide and living happily for 20 years in paradise. Hi Janey!!!

Pauley: Linda! Hello old friend. I picked your comment to go first because it made me think about my beloved Aunt Martha. Aunt Martha is my reminder that my generation did not invent reinvention. She reinvented herself over and over again over the course of her long life. She lived to be 95 and she's my role model, though, unfortunately, of all of the genetic characteristics in my family, her confidence and ability to learn new things is probably not in my DNA. When Aunt Martha was widowed in her early 50s, with a young teenage son to support, she got a job in retail sales. When she decided she could do better in real estate, she learned how to sell real estate and got a license. At some point she decided she would have more workable hours in banking, so she got a job in banking, and before long she was a bank manager at a local savings and loan. When Aunt Martha turned 65, she faced forced retirement. And another reason I took your comment Linda was because she literally walked across the street, presented herself at a travel agency in Indianapolis, and worked as a tour guide for the next 10 years. She got to go to Hawaii. She saw Europe. She finally, officially, retired at age 75, but only because the company's owner had retired. Aunt Martha made reinvention look like a way of life. I think we can learn from her generation. They just did what they had to do.

Comment from Cathy in Vancouver: Jane, I'm so happy you're giving a voice to the over 50s who still are in search of our life's calling. Jobs, kids, parent care and the burdens of life are tough. We need to wake up every day jumping out of bed with excitement for a new day. Thanks for getting the dialogue going. Betsy is a friend of mine and she rocks! I'm thrilled to see this segment and looking forward to more in the months ahead.

Pauley: Hi, Cathy. I'm going to turn this over to Betsy in a second, but first I'll make a general observation.  Women often experience their lives through the eyes of the people they look after, whether it's their parents, family, friends. When it comes time for reinvention, women often have to be reintroduced to themselves, so I encourage women to take time to do that and not expect all of their dreams and options and possibilities to line-up clearly in front of their eyes.

Betsy Lee McCarthy: Hi Cathy. Cathy is a friend of mine. She has also been a real inspiration to me. She's about, I think, 10 or more years younger than I am. But she's over 50 and has downsized from the big house to a less material-oriented life. At one time Cathy was an exercise physiologist, a nutritionist. To me she's the definition of how people just over 50 are putting their toes in and trying new things. In fact, since I've known Cathy, she's had a stint as a pastry chef at a wonderful restaurant here in Vancouver.
Comment from Randall G.: At the age of 57 I walked off my lifetime job as a project manager fora large commercial electrical contractor. I was making more money thanI had ever made with perks out the wazoo, but I was totally miserable. I walked off in June of 2008. That November I started my commercial photography business. Now I work for several magazines and publications. I'm making one-third the money but I'm having three times the fun! When I walked off my job the rest of the country lost theirs. Bad timing but I'm very glad I did it.
Pauley: Hey Randall. We're highlighting your post because many people enjoy photography and might like to make a business of it. But it is a business, so it's important that a person find out if they're as fond of the business aspects as they are about photography. Congratulations, and continued success to you.

Comment from Dana
: So pleased to see you, Jane, back on Today. Love that Betsy is a knitter, as am I. Is it more common for those pursuing a second career to open shops or, instead, businesses that are already developed, such as a franchise? I've seen a little of both myself.

Pauley: A quick piece of advice about opening a business like a store is that a person get a job in the very kind of shop they might see themselves owning. That way they can find out if they really enjoy running a business and are good at it. It's good to test the waters before you plunge in.

McCarthy: I did exactly that. After I left health care, I worked in knitting shops part-time and I taught. I quickly realized that my knitting passion needed to be expressed through teaching. I learned a lot by working in a knitting shop,including that I didn't want to be a small business owner. For me, owning a knitting shop would take away some of the pleasure I get from knitting, although I know that isn't true for everyone. It was very fulfilling for me to write the book [Knit Socks!] because it gave me a way to reach and help many more people than I could one-on-one in a classroom. I started out many years ago being an English teacher in a high school and then college. My life between then and now has been a rather crooked path, but the one thing I discovered in management, and later on, was that no matter how far I tried to move from teaching I was essentially a teacher at my soul. My fulfillment really does come through teaching, which can be done through books as well as in classes. Also, I'm going to be selling some patterns just because I love to do it. It's a creative challenge, but my main goal is teaching and really giving

Comment from David: Was it difficult to get your family to understand what you were doing [by leaving your job]? Our culture doesn't always promote this way of thinking.

Pauley: It's my observation, based on some of the research we've been doing, that a person's spouse and family are tremendously important in either supporting or moderating a plan. I think Betsy needs to speak about this because, I think, she was the main bread winner when she left her corporate job. Is that correct?

McCarthy: At the time I did make more than my husband, Terry, so I was more the primary breadwinner. [My quitting] pretty much halved our income. But he was on board. His mother was a knitter and he has always been sort of in tune with knitting as something people love to do. I do think family and spousal support can't be emphasized enough. I know there are people whose families don't take knitting seriously. But in my family, Terry and I worked it out together.
Comment from Kathryn: If anyone has any thoughts about how to figure out what to reinvent yourself into, I'd love to hear about the process they went through to "get there."  Nothing is lining itself up in front of me.
Pauley: Kathryn, join the club. Millions of us are unclear. I would just advise not to make this the equivalent of finding your soul mate. Just get out there and do things: volunteer, get a part-time job, take a class. It sounds pretty pat, but these are the ways you collect actual data about what makes you happiest. You need to try to find things out. I call these "trying times," and what I mean by that is it's a good time to be trying new things.

McCarthy: I love Jane's label of "trying times" because it emphasizes that you don't need to find, like, the perfect job analogous to the perfect spouse. In retirement or almost retirement, it's important to be open to the right next thing. Someone once told me it was helpful to do some visioning: Try to envision where your coffee cup would be and what you would be doing if you were doing something that you really loved or enjoyed. Honestly look at yourself and decide, "What do I love to do? What would be fun?" The phrase "trying times" is a wonderful label.

Comment from Linda W
.: After 40 years, I retired in August 2008, at the age of 62, from the West Hartford, Connecticut, Board of Education, [where I worked] as an administrative assistant. I'm now in a new career working as a sales associate as a home furnishings retailer. I love it. There's no stress, no taking work home with you. It's just enjoyable.

Pauley: AARP research shows that our generation expects to work in retirement, which sounds counterintuitive but for many of us is just a matter of having somewhere to go and people to be with. A person doesn't necessarily have to find a perfect second act. It can just be about finding a way to become involved and engaged.
Comment from Reed
: Hi Jane. It was great to see you on the Today show. This is such a great segment at a time when so many people are out of work or are losing their jobs. Could Betsy address how financially set people should be when reinventing themselves? That is, should you have a spouse that makes good money, have the house paid off? What amount of money should you have in a bank account separate form retirement funds?

Pauley: Neither Betsy nor I are financial experts, as you know. That said, I think we both agree that reinvention can be a future goal that you plan and prepare for. It might not be something you do this summer. It might be an idea you would like to launch in the summer of 2012, in which case you have some time to get financial advice and get financially ready to do whatever it is you want to do. One of the points I hope comes through our "Your Life Calling" series is the degree to which successful reinvention is the result of patience and planning.

McCarthy: It's important to be patient and do the planning that's necessary, and really test what it is you want to do before you do it. You need to know yourself and know what you want to do.

Pauley: To follow on that, people might be amused that Jane Pauley's brilliant idea was to return to television. I've been on television for 30 years. But for me, this form of television is quite different than anything I've done before. It takes everything that I liked best, and everything I most enjoy doing, and put it into one job. So to me, "Your Life Calling" is using life experience and an old skills-set in a brand new way.

Comment from Kathy B.: While it's scary to take the plunge, it's reaffirming to recognize that dreams can be realized at any age. How wonderful that you have combined your passion with a new business and, at the same time, giving back. I know firsthand how important it is to have the support and enthusiasm of our family and friends.
McCarthy: It was a surprise to me how much I enjoyed and loved and got from giving to other knitters. One of the best examples of this is a group of older students who were part of some project classes I taught for years. Suddenly the store in which the classes were taught closed. We were left with all having to say goodbye. At that point I realized it would be a good thing to keep this community together, so that's what I did. I stopped having a relationship as a teacher who was paid for lessons every week and instead supported and developed a community. These connections have been very important for the students and they are very important for me. It's very hard, I believe, for people in their 70s and 80s to make new friends. Some of the people in the group have made incredible friendships with one another. I've also realized that teaching knitting is, for me, like therapy. It provides a social context. I've also had wonderful experiences with people who've experienced strokes, people who hadn't knit for years, who felt their fingers were too stiff to ever knit again yet, over the course of a few months, found that they could knit, and that they felt better and had better mobility in their hands. It's been very rewarding. I had no idea that I needed to give this gift and that in return it would be such a gift to me.
Pauley: A lot of questions have come in that relate to Betsy's observation on the "Today" show this morning about not panicking in the face of ambiguity. Betsy, I want to hear you talk a little more about that.

McCarthy: Okay. I don't think human beings are generally programmed to be comfortable with change. We all see how children love repeated readings every night of their favorite books, and as adults we all find comfort in what is known and familiar. That said, when we make a change or move toward a change, we need to be prepared to deal with a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty. There will be, and there certainly was with me, self-questioning at different times. I didn't ever regret not being in health care, but I did occasionally wonder, "Have I done the right thing? Am I moving in the right direction?" So we need to learn to deal some way with the unknown, that gray zone between what we used to do, and do so very well, and the future where, we'll be comfortable once we get there.  We needto know how to deal with uncertainty and how not to panic in the faceof the ambiguity that is just a given as we move through unknown territory to a destination we're not yet sure about.

Comment from Chris Holtz: Hi Jane and everyone! Regarding how to figure out "what" to reinvent yourself as, there are many avenues. Every state has a bureau of employment security where a person can get free career counseling, which can involve taking "interest inventories," exploring transferable skills, exploring one's core values and reviewing work and volunteer opportunities connected with those areas. Also, community colleges offer free and almost-free courses that can turn light bulbs on for us—just browse their catalogs. We can also ask close friends and relatives what they think our greatest gifts and strengths are. That's frequently enlightening. In the end, I think we just have to get started on something and we'll know in our heart when it's right for us.
Pauley: I think it's very insightful that we need objective contributions to our own self-assessment. We may recognize our face in the mirror, but we haven't been making an ongoing list of our strengths, weaknesses, and interests. I couldn't give you even a short list of my passions. But be careful who you solicit. Family can have a tendency to see us as we used to be—or how they need us to continue to be. They don't necessarily do this out of maliciousness. All that said, one of the most important insights I've ever had about myself was given to me by my sister Ann, who told me, "Jane, you have a gift for helping people see themselves in powerful new ways." I never thought about that before, but when she said it, I recognized that it was true. I realized that whatever I did in my future, large or small, that helping other people see themselves would have to be a part of it.

Comment from Sherry:
[On the Today show segment] Betsy's husband commented about what she had accomplished during the day, and I guess that's the question I ask myself about taking something I love (knitting is one) and accepting that it's a justifiable change in my career path. I've taken a part-time job at an independent bookstore. It satisfies a reading passion yet [the work] feels more like a way to keep my mind active and a little spending cash in my pocket. How and when does the acceptance come that this is a true life change? The old work ethic seems to interfere here.

McCarthy: Yes, it is interesting how the voices we hear from the outside sometimes make us question the decision that we've made. I think it's important to really listen to yourself. The person who just wrote in obviously loves the combination of book store and knitting, but at the same time she has the feeling that maybe it's not justified. We are the ones who know if it's right for us. Maybe, if too many people in our environment are not being supportive, it's good to start looking for groups or people who smile upon what we do so we can get positive feedback and feel comfortable with our decisions.

Pauley: If Sherry can find a way to share her passion for reading with other people, it might give her a very profound sense of justification in what she's doing. It might be a simple matter of making the point to look out for customers who appear as if they might need her help. At the end of the day she can total up all of those chances that she took to help someone.

McCarthy: That's right. If I had just stayed home and knitted to please myself, I wouldn't be feeling the way I do.

Comment from Tena: I'm very excited about "Your Life Calling." The ambiguity comment hit home with me. I recently experienced the loss of a parent and a job of 23 years in a very short amount of time. I just turned 50 and have lots of thoughts running through my head. My favorite saying these days is, "Jump and the net shall appear."
Pauley: I am very much of that temperament, Tena. However, in hindsight, I realize that it took me nearly four years of collecting ideas, and taking them out into the marketplace so to speak, before I found the right partnerships. I'm very grateful I had the patience—patience not being one of my virtues—to wait until the right people, partnerships and opportunities lined up. What do you think Betsy?

McCarthy: Patience is important. If someone is thinking of just taking a jump and landing in the perfect next place, that might not be realistic. It took me about two years to feel like my life was working. I really had to restructure it. When you go from a nine-to-five life, structured with a lot of interactions with a lot of people, to a day that stretches out in front of you alone at home, it takes a while for you to learn how to live and spend your time and break it up in this new life that you're creating.

Pauley: It occurs to me that a previous reinvention I enjoyed very, very much, The Jane Pauley Show, which ran one season on daytime TV, was a delightful experience. But the show failed. So you know, bear in mind that we can find our heart's desire and it doesn't work out, which is why my personal definition of success is to be someone who tries.

McCarthy: Something my mother said to my brothers and me quite often when we were small seems quite relevant here. She was always telling us, "If at first you don't succeed, try and try again." To me that sort of sums it all up. No matter what, it's not good to embrace failure and just sit back and think, "Well, this isn't going to work for me." Dust yourself off. Get up. Try it again.

Comment from Jim in Burbank: Hi Jane, I took an early retirement three months ago at the age of 59 after 33 years at one company. I felt it was time for fresh challenges but was unsure of what path they would take. As many have said this morning, I'm discovering it's a process. It's good to know there are so many others successfully making the same journey. Thanks for your series. It has already been very helpful and insightful, as has this Live Chat! Please do these after each segment.

Pauley: We will definitely be here and hope you will be, too. One final thought: A number of people have, rightly, acknowledged that the economy is tough on a lot of people. I can't make the economy better or guarantee that everybody has an equal share in opportunity, but I would observe that reinvention is not necessarily a job or a career opportunity. Once we get off of the grid, if you will, of thinking our lives are determined by a paycheck, we can instead imagine that a career or job struggle might be an opportunity to invest more mental attention into other realms of life, such as friendships, relationships, or physical health and fitness, and look for abundance there.

Well, it looks like the hour is upon us and we have run out of time. Thank you so much for participating in our debut chat as part of AARP's "Your Life Calling" series. Betsy, I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have. Catch me again on April 13 on the Today show, where I'll be bringing you another great story about someone who is working to hear their life calling. Stay tuned to for more resources and inspiring stories on reinvention.