If color has a hometown, it must be Oaxaca City, Mexico.
The streets, stores and people are brimming with colorful handmade items. Food here is a picturesque patchwork of dishes that satisfy before you even eat. The flowering trees lining the stony streets mock the stern reserve of the Spanish architecture. It is a beautiful, energizing place to reflect on the changes happening for the women here as well as some conversations I’ve had recently with American women. It has me thinking about the colors of our dreams.
The conversations I've had recently were with women in midlife around changes they would like to see in the next 6 months. Nearly all of them referred to some sort of change in their work.
It’s not always comfortable but it’s totally normal - it makes sense that after a couple decades of working we would step back and say, huh. What am I doing and why?
I’ve thought about that as I’m learning more about the changes that are occurring as Oaxacan society continues to respond to an increased demand for weavings and other crafts that started in the 1970s. Oaxacan women and men have participated in efforts to retain majority control in the development of their economy. Women are now better educated and leading in ways they did not before; managing businesses, showing up at meetings that were previously male only, making collective decisions that may have previously been handed down by one or two male leaders.
(That gives a very broad brushstroke to a complex subject that I can’t cover in depth here. I’ve noted a reference that I’ve been reading at the bottom of the blog post. )
We can see an analog in the U.S. with female entrepreneurs, especially women of color. An American Express Open study from 2016 reports that women-owned firms are increasing at five times the national average rate, and nearly 8 in 10 new women-owned firms are being launched by women of color.
Like the women in Oaxaca, many female entrepreneurs of color in the U.S. are organizing around a common cause - to share learning and resources, to have a say in how changes affect them and their families, and to keep each other accountable to their bigger goals.
Contrast this with another approach that many women fall back on. They have worked like crazy for years, many have gotten to a place of accomplishment, but are feeling like something is missing.
What got them there isn’t interesting to them anymore. One woman said “I tend to be extremely resilient, no matter what comes up, I focus, follow through, and then get back to where I want to be. Until now. I just can’t seem to find that motivation right now. Its really surprised me.”
The challenge I am observing ( and have lived myself) is one reason we get stuck is that we are bringing the same set of tools that worked before for us (or our mothers) to try to progress, or bump along, or even procrastinate to stay in our comfort zone.
Does this sound familiar - “I need to think about it, do some reading, research, plan a little more, see where I’m at in…” - in when?
I’m not saying that research and planning are unnecessary. I am saying that by this point in our lives we know a hell of a lot more than we give ourselves credit for, and for sure more than our culture gives us credit for. Why don’t we give ourselves credit for our hard-earned moxie?
We live in a society that is so obsessed with youth that American women, with all our education and first world trappings, are less validated for our wisdom than middle-aged indigenous women in Oaxaca!
The messaging of our popular culture is this: the older you get, the more irrelevant you become.
Try this: take a moment and disconnect how that feels emotionally - step back and look at that as a fact and not have a feeling about it. Now, who or what is served in our society by this messaging?
It serves commercial interests, primarily.
I’m calling it out because we cannot expect the message to change for us.
We can choose to see it for what it is and to take action in spite of it. We can choose to work compassionately with our fears around money, aging, our changing body. (More on that in future posts, I only bring it up here because nothing in midlife happens in a vacuum. If we are disconnected with and resentful of our amazing bodies, it affects everything else. )
What is happening, especially for this generation of women in midlife, is that we are being called to leap.
In general women in midlife way overdo the planning and thinking. Studies and our experience tell us that women are actually fairly confident in our zone of expertise. We are much less confident than men when we are out of known territory. One study showed that women were much less likely to apply for a job if they couldn't check off every requirement. Men applied even if not completely qualified. Men tend to do, women tend to wait
Yes, there are external obstacles to our progress, but we also hold ourselves back.
f you’ve been feeling unsettled or discontented for awhile now, you don’t need to think, research, plan or see how it feels 2 weeks from now.
You need to take some action, something sharp enough to get your attention, something that pokes a hole in your routine or comfort zone.
Macro view: As I’ve pointed out before, while this generation of midlife women was growing up, the world began trending at an exponential rate on almost every major indicator. For those of us in midlife, it may not seem like it matters personally, but changes in society and the planet are moving faster than ever and it IS the energetic backdrop of our lives.
Micro view: Many of the women I talk to are accustomed to figuring out their lives by themselves, really. Some have had extensive leadership development paid for by their employers, and that's fabulous, but we all know that we show up differently to things when we have sought it out and paid for it ourselves.
In my own journey, I woke up one day at 52 years old, newly single, with lots of question marks around my “job”. I had always put my spouse’s career first; he made more money, and we unquestioningly prioritized money as the priority goal in designing our lives as a couple with young children.
After my divorce, I had some savings to work with. I looked at it and thought, I could shrink my life, get 2 jobs and several roommates (I was living in Northern California at the time), and spoon feed my retirement account in little bits for the next 15 years. I could spend my 50s - the last decade or so of relative youth and energy - working for someone else. I could put my faith in the questionable ethics of Wall Street and cross my fingers that the market wouldn’t crash again in the meantime.
For what? Let’s face it, at 52, if you don’t make much money, the amount you can put into savings is not going to move the needle much in terms of return. I’m not a financial planner and actually would love to find a brave one help me create a chart of diminishing lifestyle returns.
What is the flexion point in your 50s where saving doesn’t make much difference to your retirement budget unless you can sock away a good chunk from one salary or double income?
For me, the outcome of being “sensible and safe” would have (maybe) been a few more dollars every month from Social Security at 65, at which point I would shrink my life even more, and probably still work at least one job on the side for low pay so as not to endanger my monthly check. That seemed like a life drained of color.
Leaving my former husband was the hardest thing I have ever done. I didn’t tear a piece out of my family’s heart to settle for shrinking my life.
I decided to sell what I owned, get scrappy about side work and cutting expenses, take some risks, see the world, meet a bunch of new people to enrich my network and influence - so I can begin to contribute to them and others as well.
I’ve had anxiety attacks looking at my numbers sometimes, but I’m the Boss of Me, right? I have a plan and I’m working it. My progress is imperfect and fabulous. Money doesn’t get to rule my life anymore, it’s a part of the puzzle but it's not the only goal. And right now I’m working to make ends meet, just like most of you and the women I have talked to.
This is my experiment now. Unlike most “how I did it” stories on the internet, I can’t tell you that this approach has made me wealthy in monetary terms. (Yet!)
I can tell you that I’m living my dream. One of my motivations is I'm creating a scrapbook for my 80 year old self (Try it!)
I show up to life in full color. I’m traveling the world, living where I want to, and making significant trade-offs (such as drastic downsizing) to make it sustainable because I don’t have a trust fund or alimony to rely on.
I’m not saying that my dream is yours or that it should be. Its different for everyone.
What I am saying is I know you have a dream, and I know you are capable of so much more than you probably give yourself credit for. It is the risk is what makes your dream pop! It fills your dream with colors. If it wasn’t risky, it wouldn’t be a dream because you would be doing it.
How do we do this?
If I had stayed where I was, trying to figure it out on my own, as I had always done, I would have stayed stuck.
Its almost impossible to blaze a new trail in your heart, soul and life alone. The difference is I am connected to and accountable to other women now. I have a mentor and a coach. When those arrangements end, I’ll look for creative ways to replace that accountability.
The reason I’m so passionate about connecting us to one another is that it’s the only way to make our own rate of change and progress match the rate of change in the world around us.
And that is the way our contribution stays relevant and we increase our influence, something the world desperately needs right now.
I invested in some personal development programs and coaching in the last couple of years. What I see is that there are basically 2 camps.
The women who break through and really leverage what they have learned the first half of their careers are the ones who invest in themselves - yes, spend money on a program or coach - so that they are accountable to other women for some significant stretch goals. This is because knowing we have to show up pushes us to move a little faster and take a little more risk.
The point is, I used to sit on my couch, alone, and try to recreate my life in a silo. Guess what happened? I was chronically discontented with my progress. I had friends and clients, of course - but that is different from the accountability of other women when you have put some skin in the game. That is what gets us taking action and risk, learning faster, and increasing our impact.
And here is the proof: The women who are changing society and their lives in a big way are organized and accountable to one another. Just ask the strong women of Oaxaca and thousands of female women of color entrepreneurs in the U.S.