The prospect of turning 40 hit Sarah Brokaw hard. In her book, “Fortytude,” she writes, “we begin at age 35, with a sinking feeling in our stomachs, to recognize our own mortality. Our youthful beauty starts to fade as wrinkles become undeniable facts that we face every time we look in the mirror…Many women see 40 as the end of their attractiveness, their sexuality, their youthfulness, and sometimes even their creativity.”
As she approached 40, psychotherapist Brokaw was feeling like a failure, at least compared to the standard set by her extraordinary father, NBC’s Tom Brokaw. She started to panic, particularly because she didn’t have the “house-family-husband package” that she had expected.
It is tempting to dismiss Brokaw’s struggle with the Big-Four-O as an over-reaction. But her angst does seem real. For whatever reason, the prospect of her birthday threw her into crisis. What makes the book interesting is that she was able to work her way out of the downward spiral. She moved from wallowing in her supposed failures, to self-reflection and reinvention. She took a stand and said to herself, “This is who I want to be—and I’m going to go for it.”
“Fortytude” is the word Brokaw uses to describe the process of adopting “a take-the-bull-by-the-horns approach to life if you’re not happy with where you are, or if life deals you a particularly painful blow.”
Brokaw’s own process started sensibly, when she defined her five Core Values. She says that focusing on our most fundamental values “can help us to thrive, to lessen our fear of uncertainty, and to become curious rather than judgmental about where we are and what we have.”
The values Brokaw regards as core are:
- Grace, which she describes as making peace with life events, even when things don’t go the way we want. Grace “is composed of generosity, forgiveness, and equanimity in the face of trying times.”
- Connectedness, which reflects that humans are social animals, tending to identify ourselves by our membership in various social collectives. Brokaw believes that women, in particular, need the friendship of other women.
- Accomplishment, which characterizes women who flourish into their 40s and beyond. A benefit of getting older is the sense of mastery that comes as we develop areas of expertise. An accomplished woman, Brokaw says, is one “who knows and appreciates what she is capable of, and sees the strengths in other women as well."
- Adventure, which reflects a contradictory aspect of human nature. On the one hand, we want to "conserve", creating nests for ourselves and our loved ones. On the other, “we feel a pull to strike forth in search of new experiences that foster our growth. Adventure means not settling into a tired, old pattern but rather challenging ourselves to renew our interest in and enthusiasm for life by pushing out of our comfort zones.”
- Spirituality, including “a strong pull to reach out to others in a meaningful way, and to connect regularly with a life force larger than our own.”
Brokaw says that when a woman embraces all of these five values, “she has a mental and emotional framework that empowers her to be her most authentic—and actualized—self.”
I agree that being in touch with values like these can help us feel strong as we face the future. But these five words might not be the right ones for you. However, you might use them as a starting point, as you treat the approach of your next birthday as a reminder to pause and reflect on the values that will shape the rest of your life.
Brokaw makes the important suggestion that once you define your Core Values it is important to write them down and look at them frequently. She writes hers on a white board, and every day places a checkmark next to each value, once she has devoted at least a moment of time to it.
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