I once met Jimmy Carter when he was hammering two-by-fours at a Habitat for Humanity project in North Winnipeg. The site was crawling with secret service agents, media and local politicians anxious to bask in reflected glory. But unlike most of them, the former U.S. president was there to work. Dressed in blue jeans and work boots, he was halfway up a ladder. Eventually he good-naturedly endured a media scrum. The first question had to do with how many hits it took him to drive in a nail. “Three,” he said, smiling. “And Rosalyn can do it in four” — which was a lot better than most of the photo-happy local dignitaries and politicians.
The encounter stuck with me because, as the years have passed, Carter has grown in my admiration, as he has in that of most people. We remember that he had a very difficult term in the world’s highest office before being turfed out, yet he was able to become one of the most revered individuals on the planet. As he admits in his biography, simply finding the inner strength for such a bounce back was not easy to do. Which makes it all the more admirable.
Carter reinvented himself mainly through selfless contributions as a house builder for the homeless and an indefatigable broker in global disputes and human rights causes. Others have engineered similar reinventions. Former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin comes to mind. After a term in office that must have left him disappointed, Martin has become a tireless supporter of Aboriginal businesses in Canada, as well as chair of a commission for the sustainability of the Congolese rainforest. One-time cabinet minister Flora MacDonald, after devoting her life to Conservative politics, lost her parliamentary seat in 1988 at age 62, only to reinvent herself as a proponent of humanitarian causes and foreign development.
These are politicians, known to us because of their fame on the public stage. The list, however, doesn’t need to be restricted to them. These economic times have, in fact, thrown a lot of people in late mid-life off what they thought were their pension and career paths. Thousands have been left hanging, forced prematurely out of jobs they thought would make their reputations. Yet it’s encouraging to think that in the bleakness of disappointment, any of us can reinvent ourselves in mid-life and make contributions larger than we might otherwise have dreamed of if things had gone according to plan.
Inspiration and courage are needed. Carter admits his deep despair at feeling that people didn’t want to be seen with him at the end of his presidency. His faith played a huge role in getting him through. But the main thing for all of us is finding the courage to take stock, reassess and figure out who we really are. It involves separating purpose from ambition, and understanding that accomplishment is not always what we thought, or even how the world defines it. That these reinventions were achieved late in life is most inspiring; Carter was 57 when he left office, 70 when I encountered him in Winnipeg and now 85. In 2002, when he was 78, he won the Nobel Peace Prize — but not for anything he’d done as president of the United States. It was all for accomplishments post-reinvention.
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