For those open to breaking out of stereotypes, life beyond 50 holds many decades worth of surprises and adventure. I was 75 when one of my own greatest adventures began.
That year, I had an epiphany: more than anything, what I wanted to do at that point in my life was to write a book about Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, founder of the micro-credit movement that is now more than 100 million people strong worldwide. Yunus, whom I’d learned about and met while working as a consultant to UNICEF in the 1990s, was my hero. The micro-credit movement he founded provided loans to poor people around the world, helping them start small businesses and climb out of poverty. I wanted everyone everywhere to hear his story.
But no sooner had I hatched the idea, I felt foolish. “That’s ridiculous,” I heard a voice in my head say. “You are way too old. Writing a book like that takes years of hard work. Be more sensible.”
A few weeks later I managed to silence the voice. “Be quiet,” I told it. Then I joined a writing group of women serious about writing and publishing their work that lent well-needed encouragement and momentum.
For the book to have fresh material and new insights, I realized, I’d need to interview people. In Bangladesh. Again that negative voice chimed in, saying “That’s impossible. Nobody sets off for a solo trip to a chaotic place like Bangladesh at the age of 76. What if I get sick? What if my husband gets sick?” Everyone I mentioned the idea to agreed. They said it was far too dangerous, that I couldn’t go alone. That I couldn’t leave my husband home alone for two weeks.
But I’d been to Bangladesh a number of times before while consulting for UNICEF, so it was not altogether unfamiliar territory. It may be a country that’s difficult to negotiate, filled with choking smog, and lacking street maps, guide books and telephone books, but I knew how to take care of myself there. I could stay at a hotel I had been to before. With a driver, I knew, I could get around the city despite it’s endless, relentless traffic jams. I began making my plans.
The next obstacle to surmount came not from a voice in my head, but from the practical question of how to line up some interviews with Muhammad Yunus. I knew that he got over 1,000 emails a day — and had seen first-hand that he didn’t answer mine. I felt stymied. Then, in what seemed like a small miracle, I discovered that a man I know from my own hometown was working closely with Yunus through his Grameen America foundation, helping him in Bangladesh and around the world. He agreed to meet with me, and as we sipped coffee he promised to connect me to Yunus’ assistant. He was sure I could get some time with Yunus too.
Esty and Yunus
So in January of 2010 I headed for Bangladesh with 4 interviews lined up with Yunus, and many others lined up with his family, bank employees and media staff. It wasn’t easy. The phone system had completely changed since I’d updated my address book, and I had trouble reaching many of the people on my list. I also had no cell phone. On top of that, Yunus was unable to make our first several appointments and I was left waiting, uncertain of whether I’d get to meet him at all. At one point a friend from my UNICEF days invited me to have dinner with his family. He picked me up in a rickshaw pedaled by a scrawny Bangladeshi, and we lurched out precariously into the black night dodging taxis, beggars and potholes. I felt unsafe. Luckily, it was the only time I did.
Upon returning home, I was faced with the enormous task of sifting through the tapes of my interviews and transcribing them. Next came the even bigger job of writing the book. But having written a couple of books in the past, it was a natural and familiar project for me, providing structure and goals that I thrive on and enjoy. The support of my writing group was invaluable.
Finally, having decided to self-publish, I was introduced to this entirely new and also potentially daunting world. There, too, I sought support — this time from a professional who walked me through the self-publishing process.
The resulting book, Twenty-Seven Dollars and a Dream: How Muhammad Yunus Changed the World and what It Cost Him was published in November of 2013 and has been named of the “100 Best Indie Books of 2013” by Kirkus.
As I reflect on my experience – here’s what I’ve learned about following your passion at any age:
1. Challenge all the stereotypes about what older people can and cannot do. They are only stereotypes and may not apply to you.
2. Don’t listen to the naysayers who can make you feel uncomfortable about your passion.
3. Listen to that inner voice that tells you not to give up, and talk back to the one that tries to discourage you.
4. Finally, if you move forward, you will find it isn’t all about obstacles. Small miracles will surprise you and help you reach your goals.
Katharine Esty, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and founder of Ibis Consulting Group, a leading international diversity and organizational development firm. A former consultant to the United Nations Development Program and UNICEF, Katharine has spent extended periods of time in developing nations, including Bangladesh, where she conducted a series of one-on-one interviews with Muhammad Yunus while writing her new book, Twenty-Seven Dollars and a Dream: How Muhammad Yunus Changed the World and What it Cost Him.