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Insight: An Essential Element for Midlife

September '08

When you are trying out a new identity at midlife, you will undoubtedly explore different paths, make plans and set goals for yourself. But an often overlooked component for reinventing your life is “insight” – that sudden flash of knowing that can clarify so much.

Jonah Lehrer has written a fascinating article on such epiphany moments called “The Eureka Hunt” in last July’s New Yorker. According to psychologists and neuroscientists the “insight experience” has a few notable features. The first is an “impasse” where we feel blocked and unable to see our way out of a situation. (And haven’t we all had that experience!) Then, unexpectedly, an idea arrives, which provides a solution to the problem. And, finally, this “insight” is accompanied by a feeling of certainty.

Such was the case for me as I wandered through a prolonged midlife transition triggered by kids leaving the nest and job stagnation. While I was successfully employed as an Associate Professor in the Graduate School at Lesley College, I was becoming painfully aware that I no longer wanted to continue in this position. I was also unclear as to what I wanted to do next. On the one hand, I considered remaining in higher education in some administrative capacity and, on the other, perhaps moving into development work in the non-profit sector.

So I continued to teach and conducted an extensive series of informational interviews up and down the East Coast. After a year of such activity, I found myself meeting with a contact at the Carnegie Foundation in New York City. As our conversation come to a close, she said to me, “With your energy, you seem much more like the kind of person we would be giving money to, rather than a person who would be working for us.”

It was a true “Aha” moment. I knew, immediately, she was correct. (There’s that certainty element.) I promptly disbanded my exploration of the development world and narrowed my career search to higher education administration. This more limited focus helped me find my next job as Dean of Continuing Education at Wellesley College.

According to the New Yorker article, my brain must have been in a sufficiently relaxed state to absorb this illuminating clue about my future employment. Evidently for insight to occur, we must first focus our attention on a single problem. (I had been conducting informational interviews to explore job possibilities for a year.) Then, once our brain is focused, there’s a need to relax, because we cannot “force an epiphany.” (That’s why so many insights happen during a warm shower, according Jung-Beeman – a researcher on the nature of insight.)

So if you’re composing a new chapter for your life, be sure to focus on the task at hand using that logical, left brain of yours. Then find ways to relax and let the mind wander so your unconventional right brain can go to work on the problem and bring you moments of felicitous insight.

Since a drowsy brain is a relaxed one, one approach Jung-Beeman suggests is using an alarm clock to wake up earlier than usual, so you can lie in bed and ruminate, before a stirring household demands your attention. Now, I’m not an alarm-clock girl, myself, but if you’re feeling stuck in your present reality and this idea appeals to you, you could give it a try.

Happy Equinox,



  1. Lisa Relling Denman said on September 30, 2008:

    Bonnie, I’m so glad you had your “Aha!” moment and ended up at Wellesley. My experience as a Davis Scholar changed me forever, and you had so much to do with that. Thank you for that and for these newsletters, which I always enjoy!

    Lisa Relling Denman
    CE ’98
    Houston, Texas

  2. bonnieleonard said on September 30, 2008:

    Thank you, Lisa!

  3. Bev Murphy said on October 2, 2008:

    Well, here we are again, Bonnie. Both staring the Autumnal Equinox square in the face again. Hope it was a happy crossing this year for you. Think I told you the only constructive thing I did was parasailing…..and am gonna do it agin! Maybe will find my “Aha” moment then. Just ordered some firewood and a few more books. Hunkering down.
    Bev Murphy

  4. bonnieleonard said on October 4, 2008:

    Happy hunkering, Bev!

  5. MB said on October 21, 2008:

    Hi Bonnie,
    I really enjoy your newsletters and as always, your wonderful insights! Hope all is well. You are a natural coach and I’m still taking advantage of it after all these years!


  6. bonnieleonard said on October 21, 2008:

    Hi MB!

    How nice to hear from you! And thank you for your kind comments about my being a “natural coach.” As you might have guessed, I absolutely love coaching women at midlife – it’s a thrill for me to be there as my clients take courage in hand and move forward to reinvent themselves and their lives.


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