Are You Lost in Life's Mazes? Author Gail Sheehy Says That Pathfinders Will Find a Way Out

updated 11/09/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/09/1981 01:00AM

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I...took the one less traveled by." So wrote Robert Frost in his poem The Road Not Taken. Most of us have faced crossroads at one time or another, and in her 1976 best-seller, Passages, author Gail Sheehy mapped what she called the "predictable crises of adult life." To find out more about what enables successful people to overcome these crises, Sheehy, 43, developed a questionnaire that she distributed through workshops, professional organizations and labor groups; it was also published in two national magazines. These efforts yielded 60,000 self-selected respondents, whose answers were tabulated at New York University. Sheehy then interviewed 500 subjects ranging from Egypt's late President Anwar Sadat to Gloria Steinem. Her conclusion, published last month in Pathfinders (Morrow, $15.95), is that many of life's winners share certain qualities that enable them to accomplish their goals. Sheehy discussed her findings with Andrea Chambers of PEOPLE.

Is this book a sequel?

The last thing I wanted to do was write Son of Passages. I wanted to jump into uncharted territory and explore a question my previous book left hanging: If one accepts the notion that there are stages of life through adulthood, then what's the difference between people who get caught in traps between passages and those who have found a path over them and have become broader, more confident, more magnified people?

What, then, is a "pathfinder"?

A person who both successfully negotiates the normal, predictable crises of life and who also surmounts accidents, like the loss of a loved one, divorce, being fired, a physical setback or a financial reverse.

Are pathfinders born or made ?

Made. However, I have found that there are three inherent characteristics that give people a head start: high energy, an outgoing personality and a tilt toward being optimistic.

Your book is illustrated with case studies of men and women who dramatically change their lives: a housewife who becomes an ordained minister, a widow who turns stockbroker, a corporate executive who drops out to teach the blind to ski. What is the message?

I wanted to show the importance of a willingness to take risks. That's the master quality of a pathfinder. They can fail—at least half of them said they'd experienced a major failure in their lives. But being a pathfinder is to be willing to risk failure and still go on.

Are you saying risk and change—any change—are good?

No. I'm not talking about people who say, "My husband doesn't make me tingly anymore, so I'll divorce him." Or, "Gee, I've had this job two months and I'm bored, so I'll find a new one." I'm talking about inner change that allows us to develop a new part of ourselves and that leads to taking risks in the exterior structure of our lives.

How do we know when to take these risks?

One way is to set long-term goals. Another is to be flexible. This is the hardest part. You may feel you're ready to make your move, to go back to school or to take a new job, perhaps. But the man you've just married gets a job in São Paulo. A true pathfinder will say: "São Paulo! Now that opens up a whole new set of possibilities!" The nonpathfinder would say: "I've been screwed."

What else makes a pathfinder?

An ability to anticipate what he or she might need in the next stage of life. For example, women in their 20s are often busy achieving and proving themselves as competent as men. Sometimes they convince themselves that children play no part in their lives and never will. But at 30 or 31 they pull out another drawer and say, "Look what I've found. I want kids." So it helps to say, "Yeah, this is where I am now. But will I want more five or 10 years from now?"

Isn't this just common sense?

Yes, but common sense is the first thing people lose when they face a major passage in life. The whole point of the book is that by reading about people who have done it right, and by extrapolating from their experiences, we can all benefit.

What are the tools we should use?

In rough times, pathfinders rely on work, friends, humor and prayer. They develop a support network. Those on the other end of the scale escape by sleeping too much, overeating or overdrinking, taking drugs or developing psychosomatic complaints.

Is there anything else we can do?

Be willing to shed parts of your previous life. For example, in our 20s we wear a mask; we pretend we know more than we do. We must be willing, as we get older, to shed cocktail party phoniness and admit, "I am who I am."

How do pathfinders surmount crises?

Instead of relying on neurotic defense mechanisms such as simply denying what is happening, the pathfinder learns how to make a sound detachment from a painful situation. He or she plunges into something constructive—taking up a community cause, or learning how to swim, or reading Greek philosophy—during the recovery process. Eventually the pathfinder makes a commitment to a new work, love, idea or to a purpose larger than himself or herself.

How do you respond to the criticism that you are simply repeating truisms and platitudes?

If the definition of a platitude is finding directions for real people wanting to live their lives in a more fruitful way, I'll buy it in a minute. Besides, there is nothing new under the sun.

Are there as many female pathfinders as male?

Yes. And you know what's interesting? I found that female pathfinders generally integrate characteristics commonly associated with being women—like the capacity to be intimate—with "male" ones like ambition and courage. Also, they have taken big risks in getting out of a trap, like a punishing marriage or being a psychiatric geisha to their husbands. They have learned they needn't feel responsible for their spouse's mental health and well-being.

You're very free with jargon like "psychiatric geisha," "the sexual shell game" and "magicthink." Why the catch phrases?

They're intentional. People remember them. I'm not above using cute phrases to make a point and get the message out.

In your search for pathfinders, you circulated a life history questionnaire to examine the qualities of well-being and happiness. What did you learn?

Broadly speaking, I found that older people are more contented than younger, that married people are happier than unmarried and that professionals are more satisfied with their lives than blue-collar workers. Birth order is not a factor. Even being born pretty or handsome has little material effect on a person's overall well-being in adulthood.

What about sex?

People are interested in sex, but when I asked the importance of "a life full of sensual pleasures," it went to the bottom of the list of long-term goals. Also, the number of sexual partners was totally unrelated to happiness. Mature, mutual love is much more important.

Is religion important?

Faith, more than organized religion, is correlated with well-being. Pathfinders, for example, are generally raised in a religious tradition but in time become less concerned with formal church ties. By midlife they often move away from dogmatic professions of their religion and forge a more individual concept of the divine.

In your research, did you learn at what age we are happiest?

Between 55 and 65 seems to be the time of maximum satisfaction. Women, especially, find that life opens up in these years. They aren't as diverted and they can exercise more control. There are many firsts for them in this period.

So youth isn't life's high point?

We've been sold such a dopey bill of goods about that. As you age, you know so much better what you want, and you're not as pressed to please everyone. It's the reaping time of life.

What about Gail Sheehy? Is she a pathfinder?

It's impossible to stand outside yourself and make that judgment. I have some of the qualities, but I am missing some pieces, too. Writing, for instance, has served to substitute for taking certain risks of intimacy. I haven't been married these 10 years I've been working on Passages and Pathfinders. In my next phase I'm going to think and feel and decide what to do about my personal situation. I'm ready to make commitments.

How else are you pathfinding?

I'm very eager to cut away from the moorings of social science methods in my work and go into the open sea. I want to try fiction and playwriting. I want to seek out the mystery of Celtic goddesses and warriors and whores and killers and write about them. Now I know that failure can be good, so I'm willing to give myself a failure.

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