A Gap Year for Grown-Ups – Debbie Weil’s Story

Both Debbie Weil and her husband Sam Harrington dreamt of taking a gap year when they were eighteen, but their parents put the kibosh on the idea. So, they did everything that was expected of them: went to prestigious universities, worked hard in professional careers, and together raised a loving family of three children who are all now accomplished professionals. Debbie was a working mom with a successful, if peripatetic, career as a journalist, published author, and corporate social media consultant.

However, if the bumper sticker is correct, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood so in 2013, Debbie and Sam, at age 61, took the gap year they wanted when they were young. Their three children grown, they left their comfortable lives in Washington DC to design an incredible gap year for grown-ups: studying French in Paris, traveling through Africa to volunteer and trek with mountain gorillas, and ultimately deciding to sell their home in DC to live in a remote village on the Maine coast.

While traveling, Debbie bought the hot-off-the-press European edition of Designing Your Life at the airport in Amsterdam and read it all the way home. With their official “gap year” over in 2014, Debbie was pondering how to make sense of their new life. What came next? What was their purpose? What did they want to accomplish?

Publishing another book had always been on her bucket list. As she and Sam jointly were writing a blog, Gap Year After Sixty, a book seemed like a natural next step. As a former journalist, she felt an urge to share her experience (and their experience as a couple) with a wider audience. She did not want to write a memoir, however. She wanted to tease through her gap-year-and-beyond experiences to find what would be most useful to others contemplating a major life change. She was looking for a formula that would combine some practical how-to with deeper existential questions about finding purpose.

Well, you can guess what comes next: she got stuck. Working with several editors from with New York publishing houses, she realized that the commercially viable book they were suggesting was not the one she really wanted to write. Commercially viable meant appealing to a broader audience (adults in any decade) and not just the demographic of baby boomers. The “experts” wanted her to write a book about a gap year for all ages that would provide lots of practical tips (when to sell your house, how to get health insurance, etc.). And while that sounded great in principle, she realized that her passion lay in exploring the expectations, realities and promise of both reinventing your life and getting “older.” Retirement is not a word she uses.

Another place she got stuck, in addition to the shape shifting nature of the topic, was in her stubborn desire for this to be a book. Did it really need to culminate in a traditionally-published book? Was there another way to package and share what she’d learned without chaining herself alone, to a desk, for months or longer to crank out a manuscript? She knew first-hand how isolating and painful writing a book can be. Was there another “next step” in sharing her story that would be easier to take? She had a few ideas, including starting a podcast, but wasn’t making measurable progress. She realized that “What stops [an idea] is that it stays in your head.”

Debbie attended the May 2018 Designing Your Life for Women workshop, and walked away with her biggest lesson: “Carve out a small piece of what you want to do, make it doable and put a date on delivering it.” Kathy Davies and the rest of the group challenged her to break her podcast idea down into the smallest possible deliverable: create a one-minute prototype in two weeks. “Even that was scary because it meant going public with an idea that wasn’t completely thought out,” she said. She took the dare seriously. Two days after her self-imposed deadline she accomplished her goal of completing an outline for and publishing a three-minute prototype of a podcast on A Gap Year for Grownups. (It turned out three minutes was easier than one minute.) Listen here.

Having previously produced a podcast, she knew that creating an eye-catching badge for iTunes and the Web was important. In the interest of speed, she used an iPhone app called WordSwag to design several versions of the square image. She used the DYL for Women Facebook group to vet the image options, made some changes with their feedback and picked a winner. (The group chose the yellow wall and bicycle above.)

Then came an unexpected development that slowed down creation of the podcast: she was elected co-chair of the board of the theatre arts organization that anchors year-round life on Deer Isle, ME. She had already been involved with Opera House Arts, but this was a whole new level of commitment and at a time when the board and the organization were facing a difficult transition.

Of course, she could have turned down the board chair position to focus single-mindedly on her book and podcast projects. But she realized that becoming more connected to her new community, being of service to an organization she believes in passionately – and learning how to be a leader – were key to the purpose of her reinvented life. She found herself asking, “Was volunteering the most elaborate way to procrastinate or was it genuinely something else that was important?”

She decided to consult her Odyssey Plan and realized that becoming a valued member of the community was actually part of the life she was designing, and was subsequently able to let herself off the hook. She realized that “the real me is many parts of a bigger whole, particularly at this stage of my life. Designing Your Life helped me understand that. The experience was so reassuring — better than a therapist!” She is now back to taking small steps to launch the podcast and is starting to write a series of essays about the topics she is most excited about exploring (aging and ageism, mental health and depression, decision-making and happiness, reinvention rather than retirement, etc.). Maybe there will be a book, and maybe not.

Was there one thing you always wanted to do when you were young but you couldn’t? How could you design your life to have the experience you always wanted to explore but never thought you *could*? Do you have an Odyssey Plan #3 that seemed crazy or impossible but now seems doable? Reach out to us on the Facebook page or website and share!