2/23 – Ed Kelly’s Third Act Workshop

Notes from the Field / January-February 2014

Ed Kelly’s Third Act Workshop, Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland, January 24 – 26, 2014

Nick Owen

Nick Owen

Nick Owen

An e-mail arrived about a week before the programme started. It said something like: Bring a bottle of wine or maybe a cake. Even better bring an anecdote, a story, a song or a poem to share after dinner. Think of this more as a house party than a workshop. In the event, it proved to be both with each element contributing significantly to the other.

Ed Kelly’s ‘Third Act’ workshop explores some profoundly important questions that impact on us all. Here are some salient facts, at least for those of us fortunate enough to inhabit the ‘developed’ world. We are living in a time where we can expect to live 30 years longer than our great grandparents; our life expectancy is increasing at the astonishing rate of two and a half years every decade; of all the people who have ever lived beyond 65 years, two thirds of them are alive today; yet our social, political and economic systems are still geared up to the notion that we’ll retire at 65 and pop our clogs soon after.

The macro context in which this is occurring is that of a planet that’s getting mighty crowded by one particular species to the detriment of almost all others, of a planet where finite resources are daily stretched to new limits, and where foreseen and unforeseen systemic consequences threaten the interplay of natural forces that hold life on earth in a sustainable dynamic tension.

The micro context is equally challenging. Given that many of us may well live to 90 and beyond what on earth are we usefully going to do with this ‘gift’ of extra time? What opportunities await us? What kind of role could or should we take in society? And with youth unemployment so high, when and how could we start ‘letting go’ of our current conventional roles and positions to create space for younger generations to come through and make their contributions? Then there’s also the issue of quantity or quality. And perhaps above all, what is our relationship with Death? Is it the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, or something to be embraced as the greatest of gifts, the one and only Event that gives real meaning and purpose to life.

Wisely, the workshop didn’t tackle any of these great issues head on, but an inquiry into pretty much all of them began and deepened as fifteen individuals relaxed their guard, dropped their barriers, and opened themselves step by step to explore into a sensitively held space of vulnerability, sharing, revelation, and insight.

The gentleness of approach was important. One or two of the participants had never before attended a personal development workshop. At the outset there was some apprehension, even perhaps a hint of cynicism. Most of the participants had already entered their Third Act, others were not far off and curious about what might be next for them. We were a mixed bunch: accountants, lawyers, entrepreneurs, engineers, teachers, consultants, even a CEO from a French/USA multinational. In development terms we ranged from early conventional to post conventional; some had done little personal inquiry, others a great deal. Not an easy group to facilitate, yet by the house party’s end the apprehension and cynicism had disappeared, a culture of deep and respectful listening and sharing had developed, a lot of ground had been covered, and perhaps even a little transformation had taken place.

Ed Kelly has a great deal of skill, and a huge amount of sensitivity, in creating a space in which emergence naturally occurs, in which people open to themselves and to each other, in which they feel heard and valued, and able to move and contribute at their own pace. A gift he holds with a great deal of amiable lightness and acuity.

The structure of the two days, residential Friday afternoon till Sunday lunchtime, gave sufficient shape and direction to give security and the sense of a journey to come. All backed up with a manual with exercises, questionnaires, information, and references. Enough stuff to be serious; not enough to be overwhelming.

The structure of the programme invited us to reflect on our journey so far and the journey to come: what does access to an additional two or three decades mean for those of us in, or about to enter, our Third Act? What will we do with all this time on our hands? What contribution could we make? How can we act as stewards or sponsors for the next generations? And how do we make sense of it all in terms of our journey so far?

To do this, Ed gently guided us through our own developmental autobiographies. We explored, shared, and reflected upon our ‘First Act,’ asking how our nature and nurture helped form our personality, our constructed sense of ‘I’. In addition to the facilitation, the tools that supported our explorations here were questionnaires, personal storytelling, and the salient points of Howard Gardner’s ‘Multiple Intelligences’ and the Myers Briggs Types Inventory.

We then inquired into how our characters had developed throughout our ‘Second Act’ as we struggled to make our way professionally, pay the mortgage, and bring up the kids. For some it was a time when they had to put aside what they really wanted to do with their lives, a time that they recognised that they had chosen to become ‘willing slaves’ to the system in order to fulfil their ‘obligations’ to others. A key element of this stage of our journey was the invitation for us to question how aware we had been of our assumptions, the intentions behind our actions, and how far we were willing to take responsibility for the choices we made. This was framed by reference to the [Harthill/Cooke-Greuter] Leadership Development Framework. Not in great depth but the invitation was there to take it away and work with it, if one so desired.

And so with some trepidation we reached the final part of the programme and asked ‘What opportunities lie ahead for us in our ‘Third Act?’ In his post-programme feedback, one of the participants, a financial consultant, summed up the impact of this shift of focus with thoughtful economy: “On the journey through the Second Act I was reminded of the plain of desolation I had felt about whether my life had any real meaning. Was that all there is, I wondered? As we progressed through the Third Act I saw the opportunity I have been given to live a deeply fulfilling Third Act.”

There were two activities from this part of the workshop that particularly stood out for me. The first was being asked to take ourselves forward to our journey’s end. Looking back from there, we were asked what regrets might we have? What do we wish we’d done that we didn’t? We compared our own regrets with ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,’ from a book of the same name written by the Australian palliative nurse Bronnie Ware. As UG Krishnamurthi was fond of saying: ‘Everyone gets enlightened; it happens just before you die.’ In the same vein, Ware writes about the astonishing clarity of vision to which people at the end of their lives can suddenly gain access. It’s something perhaps that was always there but perhaps we were just too busy or too terrified to see it.

From the many regrets Bronnie Ware listened to, these were the most common:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish I’d let myself be happier.

The second activity was a brief dip into the key themes of Shakespeare’s great ‘problem’ play, ‘The Tempest,’ a play of such metaphorical quality and richness that it lends itself to a multitude of interpretations. Among these could be numbered: the relationship between life and death, what one does with the power and magic of the ‘Third Act’ of one’s life, and the level of our awareness that fame, power, and control are transitory and illusory. Shakespeare was at the zenith of his own powers when he wrote it, just four years before he died.

                          … all …. shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
                     The Tempest IV i 154 – 158

Another of the play’s themes is the challenge to integrate the complex, uneasy, volatile relationships that bind and separate the worlds of politics, the liberal arts, science, alchemy, transmutation, and the realm of spirit. It is a play about power and transformation, their [mis]uses and [mis]applications. Archetypally one might say that in the character of Prospero the play explores the transition from Ruler, to Magician, to Wise Fool, a struggle in which Prospero embraces both the light and the dark, the healthy and unhealthy manifestations of these transitions. It is also a play about hatred dissolved and transformed by the healing, rejuvenating power of love. The Tempest is, one might say in passing, an excellent study of the many challenges facing whatever ‘Integral Leadership’ might, or might not, look, feel, and smell like.

Part of our pre-course work was to watch the movie of the play with Helen Mirren playing ‘Prospera.’ It’s available on youtube at this address: [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXoNHs3WOgM] and is well worth a viewing for its stunning visual imagery, its cogent direction, for the all-round quality of the performances, and the clarity of the Shakespearean verse speaking. This part of the programme was led by Mary Kelly Borgatta, theatre director and university teacher, who also happens to be Ed’s sister. It was a fascinating reading; in particular the way that the play lends itself to revealing the tensions and contradictions that so often exist between the Second and Third Acts of our lives. Not just from an individual perspective; but from family, relational, community, societal, and economic perspectives too. And then there are the tensions that exist between the material and the  spiritual, the human and the being. Is it either/or, or is it both/and?

So much for the workshop’s journey through content and structure. But what are bricks without mortar? It was the mortar of the house party culture of the weekend that from the outset supported the growing confidence of the participants to reach inside themselves and share their insights and be touched by their own and others’ revelations. Ed held the space; wisdom emerged from the group.

The mortar was an artful mix of the environmental and the social. A stunningly beautiful location: the country house of Liss Ard nestled in 200 acres of natural reserve in a tempest-tossed corner of South West Ireland. Well-appointed rooms, excellent food, warm and personal service from the staff, roaring log fires. [http://www.lissardresort.com/sites/liss-ard-house.htm] Liss Ard is an environment conducive to reflection, companionship, and well-being.

There are programmes that are worthy. They often start at 0730 have short breaks for breakfast, lunch and dinner and finish at 2300, usually after the bar is shut. There is always so much for participants to learn but there can sometimes be a sense that the workshop leader is the fount of all knowledge; the participants mere vessels that need filling with wisdom.

This programme was decidedly not one of those. Indeed it would be hard to think of any other programme I’ve ever attended that was as laid back as this. Indeed, as quintessentially Irish as this [to extend the alchemical metaphor]. And yet great work got done; respectful listening and deep sharing occurred; the intimacies and insights of personal revelation emerged; and above all an acceptance of others’ perspectives. The destination of the Third Act may be the same for us all, but the journeys are different.

How did the success of the weekend happen? It’s hard to say beyond what I’ve already mentioned. But I can report that Ed took time to talk to every participant individually over the weekend, sought out our views, asked for feedback and suggestions, checked the temperature and pulse of each and every one of us. And then there was the social sharing of great food and wine, of stories, songs, and poetry. And the chance for great conversations to naturally emerge from the chaos of strangers. To say more would be reductionist:

… Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass …
~  Seamus Heaney, Postscript

Were someone to ask me: what would you change, what could be improved? I would reply that personally I might have liked to go deeper, explored more of the darker side of things. But that’s just my perspective and it almost certainly wouldn’t have been right for that particular group.  Nevertheless I came away with much more than I expected: and somehow refreshed, excited, held.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the ground we covered is important work and needs our attention. The Third Act of our lives remains in deep disconnect for many people. I know a couple who live in a well-heeled gated community not far from London who tell me in all seriousness they have made their retirement plans to last them till they are 140. While writing this, I read on a BBC internet page that a 70 year old billionaire fashion designer living in the Bahamas has been receiving stem cell therapy for the last four years. Studies from the University of Miami, so says the report, suggest that this man has reversed some aspects of the aging process. “I have been reversing my aging and actually getting younger,” says Peter Nygard. Elsewhere I have watched medical researchers on TV say that a cure for old age will be found within the next five years. A cure! I hadn’t even realised aging was a disease.

Personally I’d like to live a long and fulfilling life, but am I alone in being concerned about this current trend to conquer Death? Day and night; high tide and low tide; spring and autumn; feast and famine; birth and death. These are the great natural cycles. As human beings do we see ourselves as part of these great natural rhythms or do we now have an idea that somehow we are beyond them? I want to dance with life but I also want to make a graceful and grateful exit when the time comes. I think the next generations need some space.

It’s a theme that’s very far from new. Here’s an old Chinese story with which to conclude:

A king was out riding with his earls. They stopped on a hilltop and looked down over the fertile plain, the well-kept farms, and the highly organised system of roads and canals. The King felt a justifiable sense of pride in his achievements.

A cloud obscured the sun and a dark thought struck him. “One day I’ll die,” he murmured, “and all this will be lost to me.” His companions nodded their agreement. “Dying is hard,” they said grimly. All except one whose eyes flashed with humour.

“To live for ever! To defeat Death! That would be something!” said the King. “Imagine what hunts we could organise, what battles we could fight, what feasts we could devour. And we’d never fear grey hair or the loss of teeth!” The earls cheered his words but the contrarian laughed out loud.

The king fixed him with a steely gaze. “Why do you insult me? I see nothing amusing in our theme of immortality.!

“Forgive me, Lord, I have no desire to disrespect you. But you triggered my imagination. I got to wondering what it would be like if we were all to live for ever as you are suggesting. Imagine how crowded our kingdom would be. Imagine how the great heroes of our history would still live: the first king who unified us; the great generals who gave us peace; the philosophers who taught us wisdom; the holy ones who brought us joy and harmony. Compared to them we would be as nothing, maybe serfs or peasants. And you, my lord, you would be no more than a bureaucrat in the provinces.’

There was a long moment of silence as the earls awaited the lord’s judgement. Then the King threw back his head and laughed. “You are a brave man, my friend. What’s more, you speak the truth. As for you flatterers, for your folly in indulging my arrogance, I fine you each three barrels of your best wine!”

He turned again to his contrarian, “Ride close to me from this time on. And whenever you hear me overestimating my talents and powers kindly whisper in my ear: ‘There’s business in the bureaucracy for you, my Lordling.!”

[Story adapted from: The Salmon of Knowledge, Nick Owen, Crownhouse Publishing, 2009.
Original source: Once Upon A Midlife, Allen B. Chinen, Tarcher, 1993]

About the Author

Nick Owen, in addition to his role as Director of Nick Owen Associates, is a Visiting Professor at Insead/Cedep in France and an Associate Lecturer at the de Baak Management Centre in the Netherlands delivering programmes on inner mastery and transformational leadership. He has worked with UK FTSE 100 companies as well as with organisations and institutions in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the last 25 years. He is also a best selling author, and has enjoyed successful careers as a journalist, professional actor, theatre director, and educational  consultant.

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