Yes, We Can…Reinvent Ourselves

This is the sixth in a series of 12 posts expounding on the 2011 forecasts in the annual trends report from Salzman, president of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR and an internationally respected trendspotter.

We hear the word “reinventing” applied to systems all the time: reinventing capitalism, reinventing credit options. Reinventing health care, politics, journalism, food, the factory town, the airport security line. And now it applies to many Americans, who are reinventing their lives, changing “Yes, we can” from a political mantra to their own as they launch their third (or 15th) act. People will be refocusing and committing to life changes with gusto in 2011.

It doesn’t really seem to matter whether change was forced upon you or is voluntary; reinvention is the bedrock American experience. We’re the land of second chances, remember, where Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech envisioned a future of men (and women) judged on the content of our character. Optimism and resiliency are among the brightest of American traits.

Consider this urge to reinvent especially marked in midlife. People in their 40s, 50s and older are launching new businesses and embracing new lifestyles. This includes low-income entrepreneurs like the 40 independent food businesses operating out of one communal kitchen in San Francisco, as well as venture capitalists such as Marc Andreessen, a Netscape founder who has started a second fund for tech startups; one investment is PicPlz, a Silicon Valley enterprise focused on making mobile photo sharing easier on SoMe. The latter exemplifies how people’s documentary reinventions, as they snap (and share) photos with their phones, extends to entrepreneurs reinventing opportunities out of the American urge to make our many incarnations public in real time.

Speaking of public, we’ve seen repeatedly how reinvention is a trope of celebrity; the biggest changelings seem to be those we follow most tirelessly. There’s Madonna, of course, whose 2004 concert tour was called “Re-Invention” and whose lifestyle before and since has adhered to that motto. There’s artist Cindy Sherman, masked woman par excellence, honored by the Jewish Museum for understanding “the limitless possibilities of identity.” And there’s Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times movie critic who even after a bout with cancer left him unable to eat or speak, penned a cookbook dedicated to his favorite appliance, the rice cooker.

Chicago media megalith Oprah will retire from daytime TV soon, but late next year she’ll reinvent with an evening show for her cable network appropriately called “Oprah’s Next Chapter.” And the foundation of philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates includes a reinvention motto among its 15 guiding principles: “We leave room for growth and change.”

But “growth and change” aren’t just for the rich and famous. That motto marks out common threads to what millions of ordinary Americans are doing, too, as they figure out what it takes to reinvent their lives: scaling back debts, clearing out attics and garages, giving things away, shifting expectations from “more” to “enough.” It’s liberating in these post-recession times to realize that what we used to think was important really doesn’t feel that way anymore. Midlife offers a double benefit in that the wisdom of maturity, even if it doesn’t do away with fear entirely, brings know-how about how to phase and shape our new activities step by step (with power naps to maintain our energy and brain fitness).

Volunteerism has been a profound expression of American reinvention in the midlife group. Strikingly, applications from Americans over 50 to serve in the Peace Corps spiked after President Obama’s inaugural address. And urban nonprofits are further reinventing the notion of “retirement” as leisure for financial professionals and lawyers, among others. Nearly half of Americans age 55 and older have volunteered in the past year, according to think tank Civic Ventures, and the impact of this sort of values-first reinvention stands to play out even further as the number of Americans in this age group will grow from 60 million now to 107.6 million in 2030.

There’s also nothing like a participatory reinvention to make you feel more positive about your options. Those whom we consider innovators—arguably a synonym for the best reinventers—range from talkers at TED to those at the Daily Beast’s Innovators Summit. For really, reinvention is the flower in the nursery of great new American ideas, whether that’s showing signs of vigor in your private life or in the truism that successful people have optimistic expectations.

Europe will follow the trend already occurring strongly in the U.S.: people realizing they have to live the change and reinvent themselves. But this might come slower, as Europeans like to hold on to their customs and the “comfortable” lives they are used to, even as the debt stories of Ireland and Spain are shaking up the union.

Reinvention extends to reinventing yourself in relationships, too. While the old days of pretending to be anybody online or the me-and-my-avatar scenario are gone, has issued a new report that one in six marriages is coming from online dating sites—where a reinvented profile can map a path to meeting needs most profound in the human psyche.

Clearly, it’s anything but simple to generalize what those are. Just last year a group of psychologists at Arizona State University reinvented the famous 1940s hierarchy of needs, asserted then by psychologist Abraham Maslow. It was Maslow’s idea that self-actualization was at the top of a pyramid that began with getting your survival needs met and progressed up into existential fulfillment. The Arizona group argues now that the highest human need isn’t existential but biological, for parenting and perpetuating the gene pool.

Whichever rule you adhere to in the sets of values bandied about on reinvention, consider that the three Rs of your passage toward it are reflection, refocusing, recommitment. You won’t be alone, as we’ll see clearly in 2011 and beyond.

“Mad as Hell—and Only Getting Madder”

“Talk to the Hands”

“Net Gain”

“Public Mycasting System”

“Booting Up”

“Reinvention, Part II”

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