The transition from middle age to old age is marked by a complicated zone of developmental currents that, despite being inescapable, can be stressful and puzzling. It is necessary to understand the mission of where you are coming from and where you are heading, but it is not sufficient on its own. Even with this information, every one of us is going to stray from the path on multiple occasions as we strive to maintain our health into old age. We need something else. Part of that something else is “navigational thinking.”
What is Navigational Thinking
Navigational thinking involves using questions that have the unique ability to get sixty-something adults back on track and keeping them there. The questions are simple and yet profound, and can be used in any situation to initiate and sustain a course correction. Their effectiveness lies in their uncanny ability to redirect the emotional intensity of transition currents into useful thinking. It is a similar process that pilots use during an in-flight emergency. They resist the natural response to panic by focusing their attention on a set of predetermined questions that lead them to useful thinking about the best course of action to save not only their lives, but also the lives of the passengers who are counting on them.
Navigational thinking helps redirect our natural tendency towards “problem fixation” through questions that help us focus on new insights, choices, and possibilities. The questions have no right or wrong answers; they are not a test. They simply offer a starting point for a new internal conversation about an experience, circumstance, feeling, or problem. Like all cognitive strategies, they are more effective when written down, annotated, reconsidered days later, and possibly shared. Here is an example of a navigational thinking question and how it is useful:
What is the big picture?
Between middle age and old age it is easy to lose sight of the big picture. There are just too many disorientating events pouring down on our lives. Once things take a turn for the worse, the big picture narrows or quickly vanishes. The “big picture” question offers sixty-something adults a way to hit the cognitive “reset” button and recover a more useful perspective.
The big picture of the “in-between” zone reminds us that it is a demanding, complicated, confusing, and stressful passage. The normal response is to feel disoriented and get easily knocked off course. But this is only half of the story. The big picture also reassures us that we will recover and get back on track. This is not wishful thinking. We have personally witnessed numerous cycles of setbacks and recoveries in our lives up to now. Some of them we deeply believed we would never get over. But we did. The big picture reaffirms that our “in-between” passage is just another version of this familiar though not always pleasant process of change. Given time, we will adjust to these unfamiliar currents and become surprisingly adept at navigating the uncertainty and ambiguity of being “in-between.”
Big Picture Take Home
Do not overestimate your capabilities to handle the transition currents. For most of us, they are impossible to navigate alone. False heroics only lead to bad outcomes. Partner up at every opportunity to increase your “collective capacity” to find successful course corrections as well as the invaluable comfort of family and friends.
Identify unreasonable expectations for what they are: unreasonable. The transition currents pile on wave after wave of complex demands. This is a terrible time to insist on perfection. Life is messy; allow yourself to have messy, totally human moments.
Accept the transition currents as “time in the wilderness” where there are no immediate answers or directions. Remember that life’s breakthroughs are always preceded by turbulence and doubt. You have done this before and you know that over time resources and solutions will emerge.