As another semester is coming to a close, I started thinking about life seems to be going by faster and faster. It seemed like yesterday that I first stopped on Bucknell’s campus and it will only be a matter of weeks before I become a senior. Before I know it, our class will start getting married and possibly have children of their own.

Jane Fonda, actress, author, producer, activist and exercise guru, gave a TED lecture on life’s third act. In the beginning, Fonda points out that we living on average today 34 years longer than our great-grandparents—an entire second adult life time has been added to our lifespan. Unfortunately, our culture still considers aging as an arch: we peak until midlife and everything goes downhill. The point of her lecture is to describe how we can live those last three decades of our lives to the fullest.

While Fonda points out that aging is not necessarily a time of happiness for all (genetics unfortunately plays a role), she claims that two-thirds of how “well we do in the third act” can be determined by us. She provides an example: Neil Selinger, a 57 year old retired lawyer, joined a writers group to establish his writer’s voice. Two years later, he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, but his spirit never withered: “As my muscles weakened, my writing became stronger. As I slowly lost my speech, I gained voice. As I diminished, I grew. As I lost so much, I finally started to find myself” (

According to Fonda, we were all born with this “spirit,” but it became suppressed underneath all of life’s challenges, such as depression or abuse. The point of this “third act” is “finish up the task of finishing ourselves” ( What does that mean? It requires us to look back on the first two-thirds of our lives and figure who we truly were, or as psychologists call it: “do a life review.” People then have the opportunity to make discoveries about themselves, such as learning that some things which you thought were your fault had nothing to do with you.

On a scientific note, if people react negatively to past events or people, neural pathways are laid down by chemical and electrical signals that are sent through the brain and can become “hardwired” ( Fonda claims, however, if people reflect on the past establish more positive feelings about it, you can change the neural pathways in your brain. This “third act” essentially allow us to circle back to where we started before we became the “subjects and objects of other peoples’ lives” ( These last few decades give us one final chance to have closure with everything in our lives before we depart. Rather than seeing it as the final decline, we should seize this opportunity to discover our true selves.


4 responses »

  1. […] The Third Act of Life – According to Jane Fonda ( […]

  2. Sarah says:

    Aren’t you so impressed by her? I also talked about this video (did not look on the blog first to see what other people had done, oops). At the ripe old age of 75 she is still trucking along and looking great for her age. I believe she is even still teaching fitness classes and making them into DVDs. When I watched her video it made me realize that getting old does not have to be a bad thing. I feel in society today everyone places a negative stigma around aging. New ways are continuously being invented to help people appear younger. From creams and potions to surgeries of all kinds, some people will go to great lengths to keep the appearance and feel of being younger than they truly are. I feel that society as a whole needs to embrace getting older and instead of fighting it. We also need to change are attitudes about aging from negative to positive. I think Jane’s analogy of aging as a staircase is a great way to look at life, every stage we take a step up the stairs gaining experience, knowledge and wisdom.

  3. brookeparker16 says:

    I really like this idea and I can kind of see that my parents are currently doing just that. They used to be weighed down with children (sorry mom and dad) and work but now they have their freedom. My dad recently took up flying helicopters because he always had wanted to and now is his time to live. He told me I am not going to have any inheritance because he is spending it all enjoying life. Who am I to argue with that. I acknowledge that my parents are exceptionally lucky to have the privilege to be retired and to be able to live their third life. However, I think it is hugely important to have “spirit” ifor your third life. I have seen first hand how this spirit prolongs life. I feel like we are blessed to have 43 for more years to live than our ancestors but if we are too preoccupied worrying about getting old then what’s the point?

  4. Jordi says:

    You know what is funny about this third act and spirit? It reminds me vaguely of the few times Marx actually described the life after the final victory of the workers and the creation of a Communist society. You could spend your day as you wished, doing enough to sustain yourself, but with the freedom to let your spirit pursue its interests.

    As we read the “hacker ethic” next week, there is a another parallel there with the idea of passionate, creative, playfulness as the motivation for working.

    But, Jane FOnda, and others, seem to overlook often that the capacity to realize a third act is due to income security. The increases in employment among those 65-75 these days in the low wage service economy is not people finding their third act, but enough change for their third meal.

    See here for stats.

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