WASHINGTON — At the age of 49, Maria Leonard Olsen, a lawyer, author and mother, felt “rudderless.” In the span of a year, she got a divorce, got sober and became an empty-nester.
So when a friend asked her how she wanted to celebrate her 50th birthday, Olsen knew she needed something monumental to mark the milestone — and not just one thing, but 50.
“I wanted some kind of goal, and so I set out to do 50 new things to discover who I really am, post-intense motherhood, post-no longer using alcohol as a crutch, post-no longer being married,” said Olsen, of Montgomery County, Maryland.
Learning to ride a motorcycle is one thing she crossed off her bucket list.
“Anyone from my buttoned-up previous life will be very surprised to learn that I am now a biker,” said Olsen, who described her former persona as more “PTA mom.”
“For me, it has become wind therapy.”
In her new book, “50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life,” Olsen shares her 50 experiences with readers and shows how venturing outside of one’s comfort zone can pay off big when it comes to personal development — even if it means standing in front of a crowd and singing at an open mic night.
“I was a miserable failure; I will never do that again,” Olsen said about her one-time act.
The birthday challenge also prompted Olsen to put her things in storage and travel to Nepal, where she lived in a hut with no running water or electricity and volunteered at a school. She said the journey helped put her hardships in perspective.
“I was starting to sit on the pity pot and think about all I had lost by drinking my way out of a 23-year marriage. When I went to Nepal and witnessed the joy in these people’s lives, who didn’t even have shoes and walked on snow-covered grounds, I realized what was really important to me, and that joy does not depend on anything material. It’s something that I can find within myself,” Olsen said.
Of course, you don’t need to fly across the world or buy a Harley to achieve a better sense of self. Olsen said there are small, intentional, everyday actions you can do to reframe your life.
To start, carve out an area in your home that’s just yours. Olsen said this dedicated space doesn’t need to be an entire room; a corner will suffice. Fill it with things that make you happy and go there when you need to recharge.
Meditation is a now big part of Olsen’s life, but when she doesn’t have time to do a full session, she’ll do a quick “meditation walk” while en route from her car to the office. This gives her a chance to think about her breathing, recognize how her body feels and note where her tension lies.
Olsen said exploring a new area on foot is another valuable, yet low-budget, adventure.
“You will be amazed at what you’ll find and the people you’ll come across,” she said.
“Anyone can find new ways of looking at life, new ways of being intentional, simply by walking, simply by opening your eyes to possibilities and your environment. And it can really change your perspective.”
With 50 new experiences and practices under her belt, Olsen said she hopes she can inspire and help others facing substantial roadblocks in their lives. And while she has no immediate plans to tackle 60 new things 10 years from now, the experiment taught her that it’s important to keep growing.
“Every person, place and situation can be a teacher to us if we allow it to be,” Olsen said.