Lee Gale Gruen: “Don’t overstress yourself”

Don’t overstress yourself. You must pace yourself so you don’t burn out. As a senior, our physical abilities are less than when we were young. Once you identify and pursue your passion, remember to schedule rest time into your life. When I first discovered acting, I couldn’t get enough of it; it was like an […]

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Don’t overstress yourself. You must pace yourself so you don’t burn out. As a senior, our physical abilities are less than when we were young. Once you identify and pursue your passion, remember to schedule rest time into your life. When I first discovered acting, I couldn’t get enough of it; it was like an addiction. Often, I filed my schedule with more acting work or classes than I could comfortably do, and I found myself becoming exhausted. That is happening to me now with my writing. I find I can sit at my computer for hours without even realizing it. Sometimes, I forget to eat or go outside. My new back pain from so much sitting is reminding me to take a break. I’m now setting an alarm at one hour intervals to remind me. Don’t turn your passion into a chore. Downtime regenerates you so you can return revitalized.

Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lee Gale Gruen.

After retiring from her 37-year career as a probation officer, Lee Gale Gruen became a professional actress, appearing in television, commercials, videos, theater, print, and live-interactive roles. Her published memoir, Adventures with Dad: A Father and Daughter’s Journey Through a Senior Acting Class, recounts how she attended an acting class for seniors with her father when she was 60 and he was 85 before going on to become a professional actress. Her blog, lecture, and new self-help book for retirees and seniors are all titled: Reinventing Yourself in Your Retirement Years, and they share the goal of helping retirees, those soon to retire, baby boomers, and seniors find joy, excitement, and purpose after they retire.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up Los Angeles, California in a middle class family which included my parents and sister. I was bright but very shy. As a teenager, I was consumed with what others thought of me, and that kept me from developing my creative talents. I dragged that ball and chain into adulthood, and it influenced so much of my life. I graduated college from UCLA and started working as a probation officer in Los Angeles County, a career that spanned 37 years. During that same time, I married and had two children. Now, I also have three grandchildren.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Success isn’t a result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.” — Arnold Glasow

I love that quote! I grew into it slowly and painfully as I aged and gained more confidence in myself. I had lots of stumbles along the way, feeling inhibited by the fierce competition from others I considered to be superior to me. Now, as a senior, I’ve overcome so much that held me back, mostly my own internal doubts about myself, but I still remain a work in progress. Nevertheless, I am self-motivated to move forward and grab life. I have been writing a blog for over eight years titled the same as my new book and my public lecture, “Reinventing Yourself in Your Retirement Years,” based on my thoughts, observations, and experiences. It is my way of giving back to the community by helping others blossom and reinvent themselves in their senior years. Writing the blog is cathartic for me in my quest to do the same.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

1. I feel that I have insight into the human condition. I learned a lot of that from my probation clients who had erred greatly in the eyes of the larger society. They often shared their innermost feelings with me, probably because I wasn’t a part of their personal lives, and they taught me that we are all frightened and vulnerable beings just doing our best to make it through life no matter how confident, clever, or together we may present ourselves to the world. I have tried to pass along what I learned to others through my blog, lecture, and books.

2. I have a developmentally disabled child. Being a shy person and never wanting to draw attention to myself, my daughter drew constant attention to herself and to me by extension. That was a painful lesson which taught me to stand up to an often cruel world in order to protect her and to confront others for their bad behavior. I think that is at the root of why I try to help people find their Second Chapter. If they feel beaten down by an unforgiving society, maybe my encouragement might help them stand up and take action. Sometimes, just a subtle word or smile of support will do wonders for those who feel lost and defeated.

3. I am able to relate to people and present myself well to both individuals and groups. I think I’ve always had those abilities, but I was too shy and insecure to develop them. As a result of attending an acting class for seniors after retiring from my career, I was able to overcome my lifelong stage fright. It was a slow, painful process, but I kept going because I was so captivated by acting. Once I shed that crippling stage fright, I couldn’t get enough of performing in front of the public. One thing I did besides paid acting jobs was to become a volunteer tour guide at the La Brea Tar pits, a prehistoric geologic site, which was near my home in Los Angeles, California. That position was a type of performance in front of an audience, and I loved it when the group members would tell me how much they had enjoyed my tour.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

As I said earlier, I had a 37-year career as a probation officer. That is where I honed my writing and introspection skills. I supervised caseloads of probationers, and I learned from them how people think and feel. I wrote sentencing reports for judges to help them sentence convicted criminal defendants. That taught me to write in a concise, descriptive manner. I used those skills I had learned when I became an actress and a creative writer in my “Second Chapter.”

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

At the age of 60, after retiring from my career as a probation officer, I mistakenly registered for an acting class for seniors at a local senior program, thinking it was just a play discussion group. My lifelong stage fright kicked in big time that first day when I was asked to read a scene with a partner in front of the whole class. After a bad start with a tiny, shaky voice, I became so immersed in my role that I completely forgot about the sea of eyes watching me and judging me. That hooked me on acting! My 85-year old, newly widowed father soon started attending the class with me, and I was forced to write our scenes for the acting class showcases due to the scarcity of professional material for a man his age. So began my “Second Chapter” as an actress which transitioned to include author, public speaker, and blogger.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

After attending acting classes for a few years, a good friend said, “Lee Gale, you’re an actress.” “No, I’m not,” I countered. “Yes, you are.” After a few rounds of that, I began to consider the possibility that she was right. I had never viewed myself like that before, and that was the trigger that started me on the path to attending acting auditions, finding an agent, and booking paid acting jobs. Some of my classmates were earning money from acting roles, and they mentored me in the process. It was slow and intimidating in the beginning, but I kept at it and got better and better. I remember my first paid acting job. It was a television commercial, and I had to skate down the sidewalk holding the sign of the sponsoring company. After a lot of practice alone in parking lots, I was able to maintain my balance as I glided along on the roller skates. However, I couldn’t stop myself and had to grab onto trees or railings. The day of the shoot, the director stationed a crew member just outside of camera range, and I skated into her arms.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

I never had an inkling that I had acting abilities. Even if I had, I never would have considered pursuing it as I had horrible stage fright whenever I had to talk in front of groups. I think it stemmed from grammar school when we had to give book reports in front of the class, and all the kids would tease the presenter for the slightest reason. That first day in the acting class for seniors when another class member asked me to read a scene from “Death of a Salesman” with him in front of the class, I looked at the door and seriously considered bolting. The only reason I stayed was because I was too embarrassed to leave; I was a mature senior after all. After starting to read with my heart fluttering, I soon inhabited the character so completely that everything else around me faded out, and I read for ten minutes. The class members clapped at the end shaking me out of my trance. The whole experience was such a high! From then on, I was addicted to acting. Once I overcame my stage fright and developed my acting skills, I found an agent and started going to auditions and booking real acting roles. I continued attending the acting class with my father and performing with him twice a year in the class showcases the humorous scenes I wrote for us. That gave me the idea to write my memoir, Adventures with Dad: A Father and Daughter’s Journey Through a Senior Acting Class, which was published in 2013. It includes those six scenes I wrote. Then, I started writing a blog to promote my book. However, the blog soon started taking on a life of its own, and I’ve been writing it for eight years. From there, I began receiving invitations to speak to audiences about my memoir. I realized I had learned a lot which I could pass on to the retiree and senior community about how to seek and find their own “Second Chapter” just like I did. So, I developed a lecture on that subject composed of my own experiences and of research I did. I have been hired numerous times to present this lecture to senior audiences throughout the United States. Audience members began asking if they could buy a book about my lecture. That resulted in my recently published book which is an adjunct to my blog and lecture. All three share the same title, “Reinventing Yourself in Your Retirement Years.” My new book contains the contents of my lecture as well as seven years of posts from my blog. My goal with my blog, lecture, and new book is to help retirees, those soon to retire, baby boomers, and seniors reinvent themselves after they retire.

How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.

I lived in Los Angeles, California until four years ago when I moved to the East San Francisco Bay area. When in Los Angeles, I auditioned and booked acting jobs for about fourteen years. I made many commercials and was in a Jane Fonda workout video aimed at the senior market. I had amazing experiences with my acting work including riding a mechanical horse and falling onto an air mattress. My roles included playing a trash talking granny with a machine gun, the mother of comedian Patton Oswald when he hosted the Film Independent Spirit Awards, and a one-time stint as a sexy senior on the “General Hospital” soap opera. For twelve years, I worked part-time for UCLA Medical School portraying patients for medical student training. Since moving away from Los Angeles, I’ve focused much more on my lecturing and writing. I was hired by one corporation to travel to different states to give my lecture to residents at their senior residential communities. The Covid 19 lockdown gave me time to complete my new self-help book for retirees and seniors, Reinventing Yourself in Your Retirement Years: Find Joy, Excitement, and Purpose After You Retire, which was published in November, 2020

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Three people come to mind. Barbara Gannen and Buddy Powell, my two acting-for-seniors class instructors, were instrumental in my becoming an actress. I attended both of their classes for several years where I learned about acting and was able to network with visiting talent agents as well as class members who were doing paid acting work. Both teachers inspired me to work hard and keep going. Also, my father, Marvin Schelf, was a great support to me as I progressed. He was my scene partner for three years in the acting class showcases as we performed the humorous dad/daughter scenes I wrote for us. He always encouraged me although we argued from time to time on creative input. Nevertheless, he was the one I’d go to after each audition when I felt down about how I had done. He was always there to spur me on, even in his later years when he could no longer attend the acting class with me after becoming wheelchair bound and moving to a nursing home. When I’d visit him there, I would sit beside his bed and share all of my acting experiences with him. He would later brag about them to the other nursing home residents and staff. He had my acting headshot tacked to the wall at the foot of his bed so he could see it when he woke up each morning. I also write about this in my memoir.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

I think the most amazing revelation was how strong and capable I am. I never realized it or believed it. Now, I can look at myself with critical assessment without diminishing my own achievements. My Second Chapter in life has finally freed me to like and respect myself. Often, I’ve received emails from strangers who have happened upon my blog while navigating the internet. Many share their own difficulties in finding fulfillment in this stage of their life. It’s amazing how so many reach their senior years and are still struggling with low self-confidence, discounting their own abilities. Too many devolve into loneliness and depression. It doesn’t have to be that way. To reinvent yourself is a process involving baby steps as one success builds on another regardless of periodic setbacks or failures. Certainly, I’ve had both successes and failures, but my passion has kept me going. This is a frequent theme I write about in my blog.

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

Oh, you bet I struggled with believing in myself. I always thought that whatever I was able to do was not anything special, and it was only others who were accomplished and special. Overcoming it was a process that continued into my senior years. The lightning strike was that first day in acting class when I went up to read that scene from “Death of a Salesman” shaking in my shoes. After the first few sentences, I morphed into the character that I was portraying, and I read the scene completely unaware of anyone else in the room except the actor playing my husband and setting up my lines. It was like stepping into a parallel world; I had no idea I had such an ability. I got terrific feedback from the teacher and class members. One called me “a natural.” That was the beginning of my metamorphosis. It was a slow, gradual process. At my first real audition, I reverted right back to the insecure, self-doubting person I had been for over sixty years. However, the siren call of acting was stronger and propelled me forward. Each audition or acting job I completed helped to chip away just a bit more of my self-doubt. Now, I go forward if not completely fearlessly, then at least stronger than before. When those old seeds of low self-confidence surface to try to control me, I’m much more successful at pushing them back where they belong.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

I had many friends and my father and son who encouraged me. I had my acting teachers and fellow class members, and we were all passionate about acting. They were my tribe, and we became an informal support group, sharing our highs and lows. When I began lecturing and writing my books and my blog, I attracted followers . Many write to me after a particularly relevant blog post they enjoyed. They thank me and tell me how much it helped them and how much they like my writing. That inspires me to keep going.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

I remember the first acting audition I ever went to. I dressed like the character, an aging English spinster, as had been recommended in some acting books I’d read. I was very nervous as I walked into the lobby of the playhouse where the audition was to take place. My nervousness ramped up to include embarrassment when I saw that almost everyone else in the room was wearing jeans and tee shirts, including those my age who were obviously there to audition for the same part. It must have been clear to all that I was a newbie. I was humiliated and felt like leaving, just like that first day in acting class. The only reason I didn’t was that the passion for acting propelled me on. It was a grueling experience as I had to ask others what I was supposed to do. I write about this in my memoir, also.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

My goal in my Second Chapter is to help retirees, those soon to retire, baby boomers, and seniors reinvent themselves in this new stage of their lives called retirement. Their job is gone, the children are grown, and too many sink into loneliness and depression. Here are the five things I wish I had known during that major passage in my life:

1. I wish there had been a lecture, blog, or self-help book to direct me on how to carve out a new life for myself after I retired. I didn’t have a clue what I might like, where to find it, or even how to start looking for it. Shortly before I retired, I met a man walking his dog in my neighborhood whom I had worked with years earlier. He had been retired for a month, and he said he had hadn’t found anything of interest and had no idea what to do with himself. He died a short time later. Of course, that doesn’t happen to all new retirees, but it happens to too many. That first day after I retired, I remember being at home and feeling like I was in a fog. I was hungry and thought about walking into the kitchen to get some food, but I felt frozen and unable to put my thoughts into actions. I had to direct myself out loud: “Okay, now you put one foot in front of the other.” I think that’s really why I’ve gravitated in the direction I have: to help others create their own Second Chapter and not have to struggle as much as I did.

2. I wish someone had told me to try lots of different things even if I’d never done them before, and not to get discouraged just because the first few didn’t resonate with me. Several years ago, I was the organizer of a study/discussion group at the Plato Society, a learning-in-retirement program for seniors in Los Angeles, California. I created topics under our umbrella subject, Antarctica, for the thirteen group members to pick from a hat. One member was particularly upset as he had wanted a different assignment that was more in line with his pre-retirement career. When he finally gave his presentation some weeks later, he started by saying how much he had enjoyed learning about his topic and would never have done so on his own. It’s so easy to become discouraged and give up. In my new self-help book for retirees and seniors, Reinventing Yourself in Your Retirement Years, I offer lots of ideas for activities and pursuits they can seek out, how to find them, and how to identify what might even interest them.

3. The magic word is “passion.” Find something to be passionate about as that will motivate you to get out of bed, get dressed, get out of the house, and embrace life. That’s what acting did for me. Once I wrote my memoir, I also became an author. However, I learned that writing a book isn’t enough. The author has to promote it, too. Now that I had my acting skills and was confident about speaking in public, I tackled giving book talks to groups. Acting and writing became my Second Chapter, and I loved the whole experience. A friend who was my age and also an actress had to drive over fifty miles one way to get to most auditions. I asked her once how she kept up that pace for so many years. I still remember her response: “Acting energizes me!” When you are passionate about something, it will excite and energize you.

5. Don’t overstress yourself. You must pace yourself so you don’t burn out. As a senior, our physical abilities are less than when we were young. Once you identify and pursue your passion, remember to schedule rest time into your life. When I first discovered acting, I couldn’t get enough of it; it was like an addiction. Often, I filed my schedule with more acting work or classes than I could comfortably do, and I found myself becoming exhausted. That is happening to me now with my writing. I find I can sit at my computer for hours without even realizing it. Sometimes, I forget to eat or go outside. My new back pain from so much sitting is reminding me to take a break. I’m now setting an alarm at one hour intervals to remind me. Don’t turn your passion into a chore. Downtime regenerates you so you can return revitalized.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

My target audience is the retiree and senior population. That group comprises about a third of the population in the United States, so that’s a pretty big demographic. However, it’s often a forgotten group. It shouldn’t be. A group that big has great influence socially, economically, and politically. I’d like to see a movement where seniors flex that muscle. Such a movement could improve the status of the senior population and put them back into the role of wise and respected elders that they once held and really still are. I am also opposed to potentially harmful methods to make oneself look younger. That is a pursuit sold to mostly women that they are not good, not acceptable, and not worthwhile unless they are young. There’s nothing wrong with trying to look nice, but too many aging women and increasingly men put their health and even their lives at risk pursuing that “youth” ideal. Why do we buy into that hype? Can’t we ever be okay with how we are? Certainly as seniors we should be, but sadly, seniors still pursue the dream of youth, viewing signs of aging as ugly and unable to accept themselves as they are. I have written often on this subject in my blog. To sum it up, I would like to see a movement where seniors are respected, revered, and held in high esteem by the population at large and by themselves as a group.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

I love Maggie Smith, the 86-year-old actress. She goes about her life and craft just as she is without artificially trying to be something else. She has aged gracefully with the wrinkles and croaky voice that go with it. She remains charming and delightful portraying and being a senior. Thank you, Maggie Smith, for the example you set.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website is: LeeGaleGruen.com. It tells all about my books, acting, and public speaking.

My blog website is: LeeGaleGruen.wordpress.com. It is free and contains my blogs going back eight years.

If you google my name, Lee Gale Gruen, you’ll find many links to my acting work, books, and blog.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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