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Why I’m Chasing All the 'Likes' I Can Get in Midlife

After all, how hard can it be?

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gif of woman posing with phone in different scenarios, illustration
Jordan Awan
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The morning after I quit my job, I sat barefoot and pajamaed by the woodstove, enjoying the quiet of a blank calendar and an empty inbox. Instead of stroking executive egos, I rubbed my dog’s buttery ears. Feeling smug, I posted a photo of the scene on Instagram and waited for the likes.        

At 56, I discovered that a little red heart on an Instagram post was as satisfying as a shiny sticker on my grade-school homework. I’d always been a gold-star seeker. Positive feedback propelled me through a 30-year career—every "Atta girl" affirmed my sense of self-worth.        

I told everyone I was not retired, just “purposefully” not committing to anything new. “I’m going to read all the great books and take my dog for long walks,” I said, lapping up each “Jealous!” emailed reply.        

The truth was, I had no intention of returning to corporate life and no idea what I would do next. Before long, my morning routine of purposeful leisure became a quest for purpose. While the dog paced, I balanced my coffee on an unopened Hemingway and scrolled for inspiration.        

On Instagram, midlife women were launching new businesses, writing motivational books, reclaiming their bodies, and embracing peace and wellness. A steady stream of confident, stylish women stared at me from the phone screen. They frowned at my makeup-free face as though my shiny forehead reflected the looming gap in my résumé. They tut-tutted over my old T-shirt, its fabric fading like my self-worth.        

Among the 60 million women 45 and older on Instagram, I was a prime target for aspirational maxims like “It is never too late to be what you should have been.” Paddle-boarding, Warrior-posing and mindfully meditating women encouraged me to love myself, my gray hair and my menopausal midriff. These silver-haired beauties urged me to stop making excuses and start living my best life.        

An ember of my former ambition rekindled. Why couldn’t I join the legions of #over50andfabulous influencers and build my own brand on Instagram? I set a goal of 1,000 followers. How hard could it be?        

I launched @myreinspiredlife to tell the story of my not-retired retirement. I hadn’t really figured what “reinspired” meant—for myself or anyone else—but so what? On Instagram, it was easy to filter the facts, project confidence and exude ambition.        

I learned to use design software and filters and had headshots taken, paying extra for hair and makeup. I worked late nights writing pithy captions. I practiced the best angles for selfies, then deleted, cropped and filtered the results. On vacation, I posted images of my toes in the water, the brim of my hat, and my hand shaded by a cocktail umbrella.        

Connecting to like-minded women on the social media platform was fun, but the race to attract more followers was like chasing my tail. As soon as I’d figure out how to garner more views, Instagram would change the rules. The pursuit was exhausting—and addictive.        

 I checked my progress before getting out of bed and refreshed the app throughout the day. My finger trembled when the red person icon appeared with a number next to its tiny head to announce a new follower or two.              

“Are you trying to be an influencer?” my millennial daughter asked via text. “You know you need, like, a hundred thousand followers, right?”        

I replied with an ambivalent shrug emoji, but her question made me wonder: Without the validation of a career, was I now measuring my success in likes?        

My Instagram account was a model for living a more authentic, creative and simple life. But in reality, I was as stressed as I’d ever been at my job—little red hearts chased me in my sleep. After months of Insta-insanity, it was time for a break.        

During a social media version of “Sober October,” I thought about why I hadn’t embraced the idea of retirement. My career was challenging, and I was continually learning. I set goals and was rewarded when I achieved them. Letting that go was hard. Instagram helped bridge the gap.        

After a year of effort, I hit 200 followers. To celebrate, I made French toast in the middle of the week and was generous with the maple syrup. I was far short of my follower objective, but I learned something: Likes are not a good measure of self-worth, and neither is work.        

I’d always dreamed of living in an old farmhouse in Vermont. On pressure-filled workdays, I imagined myself reading by a fire—and there I was, with a warm dog at my feet. No number of little red hearts would ever replace that feeling of accomplishment.        

The human need for validation is a spark, and social media is gasoline. I’d like to say I quit the Instagram race, but the ember still burns. As the sweet coppery liquid pooled on the eggy bread, I reached for my phone and snapped a photo.*

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