Gail Sheehy


VTR Date: December 20, 1981

Guest: Sheehy, Gail


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Gail Sheehy
Title: “Pathfinders”
VTR: 12/20/81

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Perhaps because I was so intrigued with its author, I think no doubt the best program I’ve ever done on THE OPEN MIND was five years ago, about a book entitled Passages, The Predictable Crises of Adult Life, by Gail Sheehy. Well, now she’s done it again, searching out this time how people successfully negotiate the passages of their lives. Published by William Morrow, Gail Sheehy’s new book, Pathfinders, is about those definable qualities of the human spirit that enable some to make new paths, to turn adversity to one’s favor, indeed to rise up at times from failure to push ahead, always creating and cultivating a capacity to make life work rather than to succumb to its difficulties.

Pathfinders is about victory, not defeat. About those who make their own victory. And its author, my guest today, is Gail Sheehy.

Gail, thank you for joining me again, and thanks too, again, for a wonderful book.

SHEEHY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: You know, I was trying to figure out, how do I get into this subject of Pathfinders that is so, so personal and relates so closely to each and every one of us? And I wrote out a sentence, and it is: If the book is about amazing people – and it is about amazing people – people you searched out for their achievements so that you could follow their lives fro some years and identify the qualities that make them pathfinders, what in the world, what relevance do their lives have for the rest of us who are basically just followers? Now, that’s not a hostile question, but it’s a meaningful question.

SHEEHY: Well, I don’t think of these as superhuman people. Anyone can be a pathfinder, because the qualities that they have are learned; they’re not innate. The only genetically determined qualities that seem to give people a headstart, there are only three that have been identified in all the twin research. One is high energy, that is, you and I know the more you do, the more involved you become, the more the energy increases and multiplies. And it’s cumulative. The other, the next is social style. Someone who is outgoing is going to get into more commitments and engagements with other people than someone who is very retiring and withdrawn. And the third is a tilt toward the optimistic. It’s my feeling, and I have no hard proof for this, but people like Jonas Salk, who I interviewed on this subject, seem to agree that it’s possible that there’s something like an optimism-negativism dial that we’re born with and we sort of tilt a little bit toward the negative charge or a little bit to the positive charge. And certainly if you have a more positive outlook you will probably take more chances and be less upset or set back if you fail. But apart from those three slight advantages, no other advantages of background, class level, even education really marked a difference between a pathfinder and anybody else. The qualities that they had developed were qualities that one learns and increases by living.

HEFFNER: You mean your message is: Anyone can be a pathfinder?

SHEEHY: Yes. I mean, there are people in that book who I think, when you say they’ve created great achievements; their achievements have been inner achievements. A young welfare mother who at 18 had as impossible a hand dealt to her as one could imagine. She had a child, she had a terrible marriage to an alcoholic that she had to get out of. When she did that she violated the code of her socio-economic background, ethnic background. She was kind of ostracized in her neighborhood. She found another love, a childhood sweetheart. She invested all her hopes in him. He encouraged her to go back to school. Things looked very rosy. And suddenly he died. Accidentally, but he was gone. And she was left with a tiny baby, ostracized from her neighborhood, no support system, no job, having to go on welfare. Now that’s not somebody who is way ahead of the game. What did she do? She was going…She picked up a bottle of pills. She thought about killing herself. And one day she put her fist through the window and she realized that she was going to start hurting her baby, and that scared her. And she went out to the community mental health center and she got help. And that helped her to take the next step, which was, one day when she was bathing this child, she said, “He’s so beautiful! I want to be around to see him grow up. I want to see him as a teenager, I want to see him as a grown man. I’m going to have to find some way to independence and self-respect so that I can be here to see his growth”. And she went back to school, became a practical nurse, went on, is now at 23 planning to take her master’s next year. And she also knows that she can’t get married for at least five years. She can’t even consider it, because it’s going to take her that long to grow into a full person. Now, that tells me she’s developed one of the cardinal qualities of a pathfinder: She’s learned how to look ahead and anticipate what she’s going to need in the next stage. And she’s extended her anticipation by probably five years because one of the truest measurements of social class is one’s ability to anticipate. Previously she probably thought ahead only week to week. Sometimes, when times were really bad, from day to day. You often hear people say “I’m just living day to day”.

HEFFNER: Gail, do you think you would have been as involved in this research, would have continued it, indeed, if your first returns had indicated that genes played a larger role, that luck rather than pluck was more important?

SHEEHY: Well, I’m enough of a journalist, so I’m quite sure that I would have gone ahead. And it would have been a different book. It would have aid it’s, you know, you’re dealt a hand of cards before you’re born and that’s the way it, you know, you play it as it lays. But I’m happy to report I was rather surprised and quite delighted that that did not appear to be the case. That the strengths like developing the capacity for living, for not being afraid of mutually loving, respecting someone’s differentness, that’s something you can work on. Learning how to cultivate friendships and how important they are. Very difficult particularly for men because they never know when they’re going to be competing with each other or hiring each other or firing each other, and so it’s very difficult for them to form confidantes with other men. And that’s why one of the unhappiest creatures is a recently divorced man, because he’s lost the one person he usually was able to confide in, which is his wife. But men learn, and male pathfinders do have twice as many friends as the average men.

HEFFNER: You know, I’m going to keep coming back to this, and I admit I’m stuck on it. But it seems to me somewhere there you’ve picked people who were by nature endowed with the capacity to do the things that you now identify that they did. I remember years ago during a program with Max Lerner, and, I don’t know, I didn’t ask the silly question of, “What are you?” But he somewhere along the line said, “You know, I’m a possiblist”. And I’ve always remembered that. You’re talking about possiblists. People who believe it is possible. But not so long ago Jane Brody’s column in The Times had a piece about beauty and stature and about the advantage that one has if one is goodlooking and tall. And I just wondered whether these pathfinders aren’t people who do start out with that which enables then to develop these qualities that you said we could all…

SHEEHY: Well, let’s know them down, one by one.


SHEEHY: That’s a straw man, beauty. One of the pathfinders in the book was a very much overweight, genetically overweigh woman who had a huge stature, very tall. She was very strong but she lived in the South, and she did not measure up to the female idea of beauty and womanhood in the South. Her husband was a dentist. She got to the age of 30 having had four children, and felt, “Am I going to be nothing but pregnant for the rest of my life?” She noticed that a lot of her friends, women friends, didn’t do anything substantial, seemed to be in the business of criticizing what other people did, being professional critics of other people’s creative efforts. Her life was narrowing. Many, many people would have stayed in what were very comfortable circumstances with a nice living in a nice part of the country and just said, “Well, see, I just can’t make it because I wasn’t born beautiful; I was born fat and big”. Instead what she did was go to Alaska. She found her way to Alaska, her husband joined her. He refitted his practice into a little Cessna, began flying around having the time of his life going to native villages and practicing medicine with people who really, really needed it and appreciated it. She became the great earth mother of the community in western Alaska where they settled, where her ample frame was nurturing, was wonderful. In fact, she ended up at one point when her husband was away on a dentistry trip and the town ran out of oil and she had to unload a barge with an oil drum when she was seven months pregnant and roll it up the beach to keep the town from freezing to death that night. Now, she had learned how to turn obstacle into opportunity, and to make herself value herself and to make others value her. And they are the most loved couple in western Alaska, I’m sure.

HEFFNER: Is this the anecdotal approach, the reporter’s story-by-story approach? I thought this was a work of science.

SHEEHY: Well, I hope it’s both. But I don’t think that science by itself really touches us, really makes us understand in our pores what it would be like to live the life of a pathfinder. And I don’t think we have the courage to try it until we see them, other people walk us through it, walk us through that obstacle course.

HEFFNER: That I did feel was certainly the tremendous attraction of your book, the case histories, the stories, the vignettes so empathetically written and reported that they carry a weight that I guess no line of printout statistics could.

SHEEHY: Well, I hope so. If that’s so it’s because these people entered my life, entered my spirit, gave me so much hope and excitement, and such an idea of how fluent one can be in life.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “fluent”?

SHEEHY: Well, you know many languages for a living. You know many ways of handling situations that otherwise might have seemed dead ends. I really don’t think there are hardly any dead ends now, categorically. There are certainly m any people who would find what they thought was a dead end. But individually, is paralysis a dead end? There’s a woman in the book who defeats paralysis, who makes something out of it. Is losing a job a dead end? Is being passed over when you’re 55 and you’ve given your loyalty to a company a dead end? Maybe not. Maybe it’s an open door to start your own business and begin doing something you really believe in that then is reflected in a revitalization in your marriage, and perhaps in your spiritual life, and a sense of purpose instead of just a sense of being a hypocritical wage slave.

HEFFNER: You were devoted to Margaret Meade, and she to you. Is this an anthropologically valid study? Does it take into consideration sufficiently the numbers we need to be concerned with? Or is it, once again, the same question, is it about the particular people you dealt with?

SHEEHY: Well, let me tell you how I did the research, and then you can decide. I thought that the best way to find pathfinders, mean and women who have already met the crossroads and who have expanded on the other side of it, a good bet would be if you found people who felt exceptionally good about themselves in many different areas of life, they probably would have had to make a passage or meet a life accident which we can’t predict or prevent, and they apparently weathered it and are happy on the other side. So I developed a life-history questionnaire and sent it out through a number of national organizations, lawyers, union women, steelworkers, all kinds of people. I also had it published in a couple of national magazines, one for men and one for women. And then, so that I wouldn’t rely completely on that method, I also sent letters to 500 Americans in different states who were heads of organizations of one sort or another who would know people in their community. By that time I had three criteria for a pathfinder, and I asked them to recommend just one person that might fit two out of three of those criteria.

So I ended up with 60,000 responses to this questionnaire, which is a fairly good number. It’s not a random sample, but it is a large data pool. And because there was a little scale dropped into the questionnaire – one third of the questions formed what I called the “wellbeing scale” – that was able to cream off the top those people within any group, reference group, who felt good about themselves, who had high wellbeing. Then I went to see them, because that’s only the paper and pencil part of the research. Although it provided a very interesting data background for what the average response is to, let’s say, moving from the twenties to the thirties, or what kind of fears people have, or what kind of long-term values those 60,000 Americans would represent as their major values. What they are are family, security, a sense of accomplishment, and mutual love. But pathfinders often had different answers to the same questions. And it was a nice data background against which to highlight the attitudes that pathfinders had developed. Going to meet these people, I did find some who were fakes. If they were faking themselves, they were denying that they were at a crossroads, they were blaming other people for problems they had. But there weren’t very many of them. Most of the people who came out on the well-being scale as being quite pleased with their lives were people who had worked at it and who had developed these qualities and who were pretty well fortified to meet the next crossroads. In fact, one of the funny things was, I would call these people ever six months after spending the first five hours with them, to check in. And at first I used to be very timid about somebody answering the phone and saying, “oh, Joe! Oh, yeah, Joe. Well, he stuffed his wife in the oven last week, but, you know, tough luck about Joe”. But it didn’t happen. They were making new victories. Sometimes they had problems that seemed to have no answer. One had a stroke. Another had a child who died.

HEFFNER: Does this mean that people who make victories are people who make victories?

SHEEHY: Well, it is cumulative. But I must say that some of the people in the book didn’t start even attempting until they were forties, even in their forties.

HEFFNER: You know, it is in the tradition of Norman Vincent Peale, it is in the tradition of Couret, no?


HEFFNER: Why not? Why not?

SHEEHY: Well, all right. Norman Vincent Peale I think gave a supply side theology.

HEFFNER and SHEEHY: (Laughter)

SHEEHY: He tried, he tries to tell us that if you believe it in your own mind, you can change reality. You can positive think yourself out of any situation. You don’t actually have to put yourself in the arena. These people first make a change, a self-examination and a change inside, change the fabric of their thought, reframe the question. Then they have the courage to take the jump. But they take it in the arena. And they often are bloodied and they’re often dirty and they often fail, but they come out on the other end saying, “That failure taught me something, and next time I’ll be better prepared”.

HEFFNER: How did it – this is not the kind of question that I usually ask on THE OPEN MIND – but how did doing this and meeting these people affect you?

SHEEHY: I think tremendously. I had no idea…I’ll tell you, I think my impetus in writing this book, Dick, was we, I had learned and taught, learned, taught myself a lot about psychology by doing Passages. But I didn’t really, I had a very vague sort of philosophy of life. I think most of us do. I was sorry that philosophy and psychology parted company back in the thirties when we embraced Freudianism and now pretend like two women at the same party in the same dress that they aren’t there. But they are there. And really what good does knowing the psychology of life do if it doesn’t lead to thinking about a philosophy of adult development? I mean, what are we here for? Why keep trying? What’s the point? So these people gave me tremendous hope and enthusiasm for continuing to pursue those questions.

HEFFNER: I remember when we did our program on Passages, and I said to you, “Hey, I’m in my fifties. I guess I don’t fit anywhere here”. Because you hadn’t gone beyond the fifties in your book. And then I noted in Pathfinders a conversation you had with my friend David Brown, which he sort of said the same thing to you.

SHEEHY: Oh, yes.

HEFFNER: But you know, I…

SHEEHY: We do go all the way to the nineties in here.

HEFFNER: I know. Here. In here. There must have been too many protests such as my own.

SHEEHY: There were. And I felt very guilty about that. I had just arbitrarily stopped at 50 because I wasn’t old enough to see past that at that time. I was 35 when I was writing Passages. So I wish that I had put in a caveat to that effect.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I wonder about what you feel will be the impact of this book upon many or most of the people who read it. Are they just going to be reading the report of a reporter? Are they going to be reading interesting sociology? Or is it your intention to move them, to change them?

SHEEHY: I hope that they will take from it the courage to attempt the risk of changing, or enduring, if they cannot change at this period. But enduring creatively so that when the next path does open up they will e able to invent a new dream to go with it.

HEFFNER: Well, how then how are pathfinders really different from, oh, from the people who, the young people who fit into the “Me” generation and to the “I” generation?

SHEEHY: Oh, very different.

HEFFNER: Well, they seem to be terribly much involved in what they want and developing the techniques or the abilities to find out how to get it, and then get it. No?

SHEEHY: The chief characteristic of a pathfinder is a man or woman who has a purpose beyond him or herself. This is not what the average American would answer on a questionnaire at this time in our history. I think we’re in an aberrant period. But the answer to the question, “Do you have a purpose or cause beyond yourself or larger than yourself?” brought in as the average response, “No”. Reason: “My cause is me”. Pathfinders never answered that. They may not have had an absolute cause or purpose developed yet, but they were working towards it or they were trying to find time to do it. But mot of them had, it was a very important part of their lives, that they either, whether it was Bingo Dillon and his community in Charlestown trying to save his neighborhood during the busing crisis, or whether it was the nuclear engineers who resigned from their industry to alert the public to the debate about safety, although they had lived the most conformist lives up till then till their forty-second year. So did their wives. Why did they jeopardize that? Why didn’t they say, like most people would, “Look, I’ve got children to put through college? I need financial security. I can’t jeopardize my family. I mean, the cause is all right”…

HEFFNER: Okay. Question: Why?

SHEEHY: Because they had arrived at, after five years in passage, which began thinking they needed to revitalize their marriage. Then they realized that really life is about what one does every day. That if they were supporting an industry that they couldn’t change from inside, although they had attempted to, by their daily work, then they would either, they would compromise their beliefs and they would be, as the wife put it, “I don’t want to go around, walking around in a body that’s dead. I want to believe in myself”. And the fact that they left the industry, made a public resignation, were ostracized, opened up all sorts of new avenues for them. They made common cause with two other engineers and their wives who did the same thing, they started an energy consulting business on alternative sources of energy, so that now they have flexibility in their lives, they could spend more time with their families and children, they were doing something they believed in, they did it better than they had were doing something they believed in, they did it better than they had ever done their jobs before. It did not hurt them to shrink their incomes by about $10,000 at first because they didn’t need all those status things once they were no longer fighting for attention in the corporate circle. And ultimately the wife found herself having to take over for her husband on a speaking engagement in Australia. There were 5,000 people there. She walked up to the platform like zombie and then opened her mouth and it all came out, because she said, “I found out something. When you believe in what you’re saying, you don’t have any trouble finding the words”.

HEFFNER: Thirty years ago I spent a lot of time editing a small edition of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. And the theme here of the book written considerably more than a hundred years ago…


HEFFNER: …had been about stasis rather than action, rather than change. And I wondered whether you write – because you seem to write about change all the time, about passages about pathfinders – I wonder whether you think that this book, Pathfinders, reflects where we as a people are going? Now that’s a different question…


HEFFNER: …than the one I’ve asked before.

SHEEHY: I think it does. And this is why, Dick. I was surprised to find such a striking example of this in my research. People who came out at the top of the wellbeing scale in whatever group they were among were the most likely to have made a major change in their values and attitudes or life structure at some point in their adult life; not the people who had lived consistent lives. The same finding was made at the University of California, in the human development program at San Francisco, where they expected the consistency of values and psychological behavior would be the key to a healthy mental life. It was quite the opposite. The healthiest, mentally healthiest people had made major change. And I think if you think about this country, that’s what it’s always been about. We are always ready, when we find ourselves in a corner, to try – even when we have no idea how it’s going to come out – to try a change. And think of the luck, think of what this system makes possible. We have the freedom to change, more than any other country in the world, the people have the chance to seek well being in their own individual definition in this country. In the Soviet Union, people think of their government like the sky, like a wall.

HEFFNER: Gail Sheehy, we just have a minute left, but I want to repeat, in a sense, that question. That’s talking about our history, or rather, about our heritage. About the best aspect of the American tradition. Do you think that it reflects what we, most of us, are all about at this point?

SHEEHY: I do. I think that, given new economic conditions, people are starting their own businesses, people are inventing all kinds of alternatives to just being a kind of institutionalized conformist organization man. Nobody wants to be called an organization man anymore. Once we define it, people say, “No, not me. I’m going to be different”. And I think people have a history in this country, to base their efforts on, and they have a lot of pluck and courage.

HEFFNER: Once again, a very optimistic note to end on, and appropriate for the woman who wrote Pathfinders.

Thanks so much for joining me today, Gail Sheehy.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.