Turning 40: A Reflection

I’m told that 40 is the new 30. I hope not; my 30s — particularly the first half of that decade — weren’t all that enjoyable. If my 40s are like my late 30s, though, then bring it on!

Some background: Heretofore, birthdays (especially those evenly divisible by 5) have been a real disappointment. After 21, birthdays don’t matter much. I think I didn’t pay a lot of attention to 25. However, 30 was well-nigh traumatic; the only saving grace was that just two days after, I stepped on a plane to San Diego for my first-ever conference speaking gig. That trip was magical, offering a distraction from pointless introspection. Worse was 35; at that point, you’re half-way to 70 and the phrase “middle aged” starts to crop up. You’re less culturally aligned with your younger friends, but (at least for me) not really settled into a long-term life trajectory. It’s an awkward period, especially if you’re not ensnared in the domestic bliss of spouse and children and white picket fences and minivans. You don’t necessarily fit anywhere. You’re too old to say within the immediate-post-college crowd; you’re too young to spend afternoons on the golf course reminiscing about the Viet Cong. You’re too old to shop at Abercrombie & Fitch; you’re too young to shop at J.C. Penney. You just kinda exist in a grey zone.

But 40? Bah. Just another day.

My thinking about aging has simmered down the last few years. A big part of this serenity relates to the dawning self-awareness that with age comes experience, and that experience brings real benefits. Nowhere does that perspective shine more strongly than at work, where the 20-something fresh-outta-college people we often hire seem to be distracted by irrelevancies. I hear the things that cause them so much angst and say to myself, “Self, that’s a whole lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In other words: Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, threw the T-shirt in the trash. They spend a lot of time worrying about things that don’t matter. Then again, at that age, I did, too. It’s liberating being on the other side of that divide.

The last few years, with my promotion into management and arrival on various boards of directors and running a small business on the side, have engendered experiences an order of magnitude removed from worrying about who said what on Facebook and which party to attend on the coming weekend. Plus, a solid mid-career professional existence provides means and assets that remain out the reach of younger adults. The stakes are different, so the betting strategy adjusts accordingly.

I am aware, as I occasionally peruse this blog’s archives (I’ve been writing at A Mild Voice of Reason since I was 29!), that at times I’ve raged about getting older or about finding purpose in ways that are, in retrospect, incredibly whiny. Those posts provide milestones along my evolution from pseudo-sophisticated 20-something to a calmer, more focused 40-year-old. And I’m OK with that. I think at some point, you have to stop looking at life as something to be manicured and just live it.

I’m actually pretty happy with my life now. The basics are so well established that I don’t think about them — I don’t worry about covering the rent, I drive a newish car, all the things that should be insured are fully covered, I have a healthy retirement account going, the cats never run out of food — thus freeing more time to focus on other things of greater substance. Like Caffeinated Press. Or my personal writing. Or NAHQ. Or my career at Priority Health. Or the podcast. Or my outdoor hobbies.

But getting there wasn’t always easy, and the barriers were pretty much all of my own making. I wasted that critical 16-to-21 period by making bad choice after bad choice; it was really only the disapprobation of my grandfather (I can’t believe it’s been 11 years ago, this week, that he passed away) that nudged me off a self-destructive path. My family teed me up perfectly for a life of high success. If I’ve managed to achieve middling success, it’s because I pissed away the advantages they bequeathed to me but managed to get lucky with a partial recovery.

My 20s weren’t solid. I was a long-term student. I had a decent job, but didn’t really focus on it. I spent a lot of time in coffee shops, plotting big things that never came to fruition because if I actually tried to execute, but failed, then I’d deal a fatal wound to my own personal mythos of smug omnipotence.

My early 30s were the worst. They started off well enough, with a newfound appreciation for fitness and a devotion to exercise and martial arts. But then I got sick. And made more self-defeating choices, to boot. It wasn’t until five or six years ago that I really re-founded myself, mostly by recognizing that aspiration is nice but it doesn’t pay the bills. And, gee, you really do have to pay the bills. A certain shame at not really being a grown-up offers a powerful, if unplanned, motivation to clean up one’s act.

Many years ago I started a running goal list. Some of those goals, I’ve written about; others, not so much. That list sits in one of my OneNote notebooks, so I can see how it’s changed over the years. Some items that seemed so important six years ago now amuse me. Some current items would have never struck me as being important in those days. Other items have been checked off as successes. Still others remain, their staying power helping me to recognize what’s constant and giving me a focus for my future efforts.

I’ve learned that being busy matters, but only if you’re occupied with meaningful work. I’ve learned that obsessing about love and lust is a sure-fire tell that you haven’t yet learned to love yourself, and that when you finally do love yourself for who you are, the Captain Ahab pursuit of romance seems silly. And at some point, you have to welcome the occasional failure as an opportunity to thrive, and as an object lesson in (finally) overcoming imposter syndrome and all the painfully awkward justifications that prop it up.

Today, I turn 40. And you know what? It’s just another day. What matters isn’t the number, but what you do with the hours allotted to you.

Make yours count.

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