Recently I posted an article called “Your professional decline is coming (much) sooner than you think”. It has generated a lot of interest, and it highlights a conversation I have with lots of people, especially those over 50.
My thinking is that we have three adult ages:
- Stage 1 (20s-30s): we use our energy to learn and practice the skills to set ourselves up for adult life
- Stage 2 (mid 30s-50s): we use those skills and our energy to build – homes, families, careers, businesses
- Stage 3 (50s-70s): we harvest the results of our building
Note: I don’t have a reflection on Stage 4 because I’m not close enough yet (I’m 59 – early late middle age).
What changes is our ambition, and that is underpinned by what we value as important. There’s a lovely book I read years ago called “Rules for Aging” by Roger Rosenblatt. Rule 1 states: it doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t. I think most of us would say that our preoccupations change as we ease into our 50s. My version is “there’s not much that matters, but what matters matters a lot”. (By the way I liked his Rule 23 on the harmony between the sexes. Rule 23a states simply “She’s right”. Rule 23b says “He really is thinking of nothing. Honestly, he is”.)
The article I posted talks about moving from a preoccupation with building our CV to a focus on what we’d like people to say in our eulogy (they may not of course, but at that point it really doesn’t matter).
Another way of thinking about it is focusing less on what we’ve done and more on who we were to others – what we gave the world rather than what we did in it. Of course we can’t jump straight into the third adult age: we can only harvest what we’ve built. We write our eulogy by developing character and wisdom in meeting the challenges of our ambition.
My father died at the age of 63. I was surprised at the number of people at his funeral (30 years ago today), and even more taken with what they told us about what he meant to them. He was always a teacher, though he wasn’t in a classroom for long. He became a senior manager in a big life insurance company and before he fell ill he was working towards taking a leading role in Catholic education. But it was not those roles that defined him. People remembered him for his integrity – he used to say “when you make a commitment you look neither to the left nor the right, you look straight ahead”. They remembered how he stood up and spoke for what he believed in – he once objected to his CEO about the tenor of an ad they were running. He called it salacious. He would be the first to stand up at parish meetings and express what he believed about a topic. We called that “shrink” (as in cringe). He was a leader, and if he’d lived longer I know he would have found different ways to lead and inspire people.
Don’t get me wrong: the desire to lead doesn’t fade away at 50 or 55. I’m currently engaged and involved in building our business with an intensity I haven’t had in years. My ambition is greater than ever, and I am highly disciplined in focusing my energy so I get a lot done (and I’m conscious of an urgency that I didn’t have before). But that too is harvesting: I am free to do the things I’m best at, and others do what I was once passionate about but now, not so much.
The point, as always, is choices. You don’t have to have the energy or drive of a 35 year old if you’re 55. It’s right and good to be more concerned with more mindfully enjoying your health, relationships and lifestyle (including the work you love, but other opportunities too).
And if that’s where your mind is at, your relationship with your business should change. Get out of the engine room. Go up to the bridge. Find new ways to lead and teach.
Bob Dylan said that “A person is a success if they get up in the morning and get to bed at night, and in between they do what they want to do”.
Do what you love to do and that only you can do. Get others to do the rest.
Only two things stop you: some old programming about who you think you should be, and the possibility that your team aren’t ready to step up even though you want to step back.
We can help with both. When you’re ready.
We’d love to hear your reflections on these stages. What does “what next?” look like for you?
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