Happy Birthday to me — I turn 45 today.
I don’t write this to elicit good wishes, but it’s a prompt for me to share ten things that I’ve learned in my 45 years treading this green earth.
None of them are earth-shattering but each are significant to me — maybe they’ll mean something to you too.
1 — Time passes more quickly as the years pass
Time flies, and it appears to speed up the older you get.
It feels like only yesterday that my first daughter was born — last week she turned 21. The years from then to now have passed scarily quickly and I feel misty-eyed to look back on her childhood which is now officially over.
A year for a 10-year-old represents 10% of their life, hence why the years as a child seem to last forever. At 40, a year is just 2.5% of your life. Those are just numbers of course, but help to explain why the feeling of time passing quicker as you get older is real and scary.
It takes the passing of time to recognise that time itself is scarce and finite, which is a tough realisation to reach.
2 — It’s never too late to start something
Old dogs can certainly learn new tricks. I didn’t begin writing until my late thirties. I didn’t really start exercising in earnest until my forties. I estimate that I was in my best shape (so far) at 44 — Covid lockdown helped as there was little else to do but exercise at home.
I’ve yet to encounter anything that I’m simply too old for and will keep trying new things for as long as I can. I didn’t start road cycling until my forties, and while I’m not a pretty sight in Lycra when I get on the bike and head for the hills, at least I don’t have to look at myself!
3 — A career is a long time
I had vain notions of retiring at 50 when I first started working. My eldest kid will finish university within 2 years, and my youngest in about 8 years. For financial reasons alone I’m not finishing work any time soon.
A career is a long time, whether you work for someone else or start your own business. Nothing happens quickly but over the years you build experience gain responsibility and opportunities open up to you. You’ve got to find something that you enjoy as life is too short to hate your job.
It takes time to figure out what you want to do, to identify and hone your skills and to explore and experiment with new jobs and ventures. Don’t kid yourself (as I did) that if you’ve not achieved mastery within 5 or 10 years that you’re behind the curve.
Commit, take a long term view, relax and enjoy the ride.
4 — Nothing lasts forever
In my 45 years I’ve tried a few things and survived a few scrapes. I’ve been an employee and owned my own businesses. I’ve been laid off from some jobs and in others I’ve felt like the bosses favourite. I’ve married, divorced and been married again.
No matter how good or bad any of these experiences were in the moment, life has shown that nothing stays the same forever. It’s a constant rollercoaster cycle of ups and downs. The positives lift us up precisely because we’re familiar with hardship and have been through the dark times.
When we’re riding the crest of a wave the only way to go is eventually down again. When we’re in the depths of despair we can rely on the fact that things will improve eventually. To remember this provides comfort and helps to keep our feet on the ground.
5 — Don’t underestimate the importance of the little things
There are few genuine shortcuts or hacks to achieving big things. Lucky breaks are rare. It’s the micro-decisions and the small, daily habits and actions that compound over time to build great things. It may sound trite and I probably sound like a Tony Robbins wannabe but it’s true.
I used to get frustrated at the lack of progress and minimal response to things that I did — I thought I was turning out works of genius, each worthy of applause and fame. The wider world seemed to disagree.
Now, when I look back on 20+ years building my career, something like 1.5 million words written, 5 books self-published, hundreds of blog posts, numerous emails and social media posts — it seems a daunting body of work. Not everything has been successful, but even the modest achievements and successes are a composite of the whole. I wouldn’t have one without the other.
6 — Actions speak louder than words
It’s fine to talk a good game but life is only changed for the better by taking action. Complaining about the hand we’ve been dealt achieves nothing without taking bold steps to change it. Brave decisions followed by considered and consistent action are the key to improving our lives.
The same is true in raising kids as it is in leading our own lives. Preaching without practicing has negligible effect — setting examples of the manners, diligence, energy, outlook and responsibility that we want from them is the only way to bring it about. This same holds in treating others as we wish to be treated.
I try to under-promise and over-deliver in every relationship from the professional to the personal — it makes it easier to sleep at night.
7 — Hope for the best, prepare for the worst
Borrowing a mantra from one of my fictional heroes, Jack Reacher — it’s easier to live in expectation of the worst happening than to pin our hopes on everything working out okay. Making preparations for the worst case scenario isn’t optional.
Saving and investing in case of economic challenges, taking care of your health and learning the basics of how to fix things are all essential life skills. Being calm under pressure, able to respond to emergencies and to undertake basic maintenance are all useful traits, as is an ability to adapt and think on your feet. With all these attributes at our disposal, we’re better prepared for what life may throw at us.
I’m not as competent as I’d like to be in many of these areas, but I’m resourceful enough to give things a go and to try and figure them out.
Life demands that we can operate outside our comfort zone from time to time. Expect it. Be prepared for it.
8 — Consistency trumps intensity
Many are the times in my past where I went at things like a bull in a china shop only to burn out or regret my impetuousness. At other times, instead of charging in headlong I ignored the need to do anything at all.
New relationships boomed and busted. Radical exercise regimes led to injury and left me in worse shape than before I’d started. Saving and investing was ignored in favour of indulgent spending on credit.
I could have prevented a lot of emotional, physical and financial pain if I’d learned earlier that it’s far preferable (not to mention easier) to consistently work towards something rather than trying to get it all through intense and radical steps that can’t be sustained.
A fit and healthy body and mind are the product of many repeated small and sensible steps and choices. Healthy relationships take time to flourish. Investments grow steadily by saving a little and often, with returns compounding over time.
Intensity can be helpful to supercharge results, but nothing beats the philosophy of ‘a little and often’.
9 — Everything takes longer than you expect (but it’s worth the wait)
Much of what makes me satisfied with my life today has come as a result of time and patience. A successful career where I feel good at what I do and am appreciated by my peers. A loving and stable relationship. Confidence in my abilities as a father. A degree of financial stability. A long-term plan for life that I can believe in. The ability to live life with a sense of gratitude and acceptance.
All of these have taken most of my 45 years on earth to manifest. They haven’t come about overnight, nor without setbacks or difficulties along the way. But each has come eventually, sometimes by design but more often by the simple passing of years.
10 — Life is like a good book
My 10th lesson might have been to acknowledge that the older I get, the more wisdom I find in quotes and the words of others who’ve experienced it all before me.
Instead, I will share one of those quotes that seems most pertinent to me right now:
“I think of life as a good book. The further you get into it, the more it begins to make sense.”
Now, where’s the birthday cake?!