Sunday, January 24, 2010

10 Years Ago...

A friend of mine sent a question to his network on New Year's Eve. He is 38, and I happen to be 48, and his question was this: "I wish I could ask my 48-year-old self for advice, so I know what might be coming in the next decade". So, being wiser than many of his peers, he tried to reach out to people who had just gone through that decade, to see if there was something to learn. I admire the attempt, and I have no idea whether or not one can truly learn from others' experiences. But we have to try, right?

So here is my answer to his question. I don't know if it's interesting, or helpful, either to him or to you, but I thought it might be, and I felt like posting it on my blog. And of course the one thing that's true of blogs is that it doesn't have to be interesting, or helpful. It's my blog, isn't it?


From: Glenn Reid
Re: 10 Years Ago...

>I'm 38, what do I need to know for the next 10 years?
>Answer this however you like (or not!)... use whatever color, examples,
>personal stories or judgments of me as you see fit. You may not even
>know what to say to 38 year old me... but what would you say to
>your own "mid-to-late 30s" self?

Hey Jon,

I'm not sure how many people you sent this question to, or how much response you've received. I have been kind of chewing on this in the back of my mind for a while -- wondering what to say, I guess. I am 48, which perhaps you knew :)

There is no really good answer to your question, I don't think, because experience is not universal. One of the weaknesses of human beings, I believe, is that we fundamentally don't "learn from experience". We think we do, but really we just keep doing the same stuff over and over.

At the core of how you view the world is your belief system. It is built up over years of experience, teachings, accidents, etc. It just represents what you believe to be true. As new information comes to you, in the form of seeing/hearing/experiencing things, the new data either reinforces your belief system or contradicts it. It is how you view contradictory information that defines how you interact with the world. Some people throw out their belief system easily (or large chunks of it) and adopt new theories about life all the time. They are vegan one year, Atkins diet the next. On the other end of the spectrum are those who vigorously defend their belief system against all contradictory information. Those people are generally Catholic, or Republican, or whatever :)

Here's an example of this concept at work, in seeing into the future. This has nothing to do with "you" per se, but I will use the word "you" to make it easier to express.

Your belief system tells you, perhaps, that you are good at what you do, at your chosen profession. You truly believe you're a pretty dang good carpenter. Yet the data may suggest otherwise. You've been laid off, have not gotten promoted, or otherwise fall into the middle to bottom of the pack. If you actually accept this "input" that you're really not doing so well, you might either (a) reject it, and buy a bigger truck, or (b) decide you're a failure and take up a new career. Yet (b) is difficult and perhaps foolhardy, at mid-life. If you're not a great carpenter, what makes you think you can suddenly start selling real estate successfully? So most people muddle along making small changes and justifying the rest.

So to get to the point (if in fact I have one)...

The next decade you're facing, if I were to try to sum it up across most of the people I know, and based on personal experience, is the decade of letting go of some of your dreams.

You know how everybody tells you how fast your kids grow up, and you just kind of listen to them, but increasingly you see glimpses of that yourself? "Wow, that was *three years ago*". Or you see a niece or nephew going off to college and you remember when they were born.

Time really does go faster as you get older, or seems to. I think the reason is that you start to accept something deep and fundamental, that you really don't want to accept. It is best summed up like this: "you may never pass this way again."

I have thought that explicitly, and more and more often. I was in Hutchinson, Kansas, for the first (and last) time, a year and half ago. It was for an antique truck show, but the reason is unimportant. I looked around and thought, "Wow, I will never come here again in my life. That's kind of weird."

It's not that it's true, or not true. It's that you think it at all. When you're 20, you simply don't have thoughts like that. You assume that you can, and will, go everywhere, do everything, and kick all available butt. There is endless time, you are strong and hungry and ready to rock (usually). You go to Alaska, and you think, "hell, the next time I come here I'm going to rent a plane and fly up to that lake" or whatever. If you go to Alaska when you're 48, you very likely will not think that. You will think, "Wow, I will probably never see this place again in my lifetime."

The reason is subtle: it's not that you couldn't go back to Alaska every year if you wanted to. But you won't really want to, and you know it. You've "been there, done that". And you know that you'd rather do something else with what time you have left. Go to Egypt, maybe.

And therein lies the heart of it. You only have "so much time" left, and you want to spend it more and more wisely. That is old age, when you get down to it. You aren't entering old age, exactly, but your experiences will start to show you that you really aren't going to "get around to" a lot of stuff that you thought you were. And you will subtly, but permanently, let go of a dream or two, in the coming decade. And you will think, at least occasionally, that you are entering the second and final half of your life.

Make that a good thing, not a bad thing. Don't let dreams slip away -- shoot them in the head, and take on new, attainable ones. Having kids is an incredible dream for your own future that you probably didn't really have on your Most Important list when you were 28. But now you know how cool and important it is, so it's not really such a bad thing to let go of some other dream, like having Andalusia open for Ringo Starr. Not that that was ever your dream, of course :)

As a tangentential, but related thought, I think that the reason that "old people" don't take easily to new technology has nothing to do with their ability to deal with it, or any kind of cognitive issues of complexity. And it's not Fear, which is often cited. It's more simple than that. It's because "old people" value their time more and more, and they understand that learning the user interface on a BlackBerry will be useless knowledge in 10 years (or 5, or 3) and that it's simply not worth investing their time. It's a variation on the reason that high school kids don't want to learn Trigonometry: "when will I EVER need this in real life?"

The benefit-to-time ratio is calculated more frequently, and more easily, as you get older, and you just know when something is worth it and when something is not. I am starting to realize that now about myself, and it surprises me. I don't bother to learn all the things my iPhone can do, or install apps on it, or whatever. Not because I "can't handle it". I can develop software for the iPhone if I want to. But I don't. Because the iPhone will also be on the scrap heap of history in 5 years, and I don't want to waste time installing apps that won't work in a few years, or the company will have disappeared. It's like investing in video formats, or audio formats. When MP3 is slightly improved upon by AAC, do you really go back and rip all 1,000 of your CD's into the newer format. I didn't think so. When you bought some of those CD's, 10 years ago, did it ever cross your mind that some day they will be obsolete, and wonder if it was worth investing in them? I didn't think so. 10 years from now, when you're 48, I'm pretty sure you will do that calculation in your head when you're considering buying music in some format or other. I know, I know: "what, buy music, are you kidding?!"

Have fun with your new kid, and your "old" one. Say hi to Kirsten for me. And have a good decade :)