What you can do today to craft “a life that matters”

At some point we come to the realization that success in life isn’t about career or material acquisitions, but “about being a good, wise, and generous human being.”

Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters. She posted this past May that people who define their identity and self-worth by their educational and career achievements are likely to ride an emotional roller coaster that sounds almost like manic depression: “When they succeeded, their lives felt meaningful, and they were happy. But when they failed or struggled, the only thing that gave their lives value was gone—and so they fell into despair, and became convinced they were worthless.”

Emily Esfahani Smith
Emily Esfahani Smith

She notes, rightly to my mind, that at some point we can/should/must come to the realization that success in life isn’t about career or material acquisitions, but “about being a good, wise, and generous human being.” That’s a bit hard to absorb and incorporate at the moment, saddled as we are with national leadership that is anything but good, wise and generous. But maybe our national circumstances make it that much more important.

Like a lot of thinking people (okay, that was a snipe), I have found myself consumed on a daily basis with the outrageous behavior coming out of Washington and more specifically, the White House. It’s bewildering, this staggeringly abrupt shift from the high to the low ground, and rejection of anything and everything that makes sense. I can only hope that this too will pass, if not for me then at least for my children’s benefit.

Magritte - Decalcomania

But the point about being good, wise, and generous is well taken and reinforced by contrast.

Esfahani Smith goes on to cite 20th-century psychologist Erik Erikson about the three stages of a meaningful life, and the need to “master a certain value or skill at each stage of their development”: developing a sense of identity in adolescence; forging intimate bonds as young adults; feeding a sense of accomplishment and purpose in adulthood, and helping our children and others realize their potential in later life. Erikson relates all of this to the Hindu concept of “the maintenance of the world.”

Maintenance of the World

“In other words, you’re a successful adult when you outgrow the natural selfishness of your childhood and youth—when you realize that life is no longer about charting your own course, but about helping others, whether it’s by raising children, mentoring colleagues, or creating something new and useful for the world.”

Hourglass
There’s a natural evolution as the number of days ahead become fewer than the number behind. No matter how accomplished or not, rich or poor, lucky in love or lonely any of us is, it seems most of us turn our attention to legacy. Esfahani gives what is to my mind a terrible example (that I’m pretty sure I’ve come across before) of a self-absorbed Harvard Business graduate-entrepreneur named Anthony Tjan who discovers, when he runs into the brick wall of the dot.com bust in 2000, that the world just might not be only about him. His dreams shattered, “he felt humiliated and demoralized.” Poor baby. His rebirth is to understand that true success requires he use his immense innate talents and entitlement “in the service of a higher calling” – so he goes into investment banking and funds a nail salon. To simultaneously solve the problem of underpaid manicurists and unhygienic customer experience. I’m all for “pursuing wholeness” but WTF.

wtf

Okay, that’s pretty cynical. By way of explanation, I should note that I’ve been involved in pharmaceuticals and medical devices my whole career and I tend to overweight service to humanity when I look at the value of entrepreneurial initiatives. But really…the guy is probably in his mid-to-late thirties and the whole thing sounds just a bit too neatly wrapped up in the same self-absorbed ball. He’s hardly Gandhi. (Who was also probably, at least in part motivated by his own need for gratification.)

Talking in his sleep
“Stasis is deadly”

I talk in my sleep, pretty regularly by my wife’s report, and she is endlessly amused (ask her) about the night I proclaimed that “stasis is deadly.” In Erikson’s model, he defines stagnation – which I suppose is what my sleeping mind thought of as stasis – as “the gnawing sense that your life is meaningless because you are useless and unneeded.” This isn’t a phenomenon of age. We all need affirmation, and we all need something to do that makes us feel productive. I don’t believe that diminishes over time, and I think that’s the reason change is such a struggle. For much of my life I was very much a change junkie; if things weren’t happening, if I weren’t causing them to happen, I was somewhat adrift. It’s an odd sensation to not feel that so strongly anymore, but I suspect it’s a healthier state of being.

A healthier state of being

I have evidence. After I sold my company in the early 2000’s, I could have retired but experienced a profound need for what Erikson described as “a sort of confirmation of my usefulness.” (I see the same thing in retired executives and other entrepreneurs who have sold their companies – it’s partly needing continued intellectual stimulation but I think it has more to do with the obnoxious voice in our heads that continually calculates our value. Erikson says it’s the same for someone who is involuntarily unemployed, and feels a sense of uselessness and despair, compounded by the inability to provide for the people we care about. His conclusion is profound: unemployment, voluntary or involuntary, isn’t just about economics, but an existential issue. “When people don’t feel they have something worthwhile to do, they flounder.”

Hamlet

Stuff doesn’t fill the void. And for me, based on experience of the last 8 or 10 years, neither does filling the time. I got into education after I sold my company because I love the classroom, I like providing value to other people, and it gave me a constant impetus to get things done. Being effective in class requires preparation, and puts you under healthy deadline pressure. That it also elevates the urgent over the important probably doesn’t differentiate it from any other occupation.

But for me, the target of my efforts needs to be solid, and the results fruitful. Frankly, there are a whole lot of students in college who don’t belong there, who are filling the schools’ seats and coffers with their own version of “I don’t have anything better to do” or “I can continue to play for another 4 years before life gets real.”

A lot of them aren’t much interested in learning, they find challenging work a pain in the butt, and they’re more likely to spend time negotiating their grade at the end of the term than earning it during the semester. Teaching has been both satisfying and aggravating, and I had  reached the conclusion after a particularly awful slew of papers last term that teaching wasn’t filling my needs.  Thankfully, I found a university recently that seems to be bucking the trend, and the days I’m there are graced by interaction with courteous, engaged and overall nice millennials.

Of course, there’s always material stuff. Selling a company gives you the capability to acquire way more of it than you could ever possibly need, and there’s a certain pleasure in researching, acquiring and playing with all sorts of adult toys (no, I don’t mean that kind though they certainly could qualify). But at the end of the day I find the chase more interesting than the owning, and it’s consequently pretty transient.

To the lighthouse

I’ve always looked toward the lighthouse rather than the water immediately in front of me as my way to the next shore. It’s a pretty universal observation but no less unique for that in the personal experiencing: the thing that fills my horizon these days is the pleasure of seeing the dent I’ve made in the world: my kids, my wife, people whose careers I’ve influenced, the prospect of grandchildren…

People around me don’t understand when I bitch about feeling unfulfilled in accomplishments. What they don’t understand is that it’s not about what you‘ve already done, but about having something useful to look forward to. That’s going to be a different set of activities and aspirations for each of us. Some of it is scaffolding, part of it is keeping the mind and joints moving, and some of it is no doubt approbation. But the secret, I think, to being relevant to ourselves is to be relevant to the people in our lives who really matter.  And that’s for the long haul…

 

Upside Down and Inside Out

Wouldn’t it be validation that we really have evolved as a species if we took responsibility for our own causal actions?

I’m thinking today about things that cause other things to happen, vs. things that are a symptom of other things happening. It seems like a pretty basic distinction, but it seems to be one that’s beyond the grasp these days of everyone from students to “high-level” policy-makers. In the business classroom, it’s the difference between a poor strategy or execution, such as a decision to use lower quality materials (the cause) which leads to reduced product reliability, more consumer complaints and ultimately fewer purchases – and the decline in sales itself (the symptom). In public policy (yes, I know I shouldn’t go here but I’m having flashbacks of “duck and cover” this week) it’s the difference between deciding to use impulsive and bellicose language (the cause) that prompts an escalation in geopolitical tensions – and the inability a few weeks from now to find Guam on a satellite image of the Pacific Ocean (the symptom).

guamig3.png

I think we as a society used to know this stuff and approach things in a more informed and sober fashion. If you have a problem with your spouse or kids, it’s probably not because they are intrinsically problematic people, but because you have stopped communicating effectively. It you have a problem with your job, it’s probably not because it’s intrinsically a place no one can work, but because it’s a bad fit with your temperament and interests. If you have a problem with the leader of the free world it’s probably not because democracy is a bad idea but because the job is beyond someone with the depth and worldview of a toddler. You might try to solve the first problem with communication or counseling rather than divorce or disinheriting; the second one by figuring out what kind of environment fits you better rather than blackmailing your boss into treating you better; and the third one by invoking Article 25 rather than trying to retrofit the job.

blindspot2I don’t know for sure, but people’s behavior suggests a loss of the ability to distinguish cause and effect. It’s like the guy who swerves out of his lane on the highway and complains about the driver he sideswiped having been in his blind spot. I came across an article some weeks ago that seems to amplify this idea of a blind spot.

“As you travel this summer you may be required to remove your Kindle, paperback book, food and any tech item larger than a cellphone from your carry-on bag….The TSA pilot program is to address an increase in passengers cramming more and more stuff into their carry-on bags…The tight packing makes it harder for screeners to properly inspect bags using the X-ray machine and has increased the number of bags sent on for an additional manual inspection.”

Deconstruct this for a minute. What’s the problem? Well, the immediate one is that bad people seem to have come up with a new way to get bombs into laptops. The secondary one is that carry-on bags are packed too tightly to detect the bombs using traditional airport screening devices. The obvious and painfully superficial “solution” devised by TSA? Coerce people into packing less in their carry-on bags by making the trip through airport security even more miserable than it already is.

tsa-scanner-1.jpg

What this completely fails to recognize is what’s causing the problem. This isn’t an issue of ability to detect per se but of ability to detect given overstuffed bags. Why are the bags overstuffed? Because airlines make more money from checked bag charges than they do from selling seats. So everyone either under-packs for their needs or stuffs everything they can into a carry-on. Is the solution to this really to further disenfranchise travelers from their belongings by shaming them in the TSA screening line (I mean even further than having to undress and be intimately patted down by a stranger.)

sardines

If you’re reading this you’re probably old enough to remember the halcyon days of being treated like something other than a canned anchovy when you travel. When airline employees were rewarded for treating passengers well, instead of herding them like cattle (and dragging the occasional errant one off the airplane). How’s this for cause and effect: if you beat up your employees in the name of efficiency, they’ll take it out on your customers in the name of catharsis. If you force people to protect their economic interests by jamming everything they own into a carry-on, they’ll jam everything they own into a carry-on. If you deregulate to the point of allowing companies to act like jerks in the service of their shareholder dividends and stock price, they will act accordingly.

The financial metrics are of course good. Once-struggling industries like the airlines have consolidated into a domestic oligopoly and are flush with cash. The market is good. Passenger volume is at an all-time high…

And while travel destinations are still as wonderful as ever, unless you have a private plane or the resources for first-class service getting there, travel has become something to be endured. We’ve displaced civility, which it seems to me is a pretty important societal glue, with economic efficiency – which produces stupid group think.

I read something else yesterday, about the way bodies were recovered following the sinking of the Titanic. (I should note that I haven’t independently verified this, but it’s not an unlikely picture of events.) Understandably overwhelmed and distressed, the crew on the rescue and recovery ships were instructed to handle things based on commonly held and generally accepted rules of class hierarchy. They’d register the manner of dress and go through the pockets of the victims and if there was evidence of higher social class, they would be recovered. If they seemed to be steerage, they were chucked back into the sea.

mrs-_charlotte_collyer_1915-e1502542704546.jpg

“Passengers chances of surviving the sinking of the S.S. Titanic were related to their sex and their social class: females were more likely to survive than males, and the chances of survival declined with social class as measured by the class in which the passenger travelled. The probable reasons for these differences in rates of survival are discussed as are the reasons accepted by the Mersey Committee of Inquiry into the sinking.”

It has always been the case that older generations have been criticized by younger ones for a rose-colored and objectively inaccurate memory of how things were. I think there’s always been a human tendency to emphasize expediency, but it’s often enough tempered with essential decency that we can characterize the worst offenders as outside the range of acceptable civility. The Titanic story is evidence of changing attitudes toward what is acceptable, but the extraordinary efforts of rescuers over a hundred years ago is also evidence of our better nature.

The TSA’s new policy is the opposite. I know it’s a rhetorical question and the answer is “probably not,” but wouldn’t it be validation that we really have evolved as a species if we took responsibility for our own causal actions, and stopped putting the burden on the victims?

74514-John-F-Kennedy-Quote-Civility-is-not-a-sign-of-weakness

Intensity

Age Spots is a forum for anything and everything that details and reflects change. It’s dedicated to those of us in the second half, not the first.

Ah, the joys of waking up from a great dream about people you’ve loved, or things you’ve achieved … and feeling every joint you didn’t even know you had.

There’s nothing wrong per se with feeling a bit wistful about the past. It’s all true, we’re 60- or 70- or 80- something, and it’s not the same thing as being 20 or 30 or 40. But here’s the thing. What if, instead of bemoaning what’s in the past – interests, people, experiences we can’t replicate anymore – we spent more time focusing on intensity of the moment.

I’m not just talking about smelling the roses. I mean an alternative, a substitute if you will, for the mission that once drove us. Because that mission, however exhilarating, even fulfilling from a distance, cost us in proximity. Stress, interpersonal tension, willful or blithe inattention to people we could have been more in the moment with. They are the collateral damage of being driven.

I’m a recovering Type A and I know. Like the time I found myself completing a client project at 2 in the morning while my mother was in the last week of her life. Stupid. And for reasons better explained by social psychologists and evolutionary biologists, somehow unavoidable mistakes we all sometimes make.

Kayaking2

I’m hardly stretched out on the gurney at this point in my life, but unmistakably diminishing capacities are real. (I went kayaking yesterday and it hurts this morning.)  I find myself hating aging. But the worst is not the change in body or muscle tone or speed of cognition. No, the hardest thing about this aging stuff is the loss of interest in some things that used to be interesting. It’s not that I don’t want to ski anymore, or that I rationalize it by saying my knees don’t like moguls, it’s that I can’t seem to get up the head of steam to go out and do it.

I was talking to my oldest friend about this. He’s struggled with change, and through losses I’ve been fortunate to avoid. But he’s found the only prescription I’ve heard that’s actually worth anything. I always chased something, and I’m persistent and bullheaded enough that I almost always achieved my goals. So not having something to aim for is absolute hell for me. But what if, as my friend suggested, I change the depth of field from that longer-range ambition (because really, the range has ineluctably shortened to maybe a couple of decades) to a very short focal point of here and now?

Again, I’m not talking about those damned roses, what I mean is concentrating the focus from the lighthouse in the distance to what I’m doing right now, today, this minute. You can’t force yourself to be happy, but what’s always made me happiest is doing something meaningful and with satisfying immediacy. The shift in thinking is it doesn’t have to be meaningful in anybody else’s mind field, just in mine. I don’t know whether I can successfully do this, but it’s sure worth a try.

So thanks to that conversation late last year, I finally sat down and executed on this idea I’ve been kicking around for months now. Age Spots.

Age Spots is a forum for anything and everything that details and reflects change. It’s dedicated to those of us in the second half, not the first. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I don’t think this is a space for 30-somethings to reflect on their transition from 20-somethings.

I’ll write a blog post, probably not daily but I hope a few days a week, and you’ll be able to post your own experience, emotions, perspectives – either in response to what I or someone else has written, or just as a personal reflection. I want this to be affirming, but I’m not going to set any rules other than civility and honest reflection. So if you’re having a bad day and just need to vent, well that’s obviously part of it too.

At the end of the day, I’m hoping that for you and for me, the opportunity to express ourselves, to those of us in the same stage of the journey, could provide just the intensity that defines and lifts us.

Scott@agespots

If you have to ask…

This blog is going to be about the day-to-day experience of the world through older eyes.  The perspective will be from this later phase of life, and the objective will be to enhance the sense of purpose that is fundamental to appreciating who we are at any stage.

I thought for a while about what to call this blog … until Age Spots popped into my head, and seemed the perfect holistic expression of what I’ll be talking about on this site.  If you’re of a certain age, I don’t need to explain.  If you’re not, you might find the blog useful or amusing in an “old people say the funniest things” kind of way.

Sunset (just as inspiring as sunrise)

Getting back to what this is all about.  I’ve reached that point in my life where the balance of prospective to retrospective has pretty clearly shifted to the latter.  So have a lot of my friends and business colleagues.  We talk about all the stuff we’ve always talked about, but especially about what it means to find ourselves here.

We still listen to rock music, but our idols are getting scratchy of voice, crabby, and too frequently “moving on” – for good.  Many of us still work, at least part time, but careers seem less a central focus and certainly don’t involve the same amount of angst or carry the same ambitions they once did.  We strive to remain vital and relevant, but face the reality that we rejected as the baby boomer generation that yes, Virginia, moving body parts do start to get just a bit creaky.

Most of all, we seem to struggle with the hurdle of remaining relevant in a youth-centered world that we made that way.  I once lived in the university town that is now my daughter’s home, and loved it for the fact that everyone in town seemed to be under 30.  While the place has grown threefold or more over the years, that essential characteristic remains.  Except that when I visit now, the place can make me feel like an alien.  We visited a very hip cocktail lounge last time I was there, and the bartender rolled his eyes and couldn’t accommodate my “exotic” drink order – a bloody mary.  Seriously.

So this blog is going to be about the day-to-day experience of the world through older eyes.  I will write my thoughts, usually in response to something in the news, or an article that caught my attention, or something intriguing from the fields of art, science or literature.  The perspective will be from this later phase of life, and the objective will be to enhance the sense of purpose that is fundamental to appreciating who we are at any stage.

I invite and encourage your thoughts, and will facilitate the conversation by maintaining the dialogue in subsequent posts.  In the immortal words of that great sage Timothy Leary, thanks for tuning in.

~Scott@agespots