On Getting Old(er)

I’m 41 years old today and I never expected to live this long. Although I’ve spent more time in hospitals than I’d have liked, my lifespan expectations were not born from a specific reason. I simply recall as a teenager imagining the totality of my life and somehow those imaginations never got far past 30. There just didn’t seem anything beyond that point as far as I could tell. My horizon ended there and now to reach beyond it is a pleasant surprise.

I don’t know why but as I’ve entered middle age I’m filled with giddiness. This all seems like a bonus round. I have my health and some of my sanity left. I say some, as I find most of adult life comically absurd. Voltaire wrote that “God is a comedian playing to an audience afraid to laugh” and I don’t seem to have much fear in that regard. Here in the first world we are so lost in distraction and pretense that taking most of what goes on at face value is something I’ve long shed from my experience of life.

7 months ago I tore my achilles tendon, but yesterday, after months of physical therapy, I was able to play basketball again for the first time. It’s a miracle of modern medicine I can walk without a cane, but to play is magical. And it’s magic purely for me. No one on the court knew my story. Kids half my age just saw me smiling and had no idea why. And I find myself seeking others who have similar smiles, a smile they don’t need to explain, a smile unhinged from the weather, or a job, or other trivia, a smile from somewhere deep inside that reflects their appreciation for the amazingness of ordinary things. Being alive, compared to the alternative, makes everything extraordinary.

And having lived beneath my means, provided I don’t do anything impressively stupid, I should be able to spend the better part of my remaining years doing what I’ve been doing for the last ten: living the life of a writer. I’ve made many sacrifices to get here, but it has held the deepest meaning for me to try and fill that shelf. I’m doing everything I can to make this dream last as long as I do. And I hope you’ll continue to help that dream simply by reading and following along.

Many people my age or older half-joke about wishing to be younger. Wishing to be young is a coward’s wish. People who wish to be younger would squander that miracle. They’re wasting the time they have now pretending they’d make better use of a different now. My soul fades in these conversations, as the souls of these people are already dead. They’ve buried their dreams under so many copouts they can’t tell the difference. I used to make the arguments, but I’ve learned they don’t want to hear them. They prefer the certainty of a fantasy, to the uncertainty of living fully in the present. The same cowardice that failed them the first time around would only fail them again if they had a second chance. And as I age I wonder: how am I still a coward? What would I do if I had the courage? Getting older makes me more courageous as I have far less to lose. Courage is far scarcer and more important than youth, and the upside is you can always grow more courageous, at any time, at any age.

America has a youth obsessed culture, but I’m slowly taking arms against it. The longer I’m alive the further I’ll be on creakier end of the bell curve of age, and I better get used to it. I’ve learned to be comfortable as the oldest person at the table now. I can learn as much from younger people as they can from someone older. I’m fascinated by young adults, old enough to be on their own but young enough to passionately chase their sky high ambitions.

I don’t envy their age, as they have so much to learn about what they want from life, but I’m drawn to their openness to the present. They  make big bets on life, bets people my age are terrified of making, and maybe always were. But I have many big bets I still want to make. We are social creatures and behave like those we choose to be around, and I’m thinking I don’t want to act my age. I don’t want to hang out with my ‘peer’ group. The peers of my soul are not the peers of my generation. I find my mentality, despite my age, is far younger than my body and I hope it stays that way forever.

34 Responses to “On Getting Old(er)”

  1. Dave Baldwin

    “We are social creatures and behave like those we choose to be around, and I’m thinking I don’t want to act my age. I don’t want to hang out with my ‘peer’ group. The peers of my soul are not the peers of my generation. I find my mentality, despite my age, is far younger than my body and I hope it stays that way forever.”

    I shared that attitude for a long time and it worked well for me. But alas, society prefers its prejudices. At a certain point, as happened to me, the institutions with which we interact, or more precisely the people within them, give more credence to the calendar than to one’s youthful attitude or ability.

    I’m nearly 68 now and just as vital as I ever was. But when I turned 65 my company made the daily routine so difficult that leaving was my only practical choice. They didn’t tell me it was time to leave, but that was unmistakably the message in their behavior.

    My “retirement” has been about finding ways to stay engaged and relevant in the face of society’s pressures to just go away. To say our culture is “youth oriented” is a huge understatement, especially for those of us who made our careers in technology fields.

    1. Scott

      I don’t buy these stats – not entirely. I don’t all older people to achieve, I just need to do it myself, which makes the general statistics of little use. They can’t prove how much of the factors are biological vs. psychological, or even social. So I say fooey.

      1. Kerry

        As a fellow 41 year old who learnt a second language in his mid-30s, I suggest that the older you get, the better you should be at learning and discovery, simply because you have more ‘data’ to draw connections with.

        I think the age-bias has more to do with attitudes to risk changing as people take on more ‘responsibilities’, like mortgages and children, with age. I took the past two years out from fulltime employment – but I doubt many of my peers in that job would have been able to make that leap, simply because of their commitments to a certain lifestyle (though I know of one who did – he had just paid off his mortgage and his eldest had finished high school).

  2. Yolanthe Smit

    Hi Scott,
    Happy Birthday. Finally Spring has arrived, at least here in The Netherlands. Rebirth! I hope you have a wonderful day.

    It is always slight comical to me when people in their forties complain about getting old. I tell them ‘Okay buddy, wait till you’re 69! Enjoy your forties, your at the peak of your life’. It is not all down hill from there, only if you think so. Okay, maybe your sexual capital is spent, hopefully you spent it well, but capital gains on the growth of wisdom and richness of a different kind are there for the taking.
    If you stay alive, engaged, if you allow yourself to feel the pain and the pleasure as they move through you.

    I want to tell you that the best times in my life were in my forties, when I finally got a handle on my self. My late fifties and early sixties were hellish because of a transcontinental move that threw me completely off base. From 65 on up I experience a whole new
    dimension in my existence. Not that I don’t have moments of doubt & despair, but on the whole I am really enjoying myself, not in the least because I have found lots of solace in being free from the need to please, the need to be liked and trying to conform to other people’s expectations (and my own misguided ones).

    It does take energy and courage. You have to work at remaining resilient, inventive and defining who you are. (not in a Red Hat Society kind of way)
    You have take inventory of your skills, your experience and what you have to offer people younger than you.
    Because at this stage of life, provided you never gave up self reflection and being brutally honest with yourself, you have so much to share but you have to go out and let people know you exist and you are fun and interesting.
    You have to keep up with technology, with art, music and with TED ;-) You can’t hide behind being ‘too old’ to this and that.
    So Scott, look ahead and every once in a while think about the person you want to be when your are 50, 60, 70 and beyond.
    Check out Beatrice Wood. She is and continues to be my inspiration and role model. She lived to the grand old age of 105!

    1. Scott

      It’s more than slightly comical – it’s ridiculous. And I know. I feel similarly when a friend who’s 25 genuinely says to me ‘how did I get so old’ and I’m thinking, just wait. I fully acknowledge many feel the same way about this post. Thanks for the comment to ensure I don’t forget.

  3. Len

    Happy birthday Scott! I’m 44 today and thinking the same thoughts about ‘middle age’. Will lift a pint here in London for you as well.

    Thanks for making the choice to become a writer. It has made an impact on how I look at work and on life in general.

    Cheers, Len

  4. Renuka

    Happy birthday, old boy!

  5. Andrew Wellmeyer

    Happy Birthday, Scott.

    At 23, I am feeling the burden of the “big bets on life”. I’ve always laughed politely at those half-hearted jokes from the middle aged men you speak of, maybe that’s what driving me to make the best decisions I can now.

    It’s encouraging to hear someone say how much the future holds, because I can’t see this being the best time of my life, only the most pivotal, possibly.

    1. Scott

      The thing I’ve learned about big bets is you only get better at making them by making more of them (save a few things like having children, marriages, etc. where conservation might be best). Careers, places to live, projects, are all infinitely malleable, and you’ll get better at your handiwork as you go. At 23 I’d so bet big: the sooner you start learning about big bets, the better you’ll be at making them when you reach my age (or the age of some of these other wonderful commenters).

      1. Scott

        Or to put it another way: it’s possible to make big bets on small things. You can start a company (a big bet) for little money. You can make a movie (big bet) with your phone camera. You can be very ambitious without much capital or commitment at stake. But if you make those bets sincerely and dig in all the way you’ll learn how to make the next bet even better.

  6. Cissy

    Amen Scott! I’m twenty-plus years out from breast cancer diagnosis and treatment at age 30. When I blew out my left shoulder doing a fancy yoga pose a few months before turning 50 last year, I reminded myself that dead people don’t have the privilege of injuring themselves! Maybe morbid, but certainly puts the fifteen months I’ve spent in surgery and rehab in perspective.

    My work as a psychotherapist specializing in eating and body problems also provides a great deal of perspective on aging and other socially defined “problems” of the body. I’m grateful to have lived long enough to earn my wrinkles and sagging skin.

    Will definitely link to this post to share your wisdom with others. Thanks.

  7. Esteban

    Very good post! Not much to add, apart from the fact that I don’t think that happens only in the US :-)

  8. Simon

    Happy birthday, Scott.

    Talking about the oldest guy in the room, I am 55. Just as an example, a few weeks ago when I needed to, I learned over a weekend how to be dangerous enough with Visual Studio C#. In the professional environment (design and innovation) I repeatedly find myself beating just about anyone around me (all are MUCH younger than me) in creativity, innovation, fast learning, and staying open minded. As a matter of fact I find many young people too conservative in many ways, just listen to the whiny music for god sake as compared to the Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple energy ;-) I even find myself working harder, longer, in most environments. Often I get out at the end of the day into an empty parking lot. Anyway… this is not because I am a genius (I am not!), but only because I love what I do and I continuously study, explore, learn, listen, etc. Hard work that I do with great joy. Just to add, I even get to go to the gym 6 times a week and would not be embarrassed on any machine there. So that I myself don’t sound arrogant, I can tell you that the young people I encounter are often just as smart but definitely more knowledgeable than I was when I was their age.

    Having said that, I must admit it is a bit depressing to look at websites of consultancies and see all the young faces there, read their backgrounds and their titles. 3 years out of school and one is already a UX, design, world-problems-solutions strategist. It is depressing because I have dealt with many of them, and not at any fault of their own, they are terribly under qualified. The titles inflation and not having on the Team page more experienced (and older) faces is a reflection of economics of the creative industries and to a large extent of a Western culture. When I do consulting in the Far East, the younger professionals are (still) eager to learn from me, they take notes, and they are respectful of experience. In the US when I get into a room with all the young strategists, I get a look of what the F is this old guy doing here. I can’t tell you how many times my opinion was dismissed by a cocky young ‘designer’ only to find later that I was terribly correct.

    I can tell you, and I tried until about 6-7 years ago, I cannot get a job in any of these consultancies or companies. Overqualified is the excuse, too old is the real reason.

    Is this good or bad? In the grand scheme of things I don’t know. What I do know is that many companies are missing out because of that. I also believe that young professionals are missing out by becoming too arrogant too soon and in the process they become too closed minded too early and stop learning. A young designer at the last IxDA said something like (paraphrased) “It is scary that people with my experience claim to be able to solve the world’s problems. I want experienced people to do that. People with my experience need to still learn and gain experience.”

  9. Chris

    ” …They prefer the certainty of a fantasy, to the uncertainty of living fully in the present. …”

    Wow. What a sentence. So many truths wrapped in 16 words.

  10. Sean Crawford

    My, here’s a topic we can all comment on.

    Scott, I won’t comment on your post directly.

    As a reminder to not procrastinate on life I have been calling myself middle-aged ever since age 35, since the Bible says we live to be three score and ten. And that was a score of years ago.

    It seems to me… if the majority proceed to age, then being independent of the majority is, queerly, to be “young.” For myself, I’m not aged-down by striving to be like “I should” or “like the Joneses,” or “other-directed.”

    Scott, the majority don’t want to “do philosophy” as you do, and most (if not for the lemming status of university) would have gone to a computer job school rather than keep plugging away at abstract higher education as you did. (I did too)

    I think your fans, by and large, are also de-coupled from society’s “shut down your CPU” timeline which means one of the services you are providing to the world is your website.

    For myself, I still wear T-shirts, while relating to young and old as equals. Someone said I’m timeless, and that’s probably right…. I too am giddy, for various reasons, including following the advice in that book you reviewed, The War of Art: I do my art everyday, and my life is straight and meaningful thereby.
    Also, I too live below my means, largely for my art, and I have a mortgage paid off on (almost) the smallest “ship’s cabin” in Calgary.

    Recently I was acting like a crotchety old man, but it was acting—This was my way of kindly reassuring a young man not to feel personally attacked.

    1. Linda Watson

      Sean, thanks for your excellent response to Scott’s inspiring post. At fifty seven, I feel much younger than folks locked into a single career path, afraid to surprise themselves and others. On the other hand, I feel the same general “excited-adult” age as those who work passionately on a cause, from eighteen to ninety. Scott, please think about hanging out with those who are not just chronologically younger but who have a reason for being here, whether it’s to save the world or to explore its wonder. Happy birthday!

  11. Ross Hudgens

    Powerful post, Scott. Not much to say but thank you. I am 27, and each post like this is an important one. That is, each post that actually makes us stop and think.

  12. liz

    the souls of these people are already dead…
    another harsh generalization and loony statement you have made

    1. Scott

      If I can’t be harsh and loony as I get old I don’t see the point.

  13. Angela

    Glad to hear that you’re back up and running, Scott. An important and introspective post about a topic that many of us don’t consciously dwell upon every day, especially when we have our health and often take it for granted until we get sick or injured.

    I recently ran across a quote from William Feather that kind of resonates with what you’re saying: “One of the many things nobody ever tells you about middle age is that it’s such a nice change from being young.” While I agree with him about how I feel more comfortable in my own skin as I’ve gotten older (or maybe I’m less insecure and care less about what people think about me as I’ve aged,) I’m still torn and sad to find a generation gap between myself and younger folks too. But I often find that this gap is a mindset, and like you said, can be overcome with socializing with “peers of our soul,” and not necessarily our biological peers.

    Happy Birthday!

  14. Srinivas Yelijala

    Hey Scott,

    Belated Wishes For Ya B’day.

    God Bless!

  15. Mike Hill

    Scott, Happy belated birthday!

    Age is nothing. I turned 40 last June, welcomed the birth of my son on October 25th, then three days later ran the Marine Corps Marathon.

    Why? Because I wanted to challenge myself to do something I had never done before, and remind myself that EVERYTHING is attainable.

    I look forward to your next book, and all your endeavors and adventures.

  16. Sean Crawford

    Harsh and looney? (good comeback, by the way) That’s my new word for crotchety.

  17. Mike Nitabach

    Get offa my lawn!

  18. Jack Davis

    I would change the title of this blog from “On Getting Old” to “On Getting Older”. We’re all getting “older” but you don’t have to become “old”.

  19. Pedro Custódio

    Happy Birthday Scott and thank you for the continuous stream of great ideas and “smiles”. I found particularly interesting your view on that “special” smile, it is indeed, something that only we feel and see, that others around us hardly and thankfully might understand, a blessing but also a clear notion of our precious our time is!

    Best wishes for the next 41 ;)

  20. Dana Chisnell

    Can’t wait for your post when you turn 51. Perspective is an amazing thing.



Leave a Reply

* Required