UnAwesome Advice from the Very, Very Young: Musings from the Very Very Old (or at least getting there)
This morning as I was getting ready to head downstairs to rejoin a conference where I speak every year, I clicked on the following https://dariusforoux.com/learning-from-mistakes/.
I was doing just fine- sort of- until I got to this: When you’re young, you think you have an endless sea of time. You can do anything you want. And then you blink, and you’re celebrating your thirtieth birthday.
Call me ridiculous, call me an old crank, but I am up to HERE with uber-wise advice from people who can still remember the entirety of what has happened in their lives. In other words, at thirty, you are still VERY YOUNG.
To this my (much younger) BF snorted, “ I have BELTS that are thirty years old.” Lotta folks I know can’t even buckle a belt that’s three decades old, but I digress.
This kid of thirty still faces an endless sea of time. Those of my vintage can tick off the potential decades available to us on the ( probably arthritic) fingers of one hand.
It strikes me as a bit ludicrous- and I see it in so many I-AM-SO-WISE-NOW-THAT-I’M-NO-LONGER-IN-MY-TWENTIES articles- that anyone would have the hubris to believe that entry into one’s ancient, oh my god ANCIENT thirties, that they have suddenly acquired the Wisdom of the Sages, the Insight of the Ages.
On one hand, it’s very true that we are pummeled with messages about youth, the importance of being, staying, looking young.
On the other, and here I agree with this very young man, it is indeed fleeting. One day I woke up and by god I was 65. Let’s talk about fleeting, folks. Please. Let’s. I no longer even remember my forties (look, that’s a statement about how uneventful, boring and unproductive that decade was. I’ve got a lot to make up for here).
One of my most revered mentors and friends, a professional international speaker, is now in her mid-seventies. She is still killing it with books and brand new business ventures.
Her seventies. Dr. Janelle Barlow never stops. Here’s her latest (https://www.alloutperform.com/) She made a comment to me not long ago that sticks in my craw to this day because of its naked truth. The essence of it was how terrific it is to have all these great new ideas (to which I would add a life time of perspectives and gained wisdom) and realize you may run out of time to implement them.
In other words, right about the time we really have gained the gravitas to produce immensely important and influential work, to which some of us (not Dr. Barlow, here my hand is up) comes late in life, we are, quite simply, running out of sand. Janelle’s been producing influential work for many, many decades. These days, just more so. Me, hell. I’m just getting started.
In other words right about the time I get ready to holler EUREKA! I’m likely to keel over. Sigh.
When she and I spoke recently she was getting ready to host a group of fellow authors and contributors at her Albuquerque house. New book on the way. Frankly, I can’t wait to read it. Janelle really, truly knows her stuff and how to get the best out of other folks. That didn’t happen overnight. She is fully in her Mastery.
But here’s the icing on the cake: Janelle remains vibrant, energetic, and beautiful. People guess her age two decades younger. There are lots of reasons for that, including a careful diet, exercise, and a very clear purpose in life. When you get to this point, you have something to say about what tends to work and what doesn’t down the long haul. Those are three- individually adapted to each of us- that tend to stand the test of time for most of us.
A fitness coach in her late 50s, penned on Friday that she nearly choked on her chocolate milk at a YouTube video featuring a makeup artist mourning her arrival at an ancient thirty. All of her still-twenty-something buds leapt on line to reassure her that she certainly didn’t LOOK thirty.
WILL YOU KINDLY GET OVER YOURSELF ALREADY.
Enough with this incessant, childish whining about being old when you have yet to acquire laugh lines, crow’s feet or even your first grey pube, in most cases. This holy terror of turning thirty is a platinum guarantee that the fear of aging could cripple you for life. Not only that but your unholy fascination with your physical self could undermine your ability to acquire the very experiences which will allow to develop the knowledge, wisdom and perspectives that will make you worth reading, learning from, listening to.
You rob yourself of your life, while you obsess about aging.
How would I know? I have by god done it. Made that monumentally stupid mistake. Got the road rash, the t-shirt, the leggings and the brand on my right butt cheek.
While many of us are searching for the neighborhood kids- bear with me here- to help us navigate social media (which emphasizes that anyone of any age can be a mentor), we also have to enjoy a hearty chuckle very time some great sage of three whole long decades pontificates about life. Especially, please, when two of those decades involve considerable drooling and vomiting, alternatively on your parent’s shoulders and after having had too many beers.
These aren’t bad things in and of themselves. However they hardly qualify you (or me at the same age, minus the beers) to pontificate about life. What you’ve learned during your extensive time on the planet. Other than, perhaps, to remember to strategically place an empty wastebasket near the couch where you plan to get wasted.
Advice is cheap on the Internet. Real-life advice, borne of damned hard work, years, failures and hard-won perspectives, well, that’s a whole other ball game.
The problem with the easy accessibility of advice on the Internet is that it is absolutely meaningless until you have tested it. Failed at it, repeatedly. Tested it again, failed, rinse, repeat. Succeeded once in a while.
Internet advice is just data. Experience is proof.
This morning I sat with a lovely Peruvian woman who has multiple degrees in Engineering, BioSciences and the like. A PhD of considerable brilliance and presence. She’s barely thirty, if that. We were discussing Daniela’s home country, and my frequent travels there.
Six hours outside Iquitos, deep in the Amazon, is the Tahuayo Lodge. In the 1980s a young biologist by the name of Dr. Paul Beaver began the slow, tortuous process of opening the Peruvian Amazon to white exploration. He eventually became the world’s top expert on the Amazon jungle.
One day I sat in his Tampa house, where he spends part of the year with his Peruvian wife Dolly. When I asked him about his expertise, Beaver dipped his grey head shyly, smiled, and said, “I know nothing. I know absolutely nothing about the Amazon.”
Here was the world’s supreme expert on the Amazon, claiming that he knew “nothing.” After many decades of study, hundreds of excursions, study.
He’s right. He doesn’t. Nor do any of the rest of us, even those like Daniela, my PhD friend from Peru, with her multiple degrees.
The older we get, the more we learn, the less we realize we know, will ever know, will ever master. What is true is that the geography that we actually own, what tiny fraction of knowledge that we actually do master, is meaningless in face of what there is to learn. Know. Understand.
When I was in my exuberant twenties, I once said to a friend that “I understood how the Universe works.” I actually meant it. His peals of laughter- which ring in my ears to this day- cut me to the quick. I was sincere. So was his laughter. I am just as exuberant at 65. The difference today is that I’d have laughed just as hard, or harder, at such breathtaking naivete.
On top of that- and ask any researcher- what we think we know is constantly changing. We used to think animals didn’t feel pain. People operated on dogs without anesthesia for example. In the 1880s, doctors operated on slaves without anesthesia because of the same belief (https://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-modern-gynecology-performed-shocking-experiments-on-slaves) Today this is utterly incomprehensible. Today we think man is the pinnacle of Creation (count me out of that body of believers, I beg to differ). My guess is that further studies of animals like whales and porpoises will upend that particular conceit. That is if we in our spectacular stupidity haven’t killed them all off by the time we begin to realize what we have. Um…had.
Research and inquiry constantly blast the foundations of our embedded ignorance in every single field, especially medicine and science. What we know and think we understand about the Universe, the nature of life, and how creatures communicate.
We are complete naifs in the face of the Great Unknown.
Daniela was quick to acknowledge this. That’s very rare among people her age, but then she’s a researcher. The willingness to embrace our limitations, which are endless, is the beginning of real wisdom. That ensures that we begin each day with cup that’s at least half empty, which means we can receive more.
Foroux’s article is proof that anyone at any age can access on the Internet. All you gotta do is Google. That doesn’t mean this young man hasn’t acquired a bit of perspective by the Grand Old Age of Thirty. Doesn’t mean he’s not smart or capable. He’s just inexperienced at Life. His sum of experiences at this age just don’t amount to much.
Seeing something doesn’t fundamentally change our behavior. He isn’t necessarily a practitioner yet. That’s what our middle decades are for. Building consistency, our careers, creativity, families, learning to develop a wicked sense of humor about our fallibilities, mistakes, shortcomings. The repeated appearance of the same stupid issues we thought we left behind our twenties.
There’s a very good reason they’re called Life Lessons. They are with us for life. Those lessons are ours and ours alone, unique to our nature and our circumstances.
Here’s the difference between seeing something (a negative pattern, a bad habit, or any of the like) and becoming a practitioner of those lessons: years and years and years of putting them into practice. Failing, failing miserably, failing repeatedly, realizing that you’re doing the same damned stupid things that you were doing five years ago, ten years ago, thirty years ago. The lessons are intractable, they return to remind us of how little progress we’ve actually made. This is our human condition.
Ask any of us women about the type of men we attract. Then ask us how many times we’ve done the Flat Forehead slap and shrieked (to anyone who will listen) WHEN WILL I EVER LEARN???
Yet this is what it looks like when it’s working.
On one monumental night in what is today the city of Lower Hutt, New Zealand, in 1984, I lay awake for the entire night. At the ripe, ancient old age of thirty, I began to see the patterns in my life that had led to mistakes, missteps, a panoply of stupidity.
I wrote all night long. Produced endless volumes of realizations and recognitions. The next morning I was convinced that having seen all these things, they were gone. Forever. I honestly believed that by writing all this stuff down, I was purging myself of all my ridiculous nonsense. Fixed. Done.
Having shown the flashlight on my inner Smaug, he would disappear in a pouf.
I’d never ever make those stupid mistakes again.
Then like most other normal predictable, achingly human folk, I promptly went out and did the same stupid shit. Only this time I was wickedly aware of it.
Welcome to Life Lessons 101.
What I’d really gained that night was how to ask the a few of the right questions. How to see differently. The facts of my behavior didn’t change. My willingness to take ownership of it, and my commitment to do my best to improve myself grew out of that long winter night in New Zealand.
Over and over and over for the following three decades, I have repeated those patterns. I’ve made some progress (well thank God for small favors). However I have far more to say about humility than leaving my unfortunate ingrained patterns behind. I have learned to better manage them. This is my internal dragon, and mine alone. I’ve learned just a touch of mastery, which means that every so often I get to ride my Smaug, rather than have him publicly scorch my ego.
This is what I mean.
We Grow in Phases
Here’s a way to think about the arcs of our lives. While there are of course plenty of exceptions, we generally mature over the course of our decades (and please, technology does NOT speed this up, time does).
At the important juncture between our second and third decades- which is indeed a critical but youthful one, we make the first shift from Apprentice to Journeyman. Between 28 and 32, most of us begin a very different kind of journey, which is the challenge of application. Application of whatever life lessons we might have gained up to that point.
This is precisely what Mr. Foroux, above, is discussing. He’s seen some things. Gained insight. I don’t doubt it. Most of us do by thirty.
That doesn’t make any of us masters or practitioners. That’s the whole point of the next three decades. They offer us the opportunity to put what we think we’ve learned to practice. While I understand the very real desire to believe there exists some magical community of just-past-thirty year olds who have somehow gotten their shit together, the truth is that we just put our first baby steps out onto the Yellow Brick Road.
A great many of us also hit the brick wall of Middle Age, right about 45. This is when we question who we are, where we are, the decisions we’ve made to date. For the first time many of us are faced with love handles at the same time we are also realizing our mortality. That so-called endless sea of time begins to look like there’s a shore far ahead. Or at least, one hell of a nasty reef. Well, shit, Sherlock. Those of us who are foolish enough to regularly attend our high school reunions -and I’m one of them-watch this merciless march. Divorces, career redirections, the breathless headlong rush into new territories are common. Denial is right rampant. These days tons of folks decide that their mid-forties is the perfect time to hurl themselves into extreme sports. Dump the hubby and hie off to Croatia and be a digital nomad. Or whatever.
By the time we hit sixty-ish (between 58–62), with luck and hard work, we are squarely at the feet of the potential, and only the potential, of Mastery. If we hang on long enough, the next three decades allow us the chance to give back, mentor, educate, write and make ourselves useful. If , in fact, we’ve learned anything from the previous three decades.
Age doesn’t convey wisdom. Nor does it guarantee awareness, or dignity, or grace. All of us most likely have met (or been parented by) professional assholes. They’re great teachers but lousy examples. They never progressed to the point where they even noticed that they woke up as jackasses every single day of the week for their entire lives. Age just confers age.
What we do with the time given us is up to us, to rip off Gandalf.
Who was, by the way, ancient, with several centuries under his august (more than thirty-year-old) belt.
In effect, this is the difference between IQ (which is variously measured, by the way) and EQ, which is only gained through life lessons. EQ is worth listening to. Dr. Spencer Reid, a charming young genius character on the popular television program Criminal Minds, wows people with his brilliance but offends with his youthful insensitivity. Until, of course, he become a hostage, a victim himself. Thereafter he sees and understands in a wholly different way. Becomes vastly more effective and likeable. Empathy transforms him. As it does all of us, when we earn it through life.( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spencer_Reid).
As someone who, by way of six-plus decades, is happy to learn from most any source (with the exception, for example of climate change deniers, flat earthers and white supremacists, to name a few dubious ones), the question isn’t who is the latest newly minted 30-year-old Life Guru who can promise the perfect life for the next six decades.
The questions for me include: how can I continue to stay open, soft, curious? How can I learn to ask better questions? How can I stop asking for an easier life and simply embrace the one I am creating? How can I let go of ludicrous notion that there is a Neat Set of Perfect Rules which will make my life ever so much easier? How can I find my funny in moments of anger, frustration, pain and desperation?
By the way, if you’d like some advice in that regard, try https://www.amazon.com/Your-Seventh-Sense-Think-Comedian-ebook/dp/B002FU64C6. That material gave me a trick I’ve used for years. Humor diminishes pain, hurt and destructive mental patterns. That’s the beginning of real Mastery.
While I can understand the compulsion to sit at the virtual feet of the next Boy or Girl Wonder (such as Mark Zuckberg, who turned out to be a right idiot asshole at 23) and try to “fix” our lives, this much I can offer:
You will never “arrive.” You will never get “there.” Life will never get easy, or simple. Nor would you want it to, because you would be bored out of your gourd and immensely unhappy. Just check in on the uber-rich, whose lives are often a travesty of excess, overkill, loneliness and hopelessness.
What did the Beatles say in their youthful exuberance? Money can’t buy you love.
To wit: a friend’s brother won a huge state lottery. He’s still a rank asshole. He still has to pay for sex, what of it he has. Miserable. Rich, and miserable.
You can make life vastly more fun by finding your funny, not taking everything so seriously. Stop chasing chimeras that have nothing to do with your reality. Stop wasting time searching for life hacks that promise instant success, instant perfect body, perfect pecs, and a perfect life.
Get out and live.That’s not a life hack. That’s just life. If you intentionally dodge the very things that will give you strength in life, you will never be strong, or wise, or capable of worthwhile advice.
You might be a boy or girl wonder. A baby genius in fact. A chess wunderkind. But you and I still have to do the hard, slogging, difficult and deeply rewarding work of putting our time into life. Because until you do, all due respect to the best and the brightest out there, you have little to teach the rest of us about life.
Even then, and let’s just be perfectly clear, there are plenty of angry, bitter, useless old folks who haven’t put a whit of effort into personal development. You can find them all over the Internet, trolling, raging, and blasting their fecal matter in all directions. You and I have been trolled by them regularly.
This is my whole point. Age is meaningless unless you’ve bloody well learned something valuable.
We all want to be venerated, which means to be regarded with great respect and regard.
Here’s what venerable means (and forgive me if I choke on the suggested use in a sentence):
commanding respect because of great age or impressive dignity; worthy of veneration or reverence, as because of high office or noble character: a venerable member of Congress.
Clearly the originator of this definition is not living in the 21st Century but I digress. You get the point. We all want the respect. If you want to offer life advice, that respect is earned with age and experience. The Internet can offer information. It doesn’t deliver wisdom.
But kindly don’t take my word for it. Go out and live yours- with luck and effort you will live it vividly, fearlessly, and purposefully.
Then I suspect a great many folks will be happy to hear what you have to say.