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A Milestone and Mastering One’s Life

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40 is the new 30, or so they say. In truth we all know 40 is an arbitrary number and the cynics will say tell us anyone who wrings their hands too much over a birthday is being overly-dramatic. I agree that 40 is just a number but I also believe that we benefit from the occasional pause for reflection. In much the same way that January 1st gives us an opportunity to consider our plans for the next year, the milestone of reaching 40 years in age gives us a good opportunity to plan the next season of our life.

In his book Start author Jon Acuff talks about how we move through natural seasons in our lives. A partial list of those seasons is as follows:

20s – Learning

30s – Editing

40s – Mastering

Per Acuff’s observations, in our 20s there is college or we begin to learn a trade. We are dating, jumping from job to job, trying various hobbies and in general just having lots of different experiences. In our 30s we begin to ‘edit’ our life. This is the time we start to settle into a career. Maybe we have chosen a spouse. We begin to tighten our circle of friends. We begin to discard some of those interests that don’t speak quite as loud to us anymore. As our 40s arrive we have (mostly) gone through the editing process and we now begin to master those things that are most important to us. We enter our most productive phase in our careers. We start to become skilled at a hobby. We hit our stride in our marriage. We form deeper friendships with those closest to us.

Obviously Acuff’s list of seasons requires some generalization. They overlap. We revisit things that were important to us long ago. You pick up a guitar you haven’t played in 20 years and suddenly become passionate about music again. A divorce leaves you back out in the dating world. We meet new friends and they become key parts of our lives. A new career, going back to school…nothing is set in stone. Painting with a broad brush though, I think t’s fair to say that Acuff’s seasons are true for most people.

One of my goals for 2015 was to take a hard look at my hobbies and to try to select 2-3 to focus on. Cooking was an easy choice as I still have to eat. It seems like I might as well try to be good at it. So this year I am trying new techniques, trying to refine my skills. I spent an obscene amount of time watching YouTube videos with chefs explaining their technique. I am trying to ‘master’ this hobby. My writing progresses, both on this site and elsewhere, though I still find it difficult to focus on a style or subject matter. I continue to try to become the best hunter I can be.

At the same time I am making the tough decision to either discard or demote interests I once was very passionate about after admitting I no longer have the same amount of enthusiasm. I once wanted to become an excellent harmonica player. Now I occasionally take it out in the car while driving and that seems to satisfy me. I still have all the supplies for my woodworking plans, but will probably never build anything of note. We will draw a veil of silence across my intent to become a master at leatherwork.

As with my hobbies, I made a conscious effort to edit some of my friendships. While I didn’t make a declaration of un-friending anyone, I have allowed certain relationships to whither naturally. If I ran into those people at the mall I would certainly be happy to see them and share a few minutes of catching up, but I have learned that I only have enough energy to maintain a certain number of friendships and I want to apply it to the ones that count the most. With my closest circle of friends I have doubled-down and try to deepen those friendships whenever I can. The payoff has been a group of men that I feel I could ask for anything and I know I would give anything to in return. That has been tremendously satisfying.

My wife is the center of my universe and for good reason. I chose well with her and so it is important to me that we get this marriage thing right and make it a partnership we can both be proud of. My kids are a work in progress but I am learning that the opportunity to mold them is slipping away and now is the time to step back a bit and to be there when they need me most instead of holding their hand every step of the way. I am trying to be a good son to my mother and appreciate her importance in my life. My spiritual and political beliefs have become more solid and seem like a foundation instead of some slippery unknown.

I think for me my 30s were the most painful season of my life. In my 20s I knew I wasn’t supposed to have my stuff together. I knew I wasn’t supposed to have it all figured out. It was okay to be lousy at my hobbies and feel like a rookie at work. I spent a lot of time trying to figure things out and feeling hopelessly lost. There was a tremendous amount of uncertainty, of searching and worrying. As I get ready to enter my 40s it feels like a fog is lifting and my path forward is much more clear. And it feels pretty awesome.

Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. You can also find him on Facebook. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.

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17 thoughts on “A Milestone and Mastering One’s Life

  1. What does Acuff say about your 50s? What comes after mastering? Quitting? Death? There’s so much life after your 40s!

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    • In my experience, once you’ve gained mastery, you become highly productive at what you’ve mastered (this is true for both my husband and I). For women, double-plus so, since they’re time is less encumbered by children and by hormonal flux. I recognize now the beginnings of a time were it will also be more and more difficult to learn new things, in part, because we’ve already learned so much, and it’s almost too much noise. Curmudgeonlyness must root here, I think.

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    • Acuff calls your 50s ‘harvesting’. You are reaping the benefits of Mastering. You make the most money in your career, see your children become (hopefully) successful adults, enjoy the fruits of a skilled hobby, your spouse and friends enrich your life, etc. Your 60s are Teaching where you share your knowledge with others.

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    • At least in my case, “starting over”. Put me up as a poster child for the old tech saying, “If you’re 45 and not running your own business, you’re one acquisition away from never working in your field again.” That might not have been entirely true, but I wasn’t willing to move across the country. Some good luck and good planning left me in a position with choices. So I got another masters degree (public policy), worked for the state legislature for three sessions, and have been doing research on a different class of complex systems than I used to work on. I’ve done things I probably wouldn’t have done if the layoff hadn’t happened.

      OTOH, re this recent University of Manchester study, I wouldn’t say that it made me less trusting, but after a dozen years I still occasionally wake up from a panicky laid-off nightmare.

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      • I’d never heard that one before. I’ve been lucky with acquisitions in that sense: sometimes they’ve been awful places to work, but they’ve always wanted to keep the engineering staff around.

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      • I’ve not heard that one before either.

        (And 45 is fast approaching!)

        I’ve lucked into the whole “it’s better to be okay at three or four things than awesome at one” paradigm right around the time that the excesses of outsourcing spun around and started biting the major companies in the butt. When management looked at the bottom lines and downtimes and whatnot, they started listening to the really, really smart guys when they said “we need some merely smart guys THAT WE CAN TRUST to act as our pair of hands.”

        Being the guy that could talk to the sys admins *AND* the security folks *AND* the application folks *AND* translate to management allowed me to be useful.

        I know that I’ll never be a millionaire (let alone a billionaire) but I think I can always be useful to the millionaires until somebody ushers in the whole singularity thing. The singularity will require sys admins, security folks, application folks, and management, after all.

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      • Some of it’s generic — Slashdot seems to find one of the professional societies making the same complaint every six months or so, although I think those are down to about 35 years old. Some of it’s Denver — a long history of booms and busts, but almost no one wants to move away when the bust happens (Gov. Hickenlooper is an oil geologist techie who didn’t want to leave). Some of it was industry specific — the cable industry was mature and going through a huge consolidation wave, and one of the goals of every acquisition was to be able to fire hundreds of engineers (as we often said, if the press release says “efficiency”, that means they’re going to fire all the acquired engineers). Some of it was me — I had spent 15 years building a rep as a generalist who could deal with lots of aspects of the tech, but the industry had moved into an era where every open position was for a specialist.

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  2. I actually read that book because you recommended it, Mike. I like the things he has to say, although his style isn’t quite to my liking. I turned 40 in October and have to say that I get the idea about mastering. I’m finding myself really impatient when it comes to doing anything but music or writing these days. Work is just a complete waste of time. I envy people who spent their 30s editing their lives instead of being edited.

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  3. My favorite thing about my 40’s is how much less drama I have. Oh, I still have drama! But compared to my 30’s (or, God Forbid, my 20’s)?

    The word “boring” is an epithet in one’s youth but, I’m finding, it’s a superlative in one’s middle.

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  4. Interesting.

    Looking back, (and I believe I’ve said this before here,) I see:

    20’s — search for self, what I want to do with life;

    30’s — comfortable in own skin, understood the things I wanted to master;

    40’s — less concerned with other’s opinions as I gained mastery and confidence in it;

    50’s — application of mastery, most productive age, strong impulse to teach others, unafraid of (and often welcoming) constructive criticism. There is also a sense that time, now, is very limited, and the most precious commodity.

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  5. I’m glad you wrote this, and glad I read it. I also realized that it was time to decide what to focus on. I’m 46 and about to get divorced and lose everything, which doesn’t really bother me that much—then again, I might be in denial (no, no, surely that’s not it). I’m looking forward to going back to square one, but it will mean a lot more work and a lot less free time, and I don’t want to spend my dwindling years staring at a screen.

    My struggle in deciding which hobby to put away and which to keep is this: I was a full-time musician in my 20s and continued making records and playing in bands up until about five years ago or so. Even if I have to sell half of it, I still have a ridiculous quantity of instruments and gear for recording, etc. Then, for the last few years, I’ve spent my free time learning 3-D computer design. It is purely a hobby, with no application to my work or potential as a career—I’m not that good at it, it’s just fun.

    Both pursuits are time-consuming and (mostly) solitary. I’m probably a better musician than I ever will be a designer. Writing songs and so forth is not something I enjoy, but the payoff of performing them for people who could throw garbage at me in response but choose not to does afford some satisfaction. CAD, on the other hand, is as much fun as I’ve had in the past few years, but there is no payoff and means sitting and staring at a screen. CAD as a topic makes people’s eyes glaze over, but everyone has an opinion about music. Music could get me out of the house from time to time, but only if I can force myself to keep up my end of things, practicing and writing and finding gigs, whereas CAD as a hobby is the equivalent of wearing sweatpants in public.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to hijack the thread. I just meant to write the first sentence but then kind of jabbered on. But maybe this is a good place to leave this, if anyone has any advice for me. Or wants to throw garbage.

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  6. This Donald Justice poem, one of my favorites by him, is must-read for anyone about to turn 40.

    Men at forty
    Learn to close softly
    The doors to rooms they will not be
    Coming back to.

    At rest on a stair landing,
    They feel it
    Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
    Though the swell is gentle.

    And deep in mirrors
    They rediscover
    The face of the boy as he practices tying
    His father’s tie there in secret

    And the face of that father,
    Still warm with the mystery of lather.
    They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
    Something is filling them, something

    That is like the twilight sound
    Of the crickets, immense,
    Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
    Behind their mortgaged houses.

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