45 is the best age
We were getting dressed the other morning and Harper said to me, “I think 45 might be the best age.” I wasn’t so sure at the moment, but having thought more about it, she’s absolutely right.
At 45, you still have the will to do new things, to experiment, to fail, to take on tasks that seem insurmountable; you’re still young and energetic enough to make it all work (and at least for us, our kids are a little older so we’re getting a full night’s sleep), but you also have the judgment, maturity and wisdom to help avoid some of the mistakes of the past.
I kept thinking about this and ultimately made a list of what I like about being 45 (am curious to see if these are universal truths or just where my head is at the moment).
(1). I’m comfortable in my own skin. While this list isn’t ranked in any particular order, this is the most important item by far. I have good qualities. I have bad qualities. I succeed in some ways, fail in many others. And that’s totally fine. I’m willing to embrace it all, own it all, good and bad. I don’t need to be perfect. I don’t need to project strength or authority. I don’t need you to hold any particular opinion of me. I’m good with just being me.
(2). I don’t feel schadenfreude. For far too long, life felt like a zero-sum game. For someone to win, someone else had to lose. I don’t see it that way anymore. I do what I do pretty much regardless of what’s happening around me. In every conceivable aspect of life, some people will do better than me and some will struggle more. I’m not ahead or behind relative to anyone else. I’m only ahead or behind relative to my own expectations for myself.
(3). I know what I don’t know. There are a few things I’m good at (politics, media, writing, figuring out situations and people, getting stuff done) and lots and lots of things I’m not good at (driving, how to change a tire, what or where the carburetor is, how the tv actually works and pretty much everything else). There’s no way to be an expert on everything, all of the time (and if you are, you’re probably an asshole anyway). It’s not embarrassing to say “I don’t know” or to ask others for advice or help. It’s fine to have limitations. You’re supposed to.
(4). I’m a lot more empathetic. This probably fits with the schadenfreude point above, but my success or failure isn’t dependent on anyone else’s outcomes. If someone else is having a hard time, I can now feel genuine empathy for them. I finally understand that most people mean well. Sure, some people are toxic and the only solution is to get away from them as quickly as possible, but mainly, people are doing the best they can and they deserve understanding. I think getting a dog a few years ago somehow helped with this too.
(5). I don’t hate the way I look. I was a funny looking kid – small, skinny, big ears. I haven’t really looked that way in 25 years, but it’s only now that it’s not what I see staring back at me when I look in the mirror. I’m not the best looking guy. I’m not the worst looking guy. I’m fine the way I am (and there are probably zero people in the world who want to have physical imperfections so there’s no need to judge them for it; they’re probably already way too hard on themselves already).
(6). I’m much more accepting of the unknown. Maybe this goes with the knowing what you don’t know section, but the more I learn, the more I realize how much is possible and how little we truly understand. Are there aliens in outer space? Maybe. Can people commune with the dead or predict the future or defy the laws of physics? Why not? There are 7.5 billion people in this world. Everyone has a different combination of DNA, which means there are 7.5 billion different possibilities for pretty much anything. With a range that big, lots of things that shouldn’t happen, good and bad, probably do.
(7). I’m not afraid. I wrote a memoir last year. Told a lot of stories about a lot of powerful people. Some good. Some bad. Made some of them pretty upset. I was nervous when I was writing it, but I felt like if someone was forking over $20 for my book, they deserved the unvarnished truth. Then it hit me: there was nothing to worry about. So what that some powerful people are upset? What are they going to do to me? Nothing. Their power is keeping you afraid. Once that’s gone, anything else they’d have to do requires them to take more risk (political, legal, media, financial) than you’re probably worth to them.
(8). Most things just aren’t a big deal. Our daughter’s bat mitzvah was this past weekend. It was wonderful. She did an incredible job. The party was really fun. One thing we got right is we kept it in perspective. It was a religious ceremony and then a kids’ party. It wasn’t symbolic of what we’ve achieved in life. It wasn’t a statement about who we are. It wasn’t a competition with anyone else. And because we kept it in perspective, the whole process was never particularly stressful. It was just fun.
(9). I’m a little less uncomfortable saying no. Saying no is a skill I’ve never really had. I feel guilt, obligation, insecurity and probably some fear when I tell people that I can’t do what they want. Saying no is still hard for me, but I’m getting better at it (now that I have a venture capital fund and a philanthropic foundation, people come at me for funding or grants every day and the only sane approach is to ignore almost all of it, which starts to inoculate you after awhile). If you try to take care of everyone and everything, you’re probably not really accomplishing anything. It took me a long time to realize that.
(10). I don’t owe. For decades, I felt this overwhelming sense of obligation. It was my job to take care of everyone, to proactively try to solve their problems, to make everything right. Some of what was the way I was raised. Some of it was insecurity. Some of it was ego. And some of it was a genuine desire to help people. But I constantly was in this never-ending cycle where I’d help some people and resent them for it at the same time. I finally realize that while we all have some concrete obligations, by and large, you should only help people because you want to, not because you feel like you have to.
(11). Most people are making it up as they go along. One upside to having worked in pretty high levels of government, politics, campaigns, startups, media, etc… is I now understand that nobody really has any clue what they’re doing. Everyone is doing their best, but they’re mainly making it up as they go along (and if not, they’re probably bored out of their minds). That doesn’t make my work any easier, but rather than feeling like everyone knows what to do except me, I now understand that if I work really hard, do my best, correct my mistakes, use good judgment and treat people well, the results will probably be fine.
(12). Tradeoffs are okay. I love ice cream. For years, my metabolism was so fast, I could eat whatever I wanted and it never showed. Now I’m 45. My metabolism has slowed down. In theory, as you adjust to different phases of your life, you should change your behavior. The old me would have dealt in absolutes. Slowing metabolism equals no ice cream. But guess what? I really love ice cream. I eat it a lot less than I used to. I work out a lot more than I used to. And I probably would look better if I ate no ice cream and exercised even more. But there’s a tradeoff to most things and that’s okay.
(13). They’re right about money. I got really, really lucky that I took my fee in equity when I worked for Uber. But predictably, I then understood the money to mean far more than it actually does or should. I lost my way. Of course, life is easier when money’s never an issue. A lot easier. But the sense of fulfillment I get from the work we’re doing out of my foundation to create a world where everyone can vote on their phones (ends the systemic polarization and dysfunction destroying democracy) is far greater than the joy that came with any purchase I’ve ever made.
(14). Challenge helps tolerance. My childhood kind of sucked. I never fit in and it made things tough for a solid 12-15 years. But now I identify with those who are different, and that’s really useful. I still wish my childhood was better, but rather than being ashamed of it, I now (sort of) know how to use my experiences to extend tolerance towards people who are different. Also, because I never fit in and still came out okay (more or less), I now almost never worry about conventional wisdom or expectations. That’s incredibly liberating.
(15). No one is paying attention. It’s very hard to remove yourself from your own reality, so when something happens — good or bad, noteworthy or embarrassing — we assume everyone else is as engaged as we are. They’re not. They’re focused on themselves, as they should be. You don’t need to worry so much when you mess things up. Everyone does and no one really cares. Just do your best and keep going.
(16) You wake up with yourself. There’s a sign on the wall of my kids’ school that says “character is what you do when no one is watching”. I think that’s right. If you feel good about who you are and how you live your life, you’re going to be happy. Sure, things will always go wrong. You’ll fail at stuff. You’ll lose. You’ll make mistakes and have tough moments. But maybe more than anything else, what I know now at 45 is that the only opinion that truly matters is my own.
To be clear, there’s still a long, long way to go before I become the kind of person I ultimately want to be. I’m still way too impatient. Still way too conflict friendly. Still way too tethered to my phone. And if you asked anyone else who knows me, you’d probably get a long list of stuff I barely even realize.
But at 45, I’m now a little less judgmental. I listen a little better (though I still talk way too much). I’m more empathetic, calmer, less angry. A lot of these are insights that most people realize at 25 or 35. It took me awhile, but I got there. I accept who I am. Finally. And that makes everything else in life much, much better.