In the early days of the Internet, my email signature read “A Tempest Always is Restless”. I used to be proud of my signature. As a child I was told many times that Iam a restless person. I took it as a badge of honour. To be restless meant to be active, inquisitive and in general not being satisfied with the status quo. At work I used to be proud to tell my clients that I am “always on”. It worked quite well during the initial years of my career.
But as life progressed, things started to pan out differently. I got married and we had kids. As age began to catch-up I realised that the body needs extra attention. I was juggling many balls at the same time. The “always on” approach started to become an emotional and physical overload. Academia describes this phase as midlife stressors. I looked back wistfully to my childhood days when my dad used to tell me, actually implore with me to start meditation. I used to laugh it off then. But now, I realised I needed some intervention.
Since then, I have tried various forms of meditation and reflection over the last couple of years. I went for a yoga retreat and met with counsellors there as well during this period. Ironically the stressors were coming mostly because I was feeling I had control over all the balls I was juggling. And I was adamant on meeting the challenges; all of them. So over this period I reset my outlook and aspirations. More importantly I realised that as time progresses I will need to keep evolving my outlook. Below are some insights I gained.
One of the first things I realised was that not everything was as important or critical as I thought. I often confused important with urgent. I had a tendency to address any issue that came to my mind right away. And as can be expected, things don’t pan out the way you anticipate. I used to get stressed when my ‘carefully’ laid out plans did not go as envisaged.
Often it helped me greatly to speak out to myself that I need not address this today. Writing down a list of items also helped greatly in removing the worry that I may forget to address a matter. I stopped putting timelines to targets I wanted achieved. As an example, this very article has been brewing in my mind for many weeks. I learnt to let topics soak inside me without getting worried about not doing anything with them immediately.
But the biggest change has been to go along with what others feel is important. For example, I used to be a stickler on keeping time. At work it is essential. But at home, it becomes rather difficult especially with two young children who decide their own priorities. I used to stress a lot to get the family out of the door on time every time we went for a trip. I had my reasons which I considered were important. These normally ranged around beating traffic, finding a good parking spot, getting back on time, and keeping oneself refreshed to get to work the next day. But in effect every outing became a stressful affair; not just for me but for the whole family. I realised that the family outing was defeating it’s very purpose. And the way I was thinking about running it was not helping anyone. Perhaps what I considered important are not really that important. These days, I have completely off-loaded family outing decisions (except for the cost!). The wife and children decide where we are going and at what time. Where possible we take a cab if I realise traffic and parking will be a problem. And I don’t get ready early and stress that others aren’t ready yet. If I get bored during the outing I let others do their thing and find a spot to sit and read or in some cases meditate.
Be Comfortable in your own skin
At 40 most people have a good sense of their place in the world and have a realistic sense of what they would accomplish. Most of us are settled and engaged with life. Our life fabric will have strands sourced from our career, home, society, parents and extended family. We are quite aware of the tension between these strands. We begin to understand that we have to choose one strand over the other every day. But, this is the phase when we need to look at our plates as half-full as against half-empty. We begin to understand our true self including our short-comings. And we need not be apologetic about it. It’s just who we are.
Understand you are not superhuman
Meeting every challenge may not be the most prudent approach as you get on with age. We will end up in a situation where we disappoint people around us and more importantly disappoint ourselves. As children we had big dreams about massive accomplishments. A lot of it was built on the purity of the ideal life. But time teaches us that life is not as straight forward as it seemed when we were young. Our life stands are indeed a strange entity. They hold us together as well as hold us back. They act as our safety net as well as the anchor that does not let us sail.
It’s ok to accept that not everything is as it should be. It’s ok to accept that we cannot solve every problem. This is easier said than done as this is the stage we are at the peak of our contribution. Our children demand our attention, our parents are getting aged, people at work look up to us. Society looks at us with expectation. Given time and mind space, we could do justice to each strand. But when every strand tugs at us, it becomes difficult. If we are not deliberate about our choices, life can easily fill up without being fulfilling. We need to understand we are not superhuman and decide where we will contribute more and where we will contribute less. A clear and decisive perspective will help ease our conscience.
Others don’t think about you as much as you think
It would come as no surprise to us that everyone is busy with their lives. In most cases people have a myriad of things to work on. And in most cases, they don’t concern you. It’s one of those things that can be upsetting and liberating at the same time. For those who want to be in the limelight, it comes as a disappointment. For those who want to do their own thing, its liberating to know that people are not really bothered on what we do with our life and time. The level of social pressure comes down significantly. We can make the hard choices that makes the most sense for our self, family and interest. It just makes it that much easier for us to be comfortable in our own skin.
Pause before you Judge
We would have encountered several situations in both our personal and professional lives where people did not keep their commitments to us. But almost always they never did that intentionally. In most cases they really wanted to deliver on their commitment. Either they over-estimated their capacity or under-estimated the task at hand or had higher priorities thrown at them. They may well be low on capability or wisdom. But that does not make them evil. There is a fine line between branding someone as a bad person and identifying shortcomings in a person’s capability.
Judging a person as bad drives a lot of negative emotions within our physiological system. Over time it begins to affect our judgements and actions. Accepting people as who they are without being judgemental creates enormous positivity. In most cases, we realise it’s possible to recalibrate our expectations without losing track of larger goals.
Do something good as against be someone important
As children we were asked what we would like to be when we grow up. I look back wistfully on those days, when the sky was blue and we could become whoever we wanted. Pilots, engine drivers and even superman. As we grew up a bit, our options started narrowing down to more realistic ones. But at 40, that question would have become irrelevant for most of us. We mostly know where life will take us. Often we have to make tough choices between balancing our career goals with that of our family goals. This is the time to reverse the question from asking “who will you be” to “what will you do”. As we would have realised by this stage, being in a position of responsibility is challenging. Society expects important people to contribute immensely. In fact the point of being someone important is that one can use that position to do good things. So, why not just focus on doing something good?
To give without expecting returns can be liberating and exhilarating. Start off by helping those around you. It could be the security guard in your locality or your driver, or the car cleaner or your help. Do not worry that if we give today, they will ask for more tomorrow. Give when you can, and say sorry when you cannot.
Volunteer towards social causes. You will be surprised on how much you can contribute. It expands your capacity tremendously. It improves your mental state, and changes your personality. I have seen my ability to empathise and connect increase several notches when I give. When things get rough in one dimension and your self-esteem takes a hit, the memories of giving gives you a tremendous boost.
For many of us in the knowledge industry and for most of us in the management space, we cannot directly perceive the fruits of our work. Some of us work for a client in another country. And we hardly get to know how our daily contribution is impacting the real world. When we contribute within our community we can see the impact of our contribution right there.
For eg. as an executive committee member in our apartment association, I helped facilitate a system where excess food from the apartments can be sourced and given to the security and housekeeping staff in our complex. The idea came from a resident in the community. All we did was facilitate the process and created a communication channel to let resident’s know. We contribute our time and a bit of mind space. As a result there is a steady flow of food and it gives me satisfaction that we have helped solve wastage of food and hunger to a very small extent.
When you are 40 you are not 20
Things that were possible earlier for us, may not be so anymore. We may not be able to pull out an all-nighter like earlier. For some, the back hurts, for some the knee aches. Often repetitive stress injuries start to show up at this stage and we will have to listen to our body. We need to realise we are not super human. As teenagers and youngsters we may have held that notion, but at 40, we absolutely need to dispel it. You may see your friends running marathons. Your competitive spirit may want to you to compete with them. But for some our body holds us back. It’s ok if we cannot run a marathon. There are other avenues to stay fit. Cycling, exercise, swimming, yoga. There are plenty of options if one explores. The problem often is the mind does not want to accept it.
Learn…. and Cherish your Learning
I often wonder at my children’s constant curiosity. Their appetite to learn and pick on new things can be invigorating to watch. But I must confess that as a parent it is often tiresome to answer all their questions. Often I get asked questions like “why is the nose on the face?” for which I have no answer. In many cases I get exasperated and shoo them away. It’s a question that seems to have no great relevance in the adult’s world. But it’s a good question nevertheless, a question only a child can ask these days. Somewhere along the way, we lost our curiosity. We lost interest to pick on new things.
It’s good to learn just for the sake of it. Learning actually keeps our brain young, healthy and energised. It keeps us sharp. As we age, it’s good to pick up a different skill. I recently rejoined violin classes. And it gives me great joy to observe week on week, how I am able to get the notes better, sit on the floor longer, and play the instrument faster. Reality tells me that I would probably never play in a concert. But given, I am actually attending classes I can hope. And hope is a beautiful thing. Plus, it has helped me improve hand-eye co-ordination, taken off the kink in my neck and allowed me to make several new young friends.
When I joined violin classes, I did not plan on achieving great outcomes. It seemed like a good way to spend a couple of hours every weekend afternoon other than just sit in front of the TV. Now, it’s taken a life of it’s own and in fact I am practicing daily to get through a music exam.
Count your blessings
It’s probably that time of life when one should take stock and start to really thank for what life has given us. Some of these blessings are often very fundamental. Being healthy, normal, and having brought up in a safe home with loving (and strict) parents are blessings. As parents ourselves, our appreciations for these facets would increase manifold. Sometimes it’s good to just look out into the morning sky and savor those fundamental blessings.
It’s a blessing to be married and have children. It truly is. We just need to pause and look around to understand what a huge blessing that is. Having a job is a blessing. Knowing where our next meal is going to come from is a blessing. We often take these things for granted. But its good to pause once and take them in. When we have our next cup of tea it’s good to look into that steaming cup and feel grateful. Not in a sense that we deserve that drink, but that we are thankful for that cup.
Rest on your laurels
I was once advised by a psychologist friend to write down my accomplishments. He told me to write down a minimum of fifty items however small they may sound. It’s a great way of training our brain to stay positive. As we grapple with the daily demands that life places on us, it gives us an opportunity to look back and feel good. Writing down is cathartic at many levels. When you feel down, it’s great to go back and take a peek into that page. We sometimes forget how much we have accomplished. And fifty good memories are an excellent way to wash off any pain or stress. It give us greater energy to press on and do some good.
Listening is often a humbling activity. Listening to those above us will often help us get better. But at 40 we should start listening more to a different group. Listen to those younger than you, to those who work for you, to your dear ones and to your heart beat. Listen beyond the words that are spoken. Listen to those who you are responsible for than to those you are accountable to. Listen more to those who have limited means. There is a lot to learn from them. They often teach us how to be happy within constraints. And quite often, they give us opportunities to do some good.