40 is the new 40
If Madonna’s Like a Virgin is NOT a happy childhood memory of your parents squirming when you asked what a virgin was, but IS a classic from ye olden times before you were born, what I’m about to say might be something you find hard to believe. Ready?
Being in your 40s is pretty great.
If you’re looking askance, I get it. I’ve always been terrible about age. I cried on my 20th birthday because I was no longer a teenager. At 30 I had a quarter-life crisis. I lost track of the number of weddings I went to when I was 29. It was as if 30 was looming over everyone I knew with an unspoken rule that it was the point by which time one SHOULD HAVE [choose your own paranoia – bought a house, settled down, found a life partner, got engaged, got married, figured out your career, started a family, at least thought about children.] I did not get married at 29, instead I freaked out, quit my job and ended up moving to Shanghai for two years. But I’ll save the rest of that story for another time.
My point is, if that statement made you raise your eyebrows but your forehead sprang back afterwards (aaahhhh I remember those days!), you might not believe me that your 40s are actually OK. I’d understand why. I thought exactly the same thing when my knees never creaked after the gym.
But this is what makes no sense: I HATED being a teenager. And my 20s were plagued with self-doubt and feelings of “FFS is this what life is like now until we retire: getting up at 6am and commuting with my head in someone’s armpit?” So why would I be so scared of aging? Why would I refuse to say the words “thirtieth birthday” and instead insist on it being known only as “the event?” Maybe it’s because, as well as smooth foreheads, our culture is obsessed with youth, achievement at a young age, and especially 40-under-40 lists.
Well, “culture”, listen to this. I would rather be 43 than 23 or 33 any day. And anyone out there who writes off anyone over 40 in the workplace, especially the women in that age bracket, it’s your loss. I’m looking at YOU, advertising and tech land, so you can stop avoiding my eyeline from behind my progressive lenses. The one-tone output of bro culture isn’t the only way of doing things, you know.
The youngsters might never have known life without… TikTok and Peleton. But those of us who remember a time when getting in a stranger’s car was a bad thing, and not something you had an app on your phone to summon strangers for the express purpose of doing, have got a whole different value proposition to bring to the business table.
Don’t believe me? Believe Harvard Business Review
What comes to mind when you think of a successful entrepreneur? A 25-year-old tech mogul in Silicon Valley already on his fifth million? If so, this Harvard Business Review article might surprise you. The average age of a successful start-up founder is 45.
The same study found that older entrepreneurs have a substantially higher success rate: in fact, the likelihood of success rises with age until cresting in the late 50s. Or, if you prefer, if you had two entrepreneurs in front of you and one was 27 and one 47, you would statistically be better off backing the 47-year-old.
Now the question is: why? I have some theories. They probably aren’t as scientific as HBR’s, but let’s not let that get in the way of a good article. Let’s start with biology.
Don’t believe me? Believe evolution
There are only three species that have females go through the menopause, humans being one. Bear with me, this isn’t going to be about hot flashes.
In the vast majority of species, females outlive their usefulness once they’ve reproduced and raised their young. Once the genes have been passed on and the offspring reached survival age, move along, nothing more to see here.
So why should humans be different? One can only assume that as we evolved, women in their middle age proved useful to society. So useful that the menopause, something that protected women from the health dangers of giving birth in old age, something that other species don’t give two hoots about the dire consequences of, was an evolutionary benefit.
In other words, older women are worth giving up resources that could be used for the young folks who’ve not done anything yet about passing on their genes. And just as worthy as men of any age who have the biological potential to have a Charlie Chaplin “73 is the new 37” approach to fertility. In evolutionary terms, where genes are all that matters, that has to be VERY useful indeed.
Maybe back in the hunter-gatherer days it was more about the usefulness to society of taking care of the grandbabies while the parents went off and hunted…. sabre-tooth tigers? (look, I know about genetics but I don’t claim to know about the zoology of pre-history.) But today it feels like there’s a little more to the benefits of your 40s than that.
Been there, seen it, done it
When I look back at what I thought I knew about life in my 20s, I’m embarrassed. I’m sure I will look back in my 60s and feel the same about what I think I know now. But what I do know is that whether it’s knowing how to protect the village from the annual sabre tooth tiger attack, or knowing how to create a persuasive TV ad, there's no substitute for experience.
The first time you do anything you suck at it. Maybe the 5th won’t be all that better, but it probably will. As I get older, I have more behind me to look at and learn from. When I see something headed in my direction, chances are it’s headed this way before. I can pull from my box of tools embossed “things that I’ve tried before that work.”
I used to have a coworker who was 10 years younger than me who would tell me his woes and I would ask questions that showed a degree of understanding that blew his mind. Because HOW COULD I UNDERSTAND THE SITUATION SO WELL?! It was normally because whatever it was had happened to me. A while ago. And I had also gained the perspective and wisdom that time gives you. Don’t tell him, I like to retain the slightly ethereal air of the mogul.
Do I look like I’m bothered?
There are so many things that I do not give a flying… fig about any more. In the best possible non-apathetic way. Youth doesn’t necessarily come with crippling insecurity, but for many it’s a chronic sludge of anxieties. What will people think of me if I say that; is everyone talking about me; will they still like me if I disagree…?
The answers to these questions are, in order: whatever it is, it will pass; they’re probably too busy thinking about themselves; and does it really matter if they don’t?
What changes in your 40s? Is it a realization that the people who matter accept you for you; they must do, because you’ve made it this far? Or does evolutionary memory tell you that you’ve reached some kind of degree of tribal seniority that you can care less because you’re now one of the thought leaders, a queen bee and not a drone? Or is it experience that you’ve spoken out or done something (gasp) unpopular and… nobody died, so what’s the big deal?
Maybe none, or all three. But whatever it is, it brings freedom. I can go out and fail. It doesn’t matter. I can say what I think instead of worrying about the reaction, because that doesn’t matter either. And you can think what you like about me because, with the greatest of respect, I don’t give a single… fig.
Not being bothered means you’re prepared to take more chances. Combine it with some experience battle scars and maybe that Harvard statistic is starting to make more sense?
I know who I am
Being a business owner whose product is themselves means being brutally honest with yourself. You have to know what you’re good at, and what you’re not, and what you’re going to dial up on the first list and stick a band-aid on the second.
In case you were wondering. I’m empathetic. I make other people feel good about themselves. I’m smart. I can join the dots in what you tell me to draw out what you’re thinking, even when you might not be totally conscious of it.
I’m also not a great salesperson, because I hate being sold to. I’m a terrible in-person networker; I hate crowds of people that I don’t know, they make me self-conscious and shy. I’m headstrong and me being wrong is something you’re going to need to prove to me with persuasive evidence.
When I was younger, I couldn’t have run my own business, because I couldn’t have written either of those last two paragraphs. Now I feel like I’ve earned the first. It’s not a brag, it’s just a description. And the second doesn’t threaten me because it’s fine to admit that I’m not perfect, or anything close to it. Let someone else, maybe someone who doesn’t need their roots coloring quite so often, think they can master everything. They’ll learn in time too.
I’m not the center of the universe
Maybe it’s that evolutionary brain thing again. Maybe I have a deep genetic memory that at this time in my life I should be showing the tribal kids how to make their spears. But these days there’s way more to life than me. Any parent can tell you that, of course, but right now I’m also seeing a difference in the choices that those around me, especially women, in their 40s are making when it comes to their careers.
I don’t care about leaving a legacy the way it’s normally meant in business. My name being associated with consistent shareholder returns or cutting-edge product development does nothing for me. Besides which, if anyone wants to knows about the transience of legacy in the corporate world, I can write you a TED Talk on it.
It’s more like this. We bumble our way through life accumulating knowledge. So I’m now at the stage of having half a lifetime of wisdom. What use is it sitting in my head? When it could be benefiting other people?
There are for sure phenomenal coaches out there in their 20s. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I came to the profession as a second career, at the point in my life when what gives me fulfilment is handing over whatever I have to help other people grow.
There are a thousand different ways of being an entrepreneur, but how about this as a theory. Ask any marketer about the most successful brands and they’ll tell you that they’re the ones who solve a problem. And what are those middle-aged traits of using your empathy for your fellow human beings and wanting to make things better for them good for, if it's not creating a business that solves a problem? One that nobody else has done anything about before?
40 is the new... 40
Do I like the crows’ feet around my eyes that seemed to transform into valleys when I got my new HD iPhone camera? Nope. But I also know they’ve come from a lifetime-so-far of smiles, so they're a fair price for happy memories. Do I miss the days when staying in on a school night seemed… kind of lame? A little; they were so much fun, at least what I remember through the haze. But if you haven’t been in your pajamas at 8pm you don’t know what you’re missing.
Every age has its highlights and lowlights. Don’t believe them when they tell you 40 is the new 30 or anything else. 40 is the new 40. If you haven’t got there yet, it’s nothing to be scared of, in fact the opposite. It comes with a whole load of benefits that you've accumulated over your last four decades. Just take advice from someone who has, start using eye cream now, especially if you plan on having an iPhone.