Forty Two; now I’m as old as my dad was when he died, what have I learnt?

Aged 42, my father lost an argument with a rare and uncooperative cancer. He died briskly, and by all accounts was deeply annoyed about it.

Aged five, I felt more numb than sad. I have very few reliable memories of him, and even they might just be old photos or other peoples stories.

Last week I turned 42, my eldest daughter is five.

As a result, I have a dawning insight into just how annoyed he must have been, and a growing insight into what matters in my life…

The ‘old man’ and me, 41 years and a few months ago.

When I was young, I assumed the ‘old man’ must have just been an old man. Like, old enough for death to be inevitable like tax, becoming a tory and other scary stories they tell children.

In my 30’s I grew up. And while my wife may not agree with that statement, I discovered ‘old age’ wasn’t the end, it was actually the age and stage I’d been waiting for.

So now, with far less fucks-to-give (the upside of your 40’s) I feel like I might just be getting started, and wish I could A) tell my younger self it’s going to be OK and B) I wish I could tell my dad too.

In truth however, there’s not much I can tell my dad (not least because he’s dead) but because I learnt a few years ago he has been paranormally calling the shots for decades.

I told one of my mentors (/surrogate father figures) Liam Black, the surprising story of how my life has subconsciously followed my father’s exact footsteps. In reliably frank form Liam replied ‘show me a successful social entrepreneur and I’ll show you serious Daddy issues’.

Liam has a knack of knowing what you’re not supposed to say, and saying it anyway because it’s what you need to hear. But, if it’s no psychological surprise my achievements mirror the actions of my father, then as I turn 42 and finally outlive him my next question becomes, what next?

For context, here’s the life and times of my dad in a few bullet points:

  • Leaves home around 18, to do the opposite of his parents.
  • Enters an industry where he thrived, but left as he fell out of love with it.
  • Wanted more meaning, so began innovative work with young people.
  • Began a purpose-led business benefiting the community.
  • Set up in Brixton, grew the business, moved up the road.
  • Won accolades, awards and influenced an entire industry for the better.
  • Got married, had two children and wrote a book.
  • Turned 42,
  • Died.
My father, at his office, in Brixton, looking a lot like me.

Sudden death was a shock to the system for everyone who knew him.

He was smart, funny, liked a debate, a drink and had set his sights on changing the world, which was well underway. It sounds like he deserved the many good friends he had. It’s no surprise the collective grief was formidable when out of the blue he died, leaving behind a wife and two small children.

The trouble was, as they buried the sadness, they buried the stories and as we grew up, we knew very little about him. You could barely hold a family get-together in my teenage years without the grown-ups weeping into their wine. So eventually we stopped asking.

Until a few years ago. When my first daughter was born (the one who’s now five) I thought it was time to find out more about my dad. Which is how I discovered the above sequence of events. If you know me well, you’ll have already seen the reflections, if you don’t, here’s my life story, also in bullet points:

  • Leaves home around 18, to do the opposite of his parents.
  • Enters an industry where he thrived, but left as he fell out of love with it.
  • Wanted more meaning, so began innovative work with young people.
  • Began a purpose-led business benefiting the community.
  • Set up in Brixton, grew the business, moved up the road.
  • Won accolades, awards and influenced an entire industry for the better.
  • Got married, had two children and wrote a book…
  • Turned 42…

Sound familiar?

There’s loads more (even spookier) detail to this tale. I spoke about it in depth at TEDx Brixton but the point for this post is not what else happened, but what happens next?

If my ‘innovative, exciting, award winning and life changing’ adventures, were all done before. And, all by my very own dad, then A) how annoying? and B) if you find out you’ve been following someone else’s script, what do you do when the scriptwriter goes on strike?

What next and what does it all mean? I suspect trying to answer the meaning of life, the universe and everything is either the reason we’re all here, or just a fool’s errand.

Douglas Adams is one of my favourite fools. Who embarked on exactly this errand. In ‘Life, The Universe And Everything’, he explains Planet Earth is actually a giant supercomputer called Deep Thought programmed to unlock the eternal mystery over it’s 7 million year long program:

“The Answer to the Great Question… Of Life, the Universe and Everything… Is… Forty-two,’ said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.”

Adams many fans have attempted to retrofit reasoning to the figure of 42; from a seemingly compelling link to ASCII computer code, to some less convincing ideas about Tibetan monks.

Adams denied them all and insisted it was an arbitrary number he came up with while sat in his garden. I have thought about this a lot, whilst sat in my own garden, and now I am 42, here’s my conclusion.

I could sit in my garden and wonder about this for hours (and I have).

I could mooch about with stories of my long lost dad and our cosmic links for days (and I have).

I could let my inner anxieties overwhelm my ability to get shit done and get in the way of relationships, life and love (and I have)…

Or, I could realise once and for all that pretty soon no one is going to give two fucks about how I feel or what I think and the only thing that will remain of all this is not what I felt, but what I did.

Of course thoughts, feelings, intention and inspiration are all important, but without action they’re an empty promise, potential unfulfilled or more simply: Talk minus Action = Shit.

Apart from my paternal empathy for his deep annoyance at early-onset morbidity, I have no idea how my dad felt, or thought. Essential as I’m sure those thoughts were to him then, do they matter to me now?

What matters is what he did, the decisions he took, the lives he touched the change he made. If intentions inform who we want to be, actions determine who we become.

If I was to follow in my fathers final footsteps and gasp my last before I finish this piece, do I want Scarlett or Frida, my beautiful daughters to remember my moods (no thanks), or is what matters, what remains? The actions I took, the world I changed, the decisions I made and how I showed up.

Having spent so long creating start ups and systems wholly designed to bring about change and make this dent I’m so eager to leave (like the awesome adventures of Livity, Live Magazine and somewhereto) it seems strange to have now made my bet on making change, my book.

His book was the last professional adventure of his life. No doubt it also inspired me to write mine. In different ways we were both considering our legacy and I suspect writing a book is a needy egos attempt to leave your name etched into the back of the great armchair of existence.

We both wrote non-fiction manifestos, ‘how-to’ books aimed at arming ordinary people with radical and practical power. Mine however, is a lot funnier.

My book, has been out less than three months in the UK and I’ve had hundreds of messages from readers to let me know how much it has caught fire in their worlds, inspired action and created real change.

And that’s my greatest surprise, and source of pride. Not the book, which is not bad, but the beautiful actions of other people it has inspired. Touching others lives in ways that helped them make their worlds better. If there was 140 characters that my daughters knew about me in 37 years from now, that’s what seems like it’s important.

So somewhere in Be More Pirate is some work begun by my dad, designed to pass on power to real people. And now ‘real people’ are getting in touch with me to tell me it’s working. So, I finally feel like I’ve closed the loop. I feel like this is the last chapter of mine and my dads shared story. Which is a relief, so maybe I can close that book too.

Thanks Dad. I hope you enjoyed it too.

  • Footnote, My mum came to the launch party of the book, I told her about this post. She thought for a while and said, “Actually he died when he was 41, he didn’t make it to 42, so you’re already in the clear” Thanks mum.

Talking of new chapters, this post features as part of a monthly email list I’ve begun to write, if you’d like to receive them, you can sign up here.