How to Not Wake up Depressed on Your 40th Birthday
“God, I’ve wasted the best years of my life.”
That was the first thought I had when I woke up on my 30th birthday. I’d spent my twenties just coasting through life, not leaving home until I joined the army at 26. I pretty much had nothing to show for it — it wasn’t like I’d been chasing an unrealistic dream or even just trying a bunch of things to see what stuck. Nope, I’d spent my twenties failing through my first degree, then doing another degree (which I passed) and being a gaming addict. World of Warcraft was my poison of choice.
It’s all horribly embarrassing to me, even now. I still can’t believe my parents didn’t give me some kind of ultimatum, like “get your shit together and get out of our house, before we kick you out.” God, I needed someone like Jocko Willink back then.
That was a decade ago now, and I’m happy to say that my 40th birthday last week was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum compared to my 30th. I spent the day feeling incredibly satisfied about where I am in life right now and what has happened over the last decade. People have asked me the typical questions:
Do you feel old?
How does it feel to be 40?
Do you feel down because you’ve already peaked?
Pretty vanilla, but the tone of voice and facial expressions indicated that they were asking if I feel like my life is over, am I regretful, do I feel sad and all the other questions we associate with decade milestones from 40 onwards. The answer is obviously no, but why is that the case? Initially I figured that my current satisfaction with the last decade was because I had achieved so much, but after scratching below the surface I realised that maybe this wasn’t the case.
If my twenties were a wasted decade where the only things I achieved were getting a bachelor’s degree and getting married, my thirties were the opposite. The army changed me from being someone who coasted to being someone with focus and intensity. That’s why in my thirties I found success in my career, in writing, in my sporting endeavours and in my family life with our first child and buying a house. I basically just didn’t let up — when I ticked off one achievement, it was on to the next.
Surely that’s why I feel so good, right? Well, maybe not.
Over the last year or so, I started getting this niggling feeling that all the achievement actually wasn’t making me happy. When I realised everything that I’d done and the fact that I still didn’t feel satisfied, I began wondering what it would actually take for that to be the case.
When I took off the rose coloured glasses, I realised that there were some pretty shit times in my thirties as well. Some periods of real darkness and adversity that I struggled to make my way through, just barely making it out the other end. Stuff that took me years to process so I’d stop making the same mistakes again. Health problems that forced unwanted changes upon me.
If I’m being honest, it’s not like I feel that the achievements even outweigh the hardships. The hardships were so hard and the achievements so big that I think the ledger is pretty much squared up between the two. That’s what made me question how I could be satisfied and happy with how the decade has turned out.
After all, if my achievements merely served to balance out the hard times, well, that doesn’t seem like much of a win does it?
The eureka moment
That’s when I realised that it’s not about what I’ve achieved, what hardships I’ve endured or what struggles I’ve overcome. The key to being happy at 40 is the fact that I spent the entire decade doing my absolute best to not leave a single scrap on the table. I worked hard in my career — probably harder than I should have at times. I gave my absolute best in the competitive arena in sport. I kept writing even when I didn’t see any kind of momentum. Most importantly, I kept picking myself up off the canvas and tried again every single time I failed.
There were a lot of failures. Far more than there were successes, but the successes were euphoric.
Continuously giving my best is what changed life from depression at 30 to satisfaction at 40. That’s because it’s the effort that matters. As long as we’re trying, as long as we’re out there every day in the thick of it and giving it our best, that’s what counts. We could all have better foresight and make better decisions, that’s a given. If I’d possessed greater foresight on just a few things at the time, my success in all arenas of life would be many times greater than what it is right now.
But if we’re going to lament our own lack of foresight, we might as well lament the fact that we weren’t born with billionaire parents. It’s out of our control.
Choices need to be seen in the correct light
I beat myself up pretty badly at 30 for the mistakes I’d made during my twenties. It’s what spurred on my almost manic obsession with achievement in the last decade. I don’t do that anymore. Mistakes are a natural consequence of living on this planet. Even with my voracious appetite for reading and learning, I realise that every decision I make actually comes with very little in the way of information. Much like the spectrum of light where our naked eye is only able to see a tiny portion of it, in any given situation we don’t know anywhere near as much as we believe.
Looking back now, I used to armchair quarterback my past self in a manner that was far too critical. We always lament the good decisions we didn’t make, realising how much better we’d be doing now if we’d invested in that stock, bought that house or asked for that promotion. We never look back and wonder what might have happened if we’d made a bad decision instead. We see it as a dichotomy — we didn’t make the decision we feel we should have, and we pay the price.
That ignores an important reality: there are often more than 2 choices in any given situation. We castigate ourselves for not picking the best option, but ignore the fact that we at least chose the option that dealt no harm.
That’s why at forty, I’m nicer to myself. I realise that I’m pretty much at capacity right now and whatever decisions I make I’m doing with a mix of caution, optimisim and as much knowledge as I can throw at it. Even that mix isn’t going to guarantee anything, but I can’t do any better and mistakes are part of the human experience.
As long as I learn from each mistake, I haven’t lost completely.
How to avoid having your own mid-life crisis
People often wake up and have the dreaded mid-life crisis at forty or fifty because they realise they’ve given their best years to a job they don’t care that much for in order to accumulate status and wealth, and to provide for their family. That being done, they feel like they’ve been left with the dregs. That their physical peak has passed and all they can look forward to is the long, slow decline of getting older. That’s why they go and buy a sports car or Harley Davidson, because that’s their way of trying to take back their physical prime.
I don’t feel this way. Especially in the physical sense, because until a couple of years ago, I was actively competing in sports the entire time. Someone did ask me this week “do you feel sad to know that you’ve already peaked?” The answer to that is a big fat no. How could I? In the 22 years between high school and now, I’ve competed at national level in two different sports and state level in another. While I’ve retired from competition, I still train like an athlete and try to improve in my chosen sport.
You can’t lament passing your peak when you’ve made the most of your best years. Sure, I could have competed at an even higher level if I’d known more at the time or if I’d started earlier but again, that’s unrealistically wishing for foresight. I’m not disappointed with the fact that I wasn’t more successful, I’m thrilled with the fact that I gave everything I had and didn’t waste anything.
So to wrap this up before it gets too long:
- Don’t sacrifice your health and the best years of your life at work. Go and try that sport, train for that boxing match, go for hikes. Enjoy your body at its peak, because you’re never going to get it again.
- Don’t be a coaster. Don’t just sit back with a “meh” attitude, accepting what life throws at you.
- Balance duty and responsibility with making your heart sing. There is no point in sacrificing your happiness and spirit for your family because at the end, they might be financially supported but they’ll be as depressed as you are.
- Do your best, accept that mistakes are part of being human and just keep moving forward.
There’s a Better Question to Ask Than “What Do I Really Want?
And it will make any major life decision easy