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What Will You Do With Your 30,000 Days? – Part 1

May 29, 2024 | Reflections

“But one doesn’t expect out of life what one has already learned that it cannot give, but rather one begins to see more and more clearly that life is only a kind of sowing time, and the harvest is not here.”

Vincent Van Gogh

Life itself as a concept has a scale of almost unimaginable vastness. 8 billion people on Earth each living a unique life. Yet even a single life has its own degree of vastness. Based on my birth year and corresponding life expectancy, my own life could easily extend for 80+ years.

Certainly the old cliches contain that kernel of truth that cliches do. The days are long, and years short, etc. But we don’t have to be in Rent to wonder “how do we measure a life?”

On one of my regular podcast listens, an investor, Chris Davis, recently made the case for an interesting way of looking at life. From his perspective, he felt it helpful to think of life in 10,000 day increments. He argued that the first 10,000 (ending mid-way through the age 27) is about breadth – learning a wide range of things and building relationships. The second 10,000 is about depth. The period of time from the late 20s through mid-50s is about going deep in career, community, and family. The final 10,000 is about breadth again. Building new relationships and experiences – that can benefit from hard earned wisdom, as well as keep the mind sharp.

This perspective has really resonated with me. Not only is it easy to understand and explain – there is a degree of intuitiveness to it that makes sense. That first 10,000 daybreak point seems to correlate with the development of the pre-frontal cortex that happens around 26ish. And we know that around retirement age, there are a number of shifts that occur. While mid-50s is early for retirement, I know many who make transitions to second careers, adjust their work-life intensity, have health challenges, or see many other life events that result in meaningful changes around this period

In a series of posts, we are going to walk through a number of considerations for each 10,000 day window. This is meant to be more descriptive in nature, as opposed to thorouhly prescriptive about the right way to navigate these dynamics. As Charles Kettering said, “a problem well-stated is half-solved.”

For the last several months I have been thinking, reading and writing about each stage. One consistent thought that has emerged is the idea that each period has at its core a series of questions that we each much answer. How well we answer those questions has a significant impact on how well we move from stage to stage. If we have failed to learn the lessons inherent to the current stage, our next stage’s success will be limited.

For example, I regularly see individuals in the final 10K unable to adapt because they are still tied to the norms and rules of middle stage. They cannot become elders and mentors because their self-conception is still dependent upon achievement. Similarly, is a middle life crisis anything more than an attempt to regain that which was present in the first stage?

So this week, we consider the first 10,000.

First 10,000 – Crafting the Dream

Childhood, adolescence, and the early twenties are fascinating in many ways. Each day/week/month/year contains a tremendous amount of change. In short order, you transition from losing teeth, to driving, to leaving home. Across all this, the brain is growing and developing, attempting to absorb and incorporate everything from content knowledge, to relational dynamics, to hand-eye coordination, and more.

In addition to all this foundational learnings, two primary questions seem to surface – “who am I” and “what do I want out of my life.” From their phrasing alone, these questions are inward directed. They are the questions of a new self attempting to differentiate and emerge from its “chrysalis.”

The first question is well publicized and considered. Instead, I would like to consider the second question a bit more deeply, as it seems less commonly thought about.

What do I want out of my life?

This is a sizable question to consider, and it’s not easy to answer.

A disclaimer first – for some, circumstances, resources, and trauma may prevent them from either having the opportunity or developing the ability to answer such a question. Working through this is weighty, tremendous work. Today, we are only contemplating those with the privilege and opportunity to consider life closer to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy.

It is a timeless one though as it cuts to the core of what living life well may be. Sigmund Freud suggested an answer to the question highlighting that the two most critical dimensions of life are work and love.

And both of these domains loom large in the first 10,000 days. Determining what will be your life’s work is a thrilling and terrifying question. It lurks in the background of pressure around grades in high school, what college to attend, and where to go after college graduation. It certainly sits behind the frenzied efforts of ‘snowplow’ parents attempting to chart a linear, “up and to the right” trajectory of success and achievement for their children.

These first 10,000 embody a tremendous amount of preparation – formal education, practical learning, and life experience. Hopefully it provides the raw material to begin to consider a question about what we want out of life. But as a recent college grad told me, “there are just so many possibilities!”

As an answer begins to form, what emerges can best be described as the ‘dream.’ The dream could be particular job. It could be the house with a fence and 2.2 children and dog. The specifics of it are unique to the person and in fact, not the point of it. It is the directionality of it that matters.

Crafting a dream defines what the ideal could be – a direction which while somewhere off in the future, offers a destination compelling enough to march off in search of. It orients our actions and gives us purpose. We are doing these things because we want these outcomes. It has a wonderful degree of causality, a clear sense of if / then outcomes. Simply stated, it offers a vision of life as simple as ‘“if we pursue this path, then these things will occur.”

For many, such a dream emerges fully formed. On my freshman hall in college was a guy who had wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon since high school. Guess what he’s doing now? Just that. It was a weighty, orientating dream that resonated for him across the struggles of med school, residency, fellowships, etc. For others, the dream may take longer to emerge – and that’s ok too.

Coming into the end of this first 10,000 days, life hopefully stands as a blankish canvas. The new adult has developed skills, acquired some basic resources, and formed a set of relationships. From that position, they are ready to approach the canvas and begin painting.

The dream, if scaled appropriately in one’s mind, is nothing more than a working “theory of life.” A view of how life works, what are its constituent parts, and where happiness may be found.

For those who chose not to dream, they seem stuck at the starting line. Not knowing where to go / what to do, they chose to stay put. To a degree, this is what sits at the core of many “failures to launch.”

Next week, we will consider what happens when The Dream runs headlong into reality in the middle 10,000.


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