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David has been writing and publishing since 2006.  

What Will You Do With Your 30,000 Days? – Part 3

Jun 18, 2024 | Reflections

This has been the hardest of the three parts of this series to write, and has occupied most of the several months long period of time I’ve been working on / off on this series.

Before beginning this section, I want to acknowledge the danger of commenting on a life stage where you lack personal experience. And while I cannot offer a point of view in-formed by direct experience, I can share what I have observed and read.

So where to begin? How about here:

No One Actually Believes They Are Old!

Growing up, we would often make the 14 hour drive from our home in Virginia to deep south Alabama to see my grandparents for spring break / Easter. Frequently, my dad, my brother, and I would attend a Sunday school class with my grandfather. The first time we attended this class of septuagenarians and octogenarians and observed how they interacted, I realized that they joked around with one another the same way I did with my friends. Guys, it seems, will be guys – no matter the age.

In a recent Atlantic article, the author describes a study of nearly 1,500 people in which the researchers found that on average most people’s subjective sense of their age is consistently about 20 percent younger than their actual age. How old we are in our head does not correlate with how old the person we see in the mirror is.

This reality I believe is critical to understanding this final 10,000 day window. From the age of 55, you have entered into this window. But arguably for the majority of it – you are not going to feel like you are in it. While you technically may be the ‘senior statesman’ or ‘elder,’ those terms are going to feel as dated to you as your grandmother’s shag carpet. Perhaps even more so, depending on how many vials of Botox you used on your last med-spa visit.

Being old is a newish phenomenon

We should recognize as well that for long portions of human history, old age was infrequent and uncommon.   Consider, at our country’s founding – life expectancy was 33.  By 1900, it was 43, and even as recently as 50 years ago it was 58.  Today, it sits in high 77s, with projections of further longevity for children currently being born.

The point being that our current sort of longevity is unique in human history, and perhaps this may contribute to the challenge / opportunities of this window of time.

We simply do not have as much collective knowledge about how to steward longevity.

How then should one approach this window of time?

Across this series of posts, we have contemplated a key question that we must answer for each 10,000 day period.

I would offer that the question of the final third is what will I do with my time now that I know who I am? Said differently, in light of my now undeniable mortality, what will I do that might mark my time upon the earth?

“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

Jack London

Deconstructing the question further yields three constituent parts: time, self-knowledge, and action.

As one’s time grows shorter, counterintuitively the reality of one’s own mortality can be a tremendous gift, and not just a harbinger of existential woe. Atul Gawande in his wonderful book Being Mortal highlighted the reason for this in the work of Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen.  Carstensen’s key hypothesis is that “how we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have” also known as “socioemotional selectivity theory.” 

When our time horizon [i.e. proximity to death] shortens, the choices we make and things we prioritize change dramatically.  Conversely, when time horizon extends, those choices return to prior priorities. Gawande indicates that this explains why near death experiences may cause someone to make life changes that tend to not persist. The further you get from the experience, its acuity dulls considerably.

A gift of the final 10,000 day window can be the focus that the increasing brevity of time remaining provides.

Now that I know who I am

Determining what to do with the time remaining requires a resolution of the core question of the second 10,000 day window – who am I? Far too often, when I observe and spend time with folks in this window, it becomes clear that they never actually completed the work of the second phase.

For many, the busyness of the window allowed them to bypass the uncomfortable self-work required. Or for many, they continued to redouble their efforts towards pursuing The Dream – despite a gnawing sense that it is not providing what they are looking for.

The well integrated life does not allow you to move to the next thing, until putting the prior thing to bed. As we will discuss in greater detail below, having an clear picture of oneself, having wrestled with one’s past (good, bad, traumatic) in all its complexity, forms the bedrock for the engagement possible in the period ahead.

It is important not to skip or try to shortchange this process. Well integrated self-awareness provides a tremendous of leverage by de-centering the ego and the need for self protection.

What to do with the time that is left?

The feeling that time is increasingly limited can serve to focus the mind and clarify decision making, while at the same time, it can lead to a dangerous sense of pressure (honestly not all that different from the pressure a twenty-something may feel to make something of their life).

In the space remaining, I’d like to consider how to begin to deconstruct the use of one’s time.

First, this is not about legacy! There is a tremendous amount of press and ink spilled about how to create one’s legacy (especially in certain financial circles). This is a fool’s errand. Legacy, your legacy, is not something you get to choose. By definition, legacy is how people will refer to us after we go. Unlike public relations, we do not get to control the narrative.

Think of the apocryphal story of Alfred Nobel. Upon reading his own obituary accidentally printed that referred to him as The Merchant of Death, he was inspired to change his legacy by funding the Nobel Prize.

But did it work?

The Nobel Prizes were begun in 1901. How many of Nobel’s contemporaries are still in public consciousness today – few. Yet, today we reference Noble because of the prize, but also because of the story of what prompted him to action. Despite his own efforts to remove the narrative, it is inextricably linked – he is both the Merchant of Death, and the founder of the Prize.

We certainly don’t know how Nobel would interpret this legacy – but I think it just highlights that legacies are complicated.

So if ‘legacy-management’ is not the ultimate goal here, what is?

Many call this period retirement, though I am not sure that is helpful.  While there may be a transition in employment status, this window is simply too long to rest indefinitely. For some, there is the removal of the economic intensity for full time vocation.

Savings and good fortune often generate enough financial wealth to limit or remove the monetary reasons for work. There are many reasons why this period may involve turning down the dial.  A desire for greater balance in life, a chance to pursue other priorities often times entail an moderation in activity.

This stage is also marked by a shift in familial roles.  For most, not necessarily all,  the most intense phases of parenting will have concluded. Empty nesting may have come and gone as children leave home, individuate, and begin to establish their own households.  Grandparenting may begin.  Similarly, you may also be caretaking or supporting the care of aging parents.

Across all the major domains of life, there is a change in how you engage with them in the final 10,000.

In prior days, the role most frequently assumed was referred to as eldering.

But I have yet to meet anyone enthusiastic about adopting that title – it sounds awful – and is in desperate need of a branding consultant. 

Elder is simply too close to elderly – which brings connotations of frailty and feebleness.

In the absence of a better term, what does applied eldering look like? 

First, if the elder has actually wrestled with themselves as discussed above, a key transformation can begin to occur in this window of time. Simply, doing can now be separated from being. For far too much of prior life, the work of our lives is too closely tied to our sense of self; self-importance, self-security, etc. etc. This sort of existential weight sitting behind our work only further exacerbated the stress of it. The late Pastor Tim Keller often referred to this as the ‘work beneath the work.’

From a place of security, we can now begin to apply, perhaps for the first time, the concept of ‘right effort’ to our work. Right effort, a Buddhist concept, considers the application of the right level of force required, but nothing beyond. If we can begin to consider our work from right effort – it frees us to consider whether we have to be the one to actually do the work, or do we get to serve instead as the catalyst?

In chemistry, a catalyst starts a chemical reaction, but is not required necessarily for the reaction to continue. Earlier in our lives, our engagement is much more akin to the pig in the preparation of breakfast vs. the chicken (who as the joke only contributed when compared to what was required of the pig to make sausage).

But now as elders, we may not be required to be as fully engaged. Instead, we can support, encourage, inspire, and offer wisdom to others. This is why so many in this window of life find much joy in serving as mentors, coaches, and other forms of wise counsel to others.

Their sage input into the lives of others enables a scale of impact that may have been unthinkable early in life. The focus required to do a singular thing well and at tremendous depth of the middle 10,000 is inherently limiting. A mentor well equipped to support others, scales their impact.

But this scale is only possible if they are willing to step aside and let the protege perhaps exceed the elders own prior heights. This is a tremendous risk and is untenable to those who remain insecure in who they are. You cannot support and cheer on another, who may surpass even your own greatness, if you have not finally and satisfactorily answered the place of achievement in your life. One cannot become Yoda if they still believe themselves to be uniquely and singularly capable of Skywalker-esque feats.

In other domains, we see this wisdom present. Athletes who hold records instinctively know the tenuous tenure of their place in the record books. What was once impossible will eventually become commonplace. They cannot begrudge those who come later and do even more for their efforts – in the same way that they too benefited from the ‘giants on whose shoulders they stood’ for their own achievements.

How to begin?

It is actually quite simple – the elders in my life have done 2 things exceptionally well. First, they saw me. They took notice of my presence. Secondly, they ask lots and lots of questions.

One of the greatest certainties I have learned in life is that we all our eager to share about ourselves. We want to be known. When someone takes the time to hear our story, it is a tremendous gift. 

The key here is that the best elders use questions, not pontificating nor lecturing. Most people can dictate an answer to a problem that they think they know the answer to. But when the answer is given, the hearer does not learn how to reach the answer on their own. Moreover by shortcutting the path to the answer, it can subtly signal a lack of trust or a limited belief in the hearer’s capability to reach those conclusions on their own.

The true elder learns use questions masterfully, and knows that through the asking they can still provide guidance and wisdom.

Those in this third 10,000 day window have a unique opportunity to consolidate a life’s work, and then serve as a blessing to others. Hopefully freed from purely selfish pursuits, the true elder can seek the good of the whole. They can engage in the lives of others for the pleasure of knowing another person, and the desire to support and encourage them in their life’s journey.


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Nashville, TN