Midlife Mentors – Seth Godin | Entrepreneur, Best-Selling Author & Speaker
Unique thoughts on anxiety, thrills, endings & feeling stuck.
Each of us has a place where we do our best thinking. For me, it's on the open road with a day's driving ahead of me and a desert over the horizon. It's also my garage, where I retreat for ‘phase two' of my work every day at around 5:30 pm. I sit at my camp table, and I study my mentors. I think, and I write.
When I pulled up my Ikea chair on the first day of this year, I suddenly had an idea. It occurred to me that nearly all my mentors were over forty. Each had influenced the man I'd become, and some were pivotal when life truly tested me. Could I convince these incredible people to share their midlife journey with me – with us? My closest mentors – the ones I'd known for years – would do it, but what about my idols?
Following my 2:00 am-on-the-toilet moment in 2015, my life underwent a rapid transformation. It was my mentors (many of them newly-discovered) who helped me crawl from the abyss of anxiety and depression.
My situation wasn't unique, though – millions share the same struggles every day. I was 47, divorced, re-married and mortgaged. And despite having what many would deem ‘a good life', I felt lost and unfulfilled. A wandering generality; stuck in a perpetual routine where much of it felt pointless.
I suspect you've felt the same at some point. It's like we've been running for 20 or 30 years but never looked up to see if we're running in the right direction. We set out to scale our mountain, but miss a few markers along the way because we failed to check our bearings. Then one day we collapse, realising our mountain has drifted entirely out of view.
That was me in mid-2015. And then I discovered Seth.
It was Corbett Barr and Chase Reeves (of Fizzle.co) who introduced me (and all their listeners) to this incredible man. I recall Chase saying he'd cancelled his subscription to Seth's blog for a while because it was changing his life every day, and it was too much!
It's true. Here's what I wrote about Seth's new podcast, Akimbo.
Seth has a way of cutting through a belief, position or problem in a way that makes you stand back, hands on hips, and say, “Holy sh*t, I never thought of it that way before…” I've stopped highlighting passages in his books because it's pointless. I might as well paint every page yellow.
His first podcast, ‘Startup School', had my wife and me listening to each episode about half a dozen times – it's that good. His new one is even better.
I've given his books to people I care about, shared his interviews via email, and quoted his insights countless times.
Between his 18 best-selling books (translated into 35-plus languages), his courses (included the much-lauded altMBA), and the two companies he founded – Yoyodyne (acquired by Yahoo! in '98) and Squidoo (acquired by HubPages in '14), Seth has built an impeccable reputation on a global scale.
His blog is one of the most popular in the world (over a million readers), and his ideas around the post-industrial revolution, marketing, quitting and leadership are referenced and revered by change-makers the world over.
His achievements are so broad, it's almost impossible for me to do them justice, here.
But getting back to my epiphany, I knew if I could convince half a dozen people to share their thoughts on midlife, I could then approach someone of Seth's calibre. He might still reject me, or worse, ignore me, but at least I'd have a shot.
I'd wanted to write Seth many times before – to thank him for his work and the impact it's had on my life. But I knew he was incredibly busy, and the last thing he needed was another gushing email from a starry-eyed fanboy.
Also, I didn't believe I had any business reaching out to him until I'd done my best work for at least a year or more. So having just completed 100 long-form posts (one every week) – I approached top New York writer, Laura Belgray, to help finalise the questions for my idea.
The plan was to start with my local mentors, then my overseas allies, until finally, eventually… I'd ask Seth.
But then I remembered the word, ‘Kamiwaza'. It means to be God-like, with no wasted motion; to act with absolute confidence and even hubris. It's a term of Japanese origin that Seth used in his seminal book, The Icarus Deception. And it occurred to me that I'd used it all the time growing up but had allowed the events of the last decade to silence it.
I decided to embrace it once again. I ditched the original plan and spent three hours writing a letter to Seth about my idea for Midlife Mentors.
A day later, he responded.
I was understandably thrilled, honoured and humbled. But not surprised – both because of the person I believed him to be and the position from which I'd asked. I knew my intentions were pure, and I believed in what I sought to achieve.
In an instant, I went from 99% committed to all in. There was no turning back.
Seth wrote a beautiful book called What to do When it's Your Turn, and as the title might suggest, this post you're reading represents a single manifestation of what that book teaches – to do my best work, even though it may not work.
And so I'm delighted to present this original perspective on midlife, thanks to my hero, Seth Godin.
Seth's Thoughts on Midlife
Do you consider yourself middle-aged, and how do you feel about this moniker?
It’s possible to reframe this. I’ve definitely discovered that there are countless things I can’t or won’t do anymore. The roller skis got put away forever last year. (I’ll spare you the rest of the list). But I’ve also found that there are countless things that I CAN do now, places where I can have leverage, contributions I can make… so yes, very much a shift, but I don’t think age is the best way for me to formulate it.
Is there something you loved to do when you were young that you've since ‘rediscovered' and embraced in later years?
I’d like to say it’s playing bass guitar, however, I never used to know how to play and I still don’t. Instead, I’m working harder than ever at embracing and supporting important causes, coaching non-profit leaders to help them make a bigger ruckus. My parents taught me this, and it’s an incredible privilege to do it.
Do you believe middle age (say, 40-65) is different today than it was for your parents? If so, how?
Without a doubt, there’s been a seismic shift in our attitudes and our physical health. Not only do people live longer, they live longer more reliably. We’ve shifted our illnesses as well. The downside, at least for right now, is that the end of life sucks more than it ever did before. Sudden death is an outcome we don’t give out as easily as we used to.
What was the most challenging aspect of approaching middle age? What fears or concerns did you have?
Our culture isn’t particularly good at endings. The last episode of Seinfeld, the end of the Harry Potter series, the lame duck president… If we focus too much on that, we end up taking our eyes away from right here and right now.
At the end of each year, I list the habits, practices and beliefs I'm going to say ‘yes' to and ‘no' to next year. As a mentor to other mid-lifers, what would be some of your ‘yeses' and ‘nos'?
Whatever list works for anyone who makes a list.
What's a tactic you've used to gain more control over your life?
I don’t watch TV and I don’t go to meetings. I’ve read Annie Duke’s amazing book, Thinking in Bets, and that, combined with the lessons in the altMBA have helped me become ever more focused on doing work that matters.
What's a limiting belief you've abandoned (or reframed) in the last 12 months?
I’m a bit more patient with myself when it comes to the thrilling. I’m not nearly as interested in being thrilled (by sports or drama) than I used to be.
What is your dominant cause of anxiety or frustration, and how do you deal with it?
Anxiety for most of us is experiencing failure in advance. And it’s a habit. Like all habits, you can focus on something else if you choose. Frustration? As people who have seen my ‘This is Broken' talk on TED know, bad design frustrates me every day. That and the willingness each of us has to accept a bit less.
Did you suffer a midlife crisis? How did it show up for you and what helped you to overcome it?
Everyone does. And it’s never particularly unique. But our response to it (instead of our reaction to it) is up to us.
What book would you recommend to a person over 40 who wants to reinvent their life, and why?
The Art of Possibility, by Ben and Roz Zander. I won’t pitch it any harder than, “you need to read this book.” (PF: I purchased and read this book immediately after Seth's recommendation, and it's hard to argue. It's a revelation. It may well become an annual read for me.)
Many mid-lifers who write to me say they feel lost, unfulfilled and shackled by circumstance (much of their own making). What advice would you offer them?
How is that feeling helping you? If it’s not helping you, what feeling could you replace it with?
What advice would you give to a mid-lifer who believes they're stuck on a certain path and should just accept it?
Stuck is a choice. Not merely the external stuck, but our narrative of stuck. Change the narrative first. It’s easier.
Can you think of a way you’ve surprised yourself at an age where many people feel ‘set in their ways’?
Lots of things are difficult. They’ve been difficult ever since we learned to walk. But doing difficult things that are important is the essence of contribution and achievement, isn’t it?
Seth talks a lot about the ‘lizard brain' – the pre-historic lump called the amygdala. It controls our emotional response to stimuli and is responsible for much of our fears, anger, doubts and delays. It's what prevents us from knuckling down and doing what we said we'd do. It dilutes our best work and turns everything vanilla. Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, calls it ‘the resistance'.
I've learned many things from Seth, but this is one of the most profound. It's that we each have the capacity for great work, to do our art, and to be of service – if we can just quiet the lizard brain. Because the more we do it, the more often we approach life with Kamiwaza, the better we get at it.
And then with humility and grace, we can become who we're meant to be, and make our own little dent in the universe.
Thank you, Seth.
More of Seth Godin
To learn more about Seth, including his books, courses, podcast, talks and interviews, please go to sethgodin.com.
Other Midlife Mentors
Also published on Medium.