Like’s full of paradoxes. “Treat every day as your last.” Live in the moment and enjoy your life. “There’s no time like the present; time waits for no man.”
A few years ago, I was at an office Christmas party. The CEO wondered up to me and said, “So how’s it going, Fritzy?”
Ken’s been a long-time mentor of mine, and he’s a person whose company I genuinely enjoy – his impact delivered mostly through example and the standards by which he lives his life. He’s worked very hard all his life and has built a substantial business from almost nothing while managing to lead a harmonious and fulfilling life.
But he was now in his 70’s and still committing a lot of time to the company.
Some months ago, I’d pressed him about his plans for the future and asked when he was going to spend more time doing the other things he loved.
He said, “I’m having too much fun to quit.”
That’s a great answer, but I sensed his real reason was rooted more in nostalgia and an out-dated belief system that says your work should supersede pleasure right till the day you die.
So that day at the Christmas party, I said, “Ken, your biggest problem is you think you have time.” It caught him a little off-guard.
“Say that again,” he said. So I did. “Write it down for me!”
I’d struck a nerve. Ken hadn’t considered just how little time was left to him, or the opportunities this realisation offered. Like so many of us, his work ethic was too deeply ingrained, and the idea of restructuring his life to let the most important stuff in had never taken root.
A year later, he announced he’d be stepping down as CEO to take on the role of Board Chairman.
I was excited to witness his transformation. I recall seeing him a few weeks after he changed roles and the difference was palpable. He looked dangerously healthy, visibly happier and almost cheeky in his demeanour.
Though he still contributes to the business, he now has a well-utilised gym membership, and his accomplishment with his guitar (a once latent hobby) is improving exponentially. He has walked the 800km Camino de Santiago in Spain, and he’s travelled to Italy and Antarctica with his wife and friends.
Nowadays we catch up regularly for breakfast, which I value enormously. He says our catch-ups help him to stay in sync with a younger person’s perspective on things.
Leaving it Too Late
Now contrast Ken’s decision with my dad’s old boss, Joe. He too had built a very successful business – much of it off the back of my dad’s reputation as a craftsman and a builder of substance and integrity. Over the course of three or four decades, he acquired a substantial property portfolio. He could have easily thrown in the towel a decade or two before he actually did.
It wasn’t till his wife died that he made the decision to stop. For years, she’d begged him to travel. But like so many of us, he didn’t stop to consider there might be another world out there – beyond working and accumulating stuff.
There were many things he wanted in life, but his only concession to pleasure was a small yacht that he sailed on the occasional weekend. His car was a rusty old Valiant with a potato sack on the seat (to stop the springs from ripping off the family jewels). He really wanted a Mercedes-Benz, but despite having enough money to run a fleet of them, he never scratched that itch. He said he didn’t want customers knowing he had money.
After his wife died, he had his light-bulb moment. He would finally travel!
He set out on a trip to Antarctica (coincidentally, number one on his wife’s bucket list). Unfortunately, he became gravely ill… and he died.
His biggest mistake was he thought he had time. And now the two useless bums that happen to be his sons are pissing away the massive fortune he left behind.
These two stories raise an important question. Should you drop everything and follow your dreams? The answer is if you can afford to, then yes! If you can’t – well, no. Not yet, anyway.
The answer, of course, depends on a range of factors, not least of which is the courage to take the perceived risk. I’ve seen plenty of men with businesses that run very well without them, or which are ripe for acquisition, but they just can’t let go. They honestly think their world will end if they’re not driving the machine or badgering their staff every day.
More often than not, it’s more a fear of identity loss or a lack of post-retirement plans rather than an inability to finance retirement. They simply don’t know what they’d do with themselves if they weren’t ‘at work’.
Likewise, a lot of you will climb the corporate ladder; acquiring the requisite trinkets in the process, only to get to develop a mindset that there’s no way back. You might have decades of experience in a particular field, with a unique set of skills and an impressive salary, but your ability to pivot diminishes with age.
Could you find a job in this field again or switch careers altogether? Could you leave it all behind to start something of your own? How would a dramatic change affect your income, your reputation or your ego?
So the question persists. Can you afford to follow your dreams? Can your ego, your income, and your perceived reputation handle such a decision? Thinking positive, dreaming big and burning your bridges is easy when you’re in your twenties, but doing it in your forties or fifties takes planning.
In some cases, I think it’s best to stay where you are, but restructure your work arrangements or your personal commitments to allow room for other things in your life. That thing you’ve always wanted to do or that passion you want to explore; a lot of things these days can be pursued on the side.
Over time, they can be monetised. They can find multiple channels in which to live and spread. They can become a proper side-hustle. For many people, this is perfect.
Man’s Greatest Surprise is Old Age
Ask any man in his 70’s or 80’s. Hell, I’m in my late 40’s and I can’t believe how quickly I got here. If you want to enjoy your second act and live life on your own terms, then recognise that what you do tomorrow matters. What you do every day matters. If you don’t change what you’re doing, nothing else will change.
And simply knowing that you can break away from your old routine is the most important foundation stone on the path you seek to create.
It’s not just that you can live a life of harmony and fulfilment. You absolutely must. Otherwise, what’s the point of it all? If all the risk-taking, arse-kissing and grinding hasn’t made you happy, what the hell have you been doing it for?
After all, how much time do you think you have…?
Also published on Medium.