Fifty is a magic number

Dr Ivan Joseph
November 9, 2020

It’s half-way to a hundred. I think it’s the prettiest colored Canadian dollar bill.  It’s a round number and has heft to it. I also believe that it’s where wisdom starts to shine through on our journey of life.

I spent my youth doing what every kid should be doing. I was trying not to be awkward and navigate my way through school–my first chest hair, my first kiss and the challenges of algebra. The struggles were real for those of a certain vintage. My twenties were about launching into the big wide world: first jobs, chasing the dollar and living life as if there was no tomorrow. I was busy trying to carve out my own identity—beginning to stand on my own two feet.

Climbing the career ladder, mortgages, sleepless nights, and changing countless diapers filled my 30’s. They were over in a flash. I spent my 40’s as a taxi service to my three kids, volunteer soccer coach and carpool dad. Balancing work and family life always left me feeling like I was robbing Peter to pay Paul, and the debts were never paid in full. If my life was a sitcom, I imagined it was going to be like the Cosby Show, but it ended up being more like a recurring episode of Roseanne (and you can’t reference either one of these classics anymore).

Then something happened at 50.

I began to feel like I had arrived. I started to be comfortable in my own skin and moved away from the trappings of status, title and recognition and more towards a purpose-driven life. In order to find contentment with my job, I stopped looking at work as an occupation and a place to draw my paycheck. Instead, I started focusing on work as a place to find alignment and add value to my community.

Here are the top three lessons I have learned in my 50th year that I wish I could tell my 30 year-old self:

Give yourself grace. Stop judging yourself against all other leaders. There is no single archetype of how to lead or how to be successful. I spent too much time wishing I was structured like ‘Sam,’ had the budget acumen of ‘Chris’ or was strategic like ‘Alex.’ By doing that, I discounted the things I was actually great at. I too often started my sentences with disparaging or discounting remarks about my ability. The next time you find yourself introducing an idea in a team meeting, you might be tempted to start with: “I’m not sure this is a good idea” or “This may not make any sense, but.” Stop yourself. Take the self-criticism out of the introduction. This will only serve to undermine others belief in your leadership and reinforces your own doubts in your ability to lead.
Key Take-away: If you don’t believe in yourself, who will?

Relationships matter. The power of relationships is necessary for moving ideas forward. At the start of our career, we are often quick to spend a lot of time and energy on technical skill acquisition or process-driven pieces of our job that we forget how much people matter.

You can’t move a great idea forward without getting people on board. This might be people you lead, your supervisors or your partners. Others willingness to be engaged, to assist and dig in to do the heavy lifting is significantly influenced by whether they have a positive relationship with you. Many times, in my early career, I gave away the small-talk that was happening at the water cooler or the after-work drinks because I didn’t see the value in those minutes and hours. I had other things to do.

We all need relationships. I learned this the hard way when trying to move a complex project through an organization, and there was nobody willing to come to the table of their own volition to help.

Take the time to learn about the people you work with. What makes their heart sing? What are their pet peeves? What makes them feel valuable and important to the team? It’s important for us to know what matters to the people we lead and the people who lead us. I have often found that people are more willing to serve when I have the generosity of leadership that offers team members the roles that suit them best or make sure there is something in the project for them.
Key Take-away: High performing leaders focus both on the task and the relationship.

Create boundaries. There is never enough time to do the work, and the work is never done. Too many times, I spent long days and weekends serving my job at the expense of my family and the relationships that matter. Too many Halloweens, Easter egg hunts, family dinners and milestones passed me by. You can’t get those memories back. If you’re not careful, by the time you want that relationship, that relationship has passed.

My wife is a social worker at an Intensive Care Unit. Daily, she is bedside with people in their last moments. She tells me that the wealthiest people in her unit are often the ones with the fewest visitors at their time of passing. It is the ones who lived with more modest lifestyles and fewer possessions who have lived the richest lives evidenced by rooms filled with people whose lives they have touched.

I’m not saying you have to work a 37.5-hour week and never stay a minute late. I am saying, “Pay attention.” Recognize what you are giving up, and that you can never get it back. Young leaders have a tendency to feel we are indispensable to the task at hand. That behavior models unhealthy behavior to your other team members. We are all replaceable. The show will go on without us.

Key Take-away: Trust your team.

I’m realizing that I am moving towards the end on this journey of life. This is something that happens as you see it coming closer. I am looking at my legacy and trying to figure out, “How did I add value to this world?” I used to be about working as hard as I could to achieve or being the very best I could to fuel my inner competitor. Now, upon reflection, I realize the people who had the most significant impact on my life were the ones who took time to invest in me, to nurture and to help me along the way. No one does anything alone. So, if you are closer to the edge of 50 and you’re reading this, reach a hand back and lift somebody up. If you’re in the early stages in your career and you’re reading this, take a moment to smell the roses and invest in the people around you. Life goes by fast. Before you know it, you’ll be hitting your magic number.

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