3 Ways We Evolve in Midlife.
“We spend the first half of our lives defining ourselves by the sentences: I am what I do…I am what others say about me…or I am what I have." - Henri Nouwen
MEA alum Douglas Tsoi carried Henri Nouwen's sentiment one step further when he recently offered me this exquisite question that anyone in their forties might consider, "How was the first half of your life defined by achievement, display, and status?"
First, just reading that question feels like a sock to my gut. I spent two dozen years as the CEO of a high-profile company I started in my mid-twenties. As one of the few out, gay CEOs in San Francisco in the mid-1980s, my identity was clearly forged by my business card. It took me having an NDE (going flatline nine times in 90 minutes) for me to see that I am more than what I do and that my life was in desperate need of more "being" and less "doing." Less than two years later, I sold my company at the bottom of the Great Recession and have never felt as liberated as I did that summer of 2010.
Second, yes, I have spent my life as a people-pleaser. I'll never forget when one of my more artistic, offbeat high school friends said to me, "Chip, I'll never like you." I felt wounded and asked what I'd done wrong, and she said, "I hate being like everyone else, and everyone else likes you, so I'll never like you." In that one moment, I realized I had very little control over what other people thought of me. Later on, in midlife, I realized that what really mattered in my career was to be the most respected leader, not the most popular one.
Lastly, in the first half of our life, we accumulate, and, in the second half, we edit. I've started to realize that my ultimate possessions aren't material. They're the character qualities that I'm developing. So, yes, if "I am what I have" describes the human qualities of this work-in-progress named Chip Conley, then I'm all for that. But, if I'm in some arms race with my neighbors about my possessions, then I truly am "possessed" in that consumerist witchcraft kind of way.
Midlife is our time to stop trying to impress, junk the "success script" that someone wrote for us, and own our wisdom. It's the time to get comfortable in our own skin, just as it's starting to sag.