Turning 40Oct 24, 2023
There’s an imaginary line that runs along the Rocky Mountains and from time to time, it’s marked by signs like this one:
Every drop of rain that falls on the right side of the sign ends up in the Pacific Ocean. Every drop that falls on the left side makes it to the Atlantic.
Turning 40 is a bit like that sign.
To be honest, it’s been a while since I’ve turned 40, but I work with a lot of men and women in the 35-42 age category, and the subject keeps coming up.
Life has seasons—college, life with young kids, an empty nest, etc. Turning 40 is another season. Victor Hugo said, “Forty is the old age of youth. Fifty is the youth of old age.” You’ve tipped the seesaw, and it feels like there’s as much or more in your past as there is in your future.
And as much as we joke about it, it still takes us by surprise. A Boston Globe editorialist described the process a few years back in an article entitled, "Seriously, what's so traumatic about turning 40?"
Yes, 40 is “just” a number. But there’s stuff going on with you at this stage of life—physically, physiologically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. I think it’s worth calling attention to.
Turning 40 Is Hard
The Boston Globe article I mentioned noted that research shows people are least happy right around 40. The research says that financial and career stress is high, and in many cases, you’re caring for both children and parents.
I think that’s part of it, but I also think there’s a lot happening internally. I’ve met lots of guys over the years who start to lose their footing as they approach 40. The routine they’ve had in life doesn’t seem to still be working, and they feel behind. At work, they know that their value isn’t as high as the young guns. The confident attitude they’ve used to approach life has been replaced by some self-doubt.
Sometime around 40, you also realize you’re not hip (if you ever were). I had a conversation with the 40-year-old founder of a global non-profit. I told him my college-aged son thought he (the 40-year-old leader) was more like good ol’ dad than like a cool college student. Ouch. You’re not as up on technology, and it shows. You don’t look good in skinny jeans, and it shows.
I meet man after man who has been feeling less motivated, less confident, less valuable, and more tired, more behind, and more out of place than they were five years ago. And they can’t figure out why. I ask them their age, and the answer is always between 36 and 40. It sneaks up on us.
Sure, there are exceptions, but mostly in the sense of whether it happens at 40 or 43. Here's what the ESPN team said in mentioning some of the greats.
4 Steps to Successful 40
“40 steps” would have a good ring to it, but I don’t have that many. You wouldn’t read it anyway. So we’ll go with four instead.
Step One: Be reflective.
I’m a huge advocate of setting aside time for reflection and contemplation. Birthdays, holidays, New Year’s, anniversaries—they’re all natural times to look over your shoulder, to look back. Do that when you turn 40. You’ve got some perspective now. As Ben Franklin said, “At twenty years of age, the will reigns. At thirty, the wit. At forty, the judgment.”
Look back at the past year, decade, and four decades. What are you most grateful for? Write out your list. What are you most proud of? Be grateful for that, too. What were your biggest mistakes? Learn from them.
Step Two: Stay out of the ditch.
Watch out for extreme thinking or actions. I’ve seen lots of guys around 40 who think that a new job or a new wife or a new boat will give them the energy or drive they begin to sense is lacking. They take a huge swing at a ball they can barely see, like a frustrated gambler doubling down not because he has a good hand but because he feels like he lost the last hand. The ditch is real, ugly, and harsh. Practice the Mark Twain rule of measuring twice and cutting once. While journeying on “road 40,” steer away from the ditch.
Step Three: Hit reset, but carefully.
Avoid the ditch of rash decisions but don’t avoid change. Hit reset and re-imagine the future a bit. Consider what you can and should restructure. There are lots of changes you could make:
- Change your schedule—Get up or go to bed earlier or later.
- Change your activities—Add some exercise or a hobby, hire a kid to do your lawn, or fire him and do it yourself.
- Change your workflow—Decrease your meeting routines in exchange of deep thought time.
- Change your influence—Take advantage of your age. As Jerry Seinfeld said, “Forty is when you actually begin even deserving to be on stage telling people what you think.”
- Change your responsibilities—Step off or on a board. Step into a volunteer role in the community or at church.
- Change your money—Give away more money to something you’re passionate about. Save money for your daughter’s wedding.
- Change your relationships—Get a mentor or a mentee or some peers you can be honest with.
- Change your job—Consider whether a new challenge might be a good fit.
Turning 40 is a great time for a reset. Just be objective about the risks and remember: you don’t have to destroy the foundation. Consider the 10/10/10 rule the Heath brothers wrote about in Fast Company. How will I feel about this decision 10 minutes from now? 10 months from now? 10 years from now?
Step Four: Don’t go rogue.
At every season of life, authentic community is invaluable. Authentic community will help you recall the blessings and mistakes. Authentic community will serve as guardrails to keep you from making rash decisions. Authentic community will challenge you to make changes and then hold you accountable to cementing those changes into your life. Authentic community will even be honest with you about how badly you dance. Don’t go it alone, but especially on the 40 journey. If you are entering the 40 zone and you don’t have community, you are especially vulnerable. I promise you.
Turning 40 can actually be the gate to the most productive and fulfilling season of your life. You gotta get through it and build some new footing. But it truly is possible. Find a new vision and then make a lane change on Interstate 50 and start moving.
Want to receive Steve's articles in your inbox?
We will never sell your information, for any reason.