Turning 50Nov 27, 2023
People who are close to me or are regular readers of these articles know that I’ve been studying the topic of “aging gracefully” over the past couple of years. While it makes sense for a guy in my season of life—empty nester, relatively new grandparent, on the back side of some business and career transitions—the genesis of the aging research can be traced to a single moment.
In late summer of 2021, I read a quote that I’ll paraphrase this way: “As you age, you become an exaggerated version of your negative self.” If I tend toward impatience, I will likely become more impatient as I get older. If I’m judgmental, I’ll become more entrenched in how I negatively view people. If I’m a people-pleaser, or a workaholic, or driven by shame—the list goes on and on—I’ll likely become more that way as I get older.
Although logic might lead one to believe that people should become more patient or gracious as they get older (we should be tired of the negativity!), as I looked around me, that simply wasn’t happening. The quotation seemed true more often than not. Whatever ditches I have in my life, they’ll just get deeper because I just keep digging.
I immediately began to feel sorry for my family and close friends. Then I began to ask myself whether this outcome is a guarantee. Can it be hacked? I am still pondering some of the insights and learnings.
For many, aging seems to start at 50.
Perhaps not precisely 50, but sometime around your 50s, you start realizing that you’re not just feeling older as you did in your 40s. Instead, you begin experiencing the physical effects of aging: The metabolism slows (more), ambitions change, things hurt more. If you’re in the Christian community, it feels like the book of Ecclesiastes hits home.
And in a culture where “aging” carries a negative connotation, it’s important to understand how to approach aging, specifically your 50s, gracefully. How do you hit this decade in ways that move with the grain of life, carried by currents of the past into the present and the future and not shipwrecking on the shore? I’ve got four suggestions.
1. Realize it’s not too late to start something new.
Victor Hugo said, “Forty is the old age of youth. Fifty is the youth of old age.” Don’t deny the fact that you’re aging, but embrace the reality that there is much time left.
Consider how much life you’ve experienced between the ages of 20 and 50, 30 and 50, and even 40 and 50. You may have 10, 20, or 30 more years left (or more!), so you have time to start something new and do it for a long time.
What does this practically look like? Is it just launching a social media account? No, think bigger. Is there a business venture you long considered but never put any risk into? Is there a nonprofit you’re interested in serving with? Is there an area of learning you’ve long been interested in but never studied? Is there a book to be written? Tim Keller didn’t write his first book until he was 58. The writer Frank McCourt was famous for retiring from teaching and then, eight years later, publishing his memoir Angela’s Ashes, which became a bestseller.
You get the idea. Start something that might take you a decade to accomplish. You’ve got time.
2. Double down against negative gravity and habits.
This idea is related to the first but works specifically against the tendency to become an exaggerated version of our negative selves. What positive character habits do you need to build? Focus some energy on them. Do more than just think about it.
If you tend toward consumerism, push yourself toward generosity in practical ways. If you are racked by anxiety, go see a counselor to learn something about how to speak to yourself. If you cut people down with your words and judgments, build the habit of saying less and listening more.
Another way this idea is related to the first is in simply making wise decisions for your future. As you enter your 50s, take a long look at finances and health. You’re losing your strength and agility in both categories, so start something you should and make the needed pivots now.
3. Keep people around you.
You would think relationships get easier in your 50s, but they often get harder. Friends move away to be near their children. Co-workers retire or move to a competitor or begin to work remotely. Mentors pass away, and 20- and 30-somethings seem so busy with work and family, and your life concerns and schedules just don’t seem to match up.
All of this is real, but don’t give up. Don’t isolate into screens in your 50s. Make one or two new friends a year, regularly hang out with a couple of people who are wiser than you, identify someone you can invest in, build new memories with your spouse. Make the time and money investment to pull it all off.
4. Don’t get frustrated that you don’t have it all figured out.
Bill Clinton said, “Turning 50 gives me more yesterdays than tomorrows.” There’s something about that revelation that can make you feel that if you don’t have it all figured out, you never will. And then you look at yourself, and you know you don’t have it all together.
As one writer turning 50 puts it, you know yourself better than ever, but the self-knowledge is disappointing.
But for the person of faith in particular, this doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It is healthy and humbling to know that we still have need. In a world that celebrates independence, the 50s can be a needed reminder of our dependence on a good and kind Creator.
Be honest that you’re not all you dreamed you would be and that you’ll keep making mistakes in your 50s. And let that be a good thing for you to know.
The quote that sent me down the rabbit hole of aging gracefully was about the likely negatives of aging—becoming an exaggerated negative version of yourself. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In your 50s, as you realize more than ever that you’re aging, don’t just float along with inertia; age with grace and intentionality.
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