The great writer and thinker, Christopher Morley, famously wrote:
There are three ingredients to the good life – learning, earning and yearning.
An average lifespan in the developed world is 70-something years – as indicated on the bar below.
Each of the phases of that life has different characteristics. The Learning phase typically stretches from the age of five into the early twenties and its over-riding characteristic is freedom.
Your thinking is unfettered, you are chock-full of dreams and aspirations and (happily) someone else is footing the bills. It’s not a cliché to say that schooldays, for many of us, really were the happiest days of our lives. Contrast it with adult life – no one expects very much of you, and other than passing a few exams along the way and you can just swing along, having a great old time …
The next phase is the Earning years; the period from leaving formal education (at 20-something) to retirement (at 50-something or 60-something). Welcome to the grown-up world, welcome to the tax net:
The overriding concern in this Earning phase is security (I spell that word as follows: $ecurity because, for many people, this phase tends to be all about generating sufficient income to pay the monthly bills.) Reality bites. This can require sublimating the dreams of youth as a life of routine takes over. Few in the Earning years question the choices they have made because, typically, this questioning process can be quite disconcerting – oddly, I find this is particularly true of people who are less than happy with their working lives. Routine generation of wealth becomes paramount and you get swept along with the current. This is fine if you made sound choices in your late teens and early twenties with regard to your career. But if you didn’t … for routine, read ‘RUT’.
Which brings us to Morley’s Yearning phase – from ceasing your full-time occupation until … well, ceasing.
What is yearning? Unfortunately, yearning is not the same as simple hankering, wanting or desire. The dictionary definition of yearning is:
“A feeling of intense longing for something lost, absent or unattainable.”
A bit gloomy. So for many people, the Yearning years are about looking back over a life not quite fulfilled and saying ‘I wish, I wish. If only … if only …’
With the wisdom of years comes regret for the road not taken, the too-conservative choices made. Studies conducted in the geriatric population and on terminally ill people consistently demonstrate that regrets in human beings arise as a result of decisions not taken. The wise old owls that I have talked to over the years all speak with one voice on this. It is better to look back and think, ‘I wish I hadn’t …’ rather than wistfully saying, ‘I wish I had …’
Think about where you are on the chart above. How far along are you in the Earning years? Just starting out or 20 years in an 20 years to go? How many job or career changes have you been through already? How many of those have been voluntary and how many involuntary? If you retired (or stepped under a bus) tomorrow, how would you look back over your working life? With indifference? Regret? Pride? Delight? Anger?
As you think about your career, your life, and your plans for the future; you are, at the very least, going to have to contemplate some uncomfortable choices about yourself, your personal style and your level of happiness. I make no apologies for this – that’s just life. But I contend that it is better to take the time and spend the effort now to improve the choices that you make for later, rather than to have those choices made for you at a time that may not suit you.
Some people get these choices unerringly right and they do so early in their lives. Others come to a realisation of the right path much later in life. Ray Kroc changed his whole approach to his business in his early 50s. Harlon Sanders didn’t start his franchising efforts until he was in his early 60s! It’s never too early and it’s never too late – but you have to think about it …
Rowan Manahan is The Insultant. He blogs at Fortify Your Oasis. Apart from roaring (occasionally) helpful advice at his clients, he has written the best-seller Where’s My Oasis?. He also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines and runs Fortify Services – an Irish-based careers consultancy.