Learning as You Grow Older

Bill Abbate

As someone who has been on this earth a few years longer than most, I find it a bit humorous when I see an article titled "What I wish I knew when I was 18, 20, 25, or 30." Many such articles seem to be written by people who have maybe hit their 30s at most! No, we older people do not forget what it was like when we were that age. We have already lived it, got the hat, the t-shirt and the tennis shoes, and besides, most youngsters don't want our take on it anyway!

Considering those under 30 represent half of the world population, perhaps there is some merit to writing on this topic at such a young age.

I am now at the age where less than 9% of the world population is as old or older, meaning I passed 30 more than 30 years ago! At my age, I thought it might be more appropriate to write an article along the lines of "What I wish I knew when I was 50 or 60!" Since those 50 years old and younger represent about two-thirds of the world's population, let's stick with the young age of 50.

Life at 50ish

When you finally make it to around 50 years old, several things tend to occur. You are either entering the prime of your career, or perhaps your career has plateaued. You may have also established a family and could soon become an empty nester. As well, your long-term finances usually become more important to you and your spouse.

While some can have great success later in life, most people at this age are reasonably content. They are beginning to wonder where the next couple of decades will take them. For many of us, we start thinking more about our mortality around this age.

"Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age." Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

I recall being at the top of my game when I hit 50, feeling like I was just hitting my stride. I had a great career, great health, and was not close to feeling old in my body. Yet looking back, I wish I had taken more time for myself instead of always striving for that next big thing in the future. I had no awareness of how life was about to change.

The first thing I wish I knew was how precious relationships are and how short life can be.

If you notice in the last paragraph, I did not say I had a great family life. While I had a good marriage, I was a workaholic and far too often an absentee husband and father. Before you know it, your children are gone, and you are empty nesters. Sure, that begins another great phase of life, provided you are around and available.

I can never regain the time I missed spending with my wife and daughter. Time waits for no one, forever continuing its relentless march forward.

Little did I know the following year, Charlotte, my wife, who had always been healthy, would die of cancer. Talk about a life-changing event. Married for 32 years, she was only 51 years old. How I have regretted the lost time and opportunities I had wasted.

The second thing I wish I knew was how important it is to save and invest.

Working my way up from a laborer to the executive suite as CEO, I had plenty of opportunities to invest more of my earnings. I could have easily retired comfortably by the time I hit 50, but unfortunately, I did not start saving right away in my career. I have no excuse for this oversight.

Sure, it was far more difficult when I was young. The IRS did not issue rules allowing employees to make tax-deferred payroll contributions until 1981. Some larger companies started offering tax-deferred savings early on, but it took decades to reach the level it is at today. Still, only about 50% of workers contribute to tax-deferred plans such as a 401K or IRA.

If people only realized how much they could save by starting young. It is a sad state of affairs that 64% of people retire broke today. Had they learned this valuable lesson and developed the habit of saving when younger, they would be far better off.

The third thing I wish I knew was how setting realistic health goals could impact your life.

From around 30 onward, I became a fitness nut. I had quit smoking cigarettes and started lifting weights the prior year. As the years progressed, I started running, then added swimming and biking. If you are familiar with triathlons, most of them are swim, bike, run events, so there was that as well. However, most of the races I did were of the sprint triathlon variety.

I lost count of how many 5k, 10k, triathlon, and marathon events I participated in during that period of life. Although I traveled a lot during my career, it was always easy to keep up my routines by throwing running shoes in my bag and using local gyms. Yes, I was not only a workaholic, but I was also a workoutaholic! Along the way, I learned a great deal about nutrition and ate reasonably healthy despite all the travel.

I do not tell you about how fit I was so you can admire the tremendous effort I put into being very athletic, but for the lesson, I was about to learn after decades of discipline and dedication and what it stole from my life.

As healthy as I was, I suddenly had four successive widowmaker heart attacks in one day, dying for several minutes total. On top of the heart attacks, I developed a severe respiratory issue called AARDS and nearly died from that. It is little wonder the doctors and nurses at the hospital called me their miracle patient!

After spending 55 days in intensive care and losing 50 pounds, I was released from the hospital, barely able to walk a few steps with a walker. And that was after intensive rehab in the hospital for about three weeks prior!

Fortunately, my years of working out helped me remain diligent. I regained much of my health and am now more aware of how much fitness effort I require to stay healthy.

I went overboard for years, sacrificing far too much family time. I could have easily maintained my health with a fraction of the time spent working out and preparing for races and events and could still have been extremely fit.

I continue to believe in exercise and eating healthy, but why do it to the extent it steals time from the most important thing in life, our relationships? If I could only turn back time and do it all over again...

Final thoughts

There you have it. If you take these three things to heart, you will create a far better and more fulfilling life.

To recap, here is a quick summary of the three things I wish I had realized before I was 50:

  • Work hard but do not allow it to consume your life. Spend more time with those who matter while they are still around. You will never regret it.
  • Save early and often, developing it into a habit. Take advantage of tax-deferred savings, maxing out whatever plan you have. You will live far more comfortably later in life.
  • Take care of your health, but do not overdo it. Work out regularly and eat healthy foods to live a long and happy life.

The single most important and rewarding reason to do each of the above is so you can create a good life with those you love. What could be more rewarding than that? In the end, life is about relationships because relationships are what life is made of!

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA
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