What You Are Instead of What You Are Going To Be

I spent the weekend in Las Vegas with my dad. He’s almost 77 and I’m 49. We had an awesome weekend which I expect he’ll write about in detail on his blog Repairing the Healthcare System in the next few days since he generally does a really nice retrospective of our annual trip together.

As I was reflecting on our weekend during my flight home yesterday, I remembered a discussion I had with Todd Vernon, the CEO of VictorOps, and a long time friend (we’ve been investors in the last three company’s of Todd’s – Raindance, Lijit, and now VictorOps – going back almost 20 years.)

I was at dinner with Todd, his wife Lura the rocket scientist, Amy, and Krista Marks / Brent Milne a few weeks ago. It was just after we’d closed an investment in Krista and Brent’s company WootMath and the six of us were enjoying a meal at the awesome but very loud Blackbelly. Todd and I were at one end of the table and couldn’t really hear the conversation very well without leaning over so we ended up just talking to each other for a little while. That little while turned into a really intense conversation.

Todd made the assertion that something happens to guys between the age of 47 and 50. We started talking about all of our male friends who had gone through various things between 47 and 50, including all the classic mid-life crisis stuff. We reflected back on what each of us had been through in the past few years and where we had ended up. Some was gossipy, some was introspective, and some was piecing together a puzzle to support the assertion.

After a few examples, it came into clear focus for each of us. Todd said a line that has really stuck with me.

“The age of 47 to 50 is optimizing for what you are. Up to that point, we are optimizing for what you are going to be.”

We both acknowledged that we don’t really know much about the psychology of women (well – generally – but especially in this age range), so I’m focused on what happens to men. When I reflect on my own experience over the past few years, I’ve struggled with depression, had a few health scares and had to come to terms with my older body, practiced the concept of detachment, deepened my relationship with each of my parents, built a sustainable relationship rhythm with my brother Daniel, and developed a new level of deepness in my relationship with Amy.

As we went back and forth, we realized that our time in this age bracket is a confluence of a bunch of decisions we’ve made about life. There’s a classical notion of a midlife crisis, but that cheapens the dynamic. A few of our friends have had relationships, especially with their spouse or significant other, blow up while many others have their relationships deepen. We all bought sports cars in our 30s so that cliche doesn’t really hold, and a group of us were divorced in our early 20s. Bizarrely, many of the guys in the gang of divorcees I’m part of all had their first wife cheat on them in their early to mid 20s, so none of us would ever consider cheating on our current wife as the emotional devastation of a busted marriage from your wife’s affair at that stage in life seems to never go away, at least for us. So, as we rolled it around, it wasn’t really a midlife crisis.

But there is acceptance that we are more than halfway through our lives. Our parents are getting older. Some have passed away, others like my dad acknowledge they are likely in the last decade of their life. If you are courageous like my dad is, you can openly talk about mortality and the implications of it. And, as a son, his mortality immediately reminds me of my mortality.

In Bora Bora when Amy and I were together for a month, we discussed mortality a lot. We talked about having “30 good years left in our normative case.” It could be longer, it could be shorter, and it can’t really be planned for.

As Todd and I cycled on this, we came to the notion of “what you are.” In this 47 to 50 segment, we each have spent a lot of time figuring out what we are and optimizing our lives for it. This notion of what we are isn’t static – we’ll keep learning and evolving – but we are no longer striving for “what we are going to be.” Instead of spending time and emotional energy on this, we are spending our time and emotional energy on what matters to us now. What we care about. Who we care about.

My weekend with my dad was profoundly wonderful. He knows what he is, what he likes, and what he cares about. He’s still learning all the time, but he’s not trying to be something he isn’t. He isn’t striving to be something new. He’s just being him.

Todd and I realized at dinner that we are having a lot of fun and getting a lot of satisfaction out of just being ourselves at this stage of life. We’ve each had lots of ups and downs, but we are each married to amazing women, living in a place that we love, surrounded by people who we love, working on things that give us each meaning, and having time to ourselves and with friends that are satisfying. Sure, we each have crappy moments and lousy days, and we each know that at some point the lights will go out, but for now we are focused on being what we are.

  • LV

    Wow, you and this Todd guy sound pretty wise!

    • We are a product of our relationships with our brilliant wives.

      • LV

        And you both know flattery will get you everywhere.

        • A big part of it is operant conditioning. We are just slightly smarter than our dogs.

          • Rick

            You’re no where near as smart as your dogs. Who buys food for who? Who scratches who’s belly? Who can go on a trip by simply walking out the door without needing to prepare? Who give who a bath? Who’s the one that feels guilty all day after you yell at your dog because it did something you didn’t like?
            Make no mistake. Your dogs are inside your head and they have control.

          • Albert Hartman

            Aliens land on earth. They discover one species walking ahead of another one, tied together by a short rope. The lead one defecates, and the one behind picks it up. Who do you think is the dominant species?

          • Woof.

  • jerrycolonna

    I’d add that it’s a time of learning to be comfortable with who you are and dropping the need to strive to be something else (which, for me, was always the energy behind worrying about what I was going to become).

    Learning to be Jerry took me a very, very long time. And now that I’m (mostly) here, I find the struggles that much easier to take.
    Thanks for the beautiful post.

    • Well said … thanks for an equally beautiful/open comment.

    • RBC

      Amen, and indeed a beautiful post!

    • The one thing that people tell me is most disconcerting about me is that I don’t care what they think. I have worn shorts since 1993 (bet on who would wear long pants first during the winter)

      But interesting. I had a talk with a co-founder of mine today, and we were laughing what it must be like to be an exec of a $3B company and have me report to you. He said, you know you are great to be in a room, but you don’t want more than one of you.

      Also reached out to my network and hired one of the best database architects who started with us today. People said: you really, really trust this guy how well do you know this guy??? I said like a brother, this will be the third time I’ve hired him, we have spent more time awake working than I have with my wife of 15 years. (not gender specific, I have “sisters” I would hire as well)

  • David Mitchell

    This is great. One of my mentors encourages me that when we get clear and comfortable on who we are, it helps us to filter and plan that much better, so we stop worrying about what we COULD do, or even what we SHOULD do. But rather, we focus only on those things that we MUST do – the necessity being driven by a clear awareness of who we are. Great perspective this morning, Brad – thank you!

  • Jonathan Fields

    In that same age window, and coming to that same place. I often wonder whether everything external we seek to have, achieve or become is really just a proxy for our desire to reach a place where we’re finally comfortable just being.

    • My friend @jerrycolonna:disqus has a LOT to say about that and a lot of wisdom around it. I practice just being every day.

  • Rosey

    Nice post, Brad. Thanks.

    I’m a decade ahead of you. Looking back, I realize who I am was who I was at 10 years old, in terms of my ‘operating system.’

    What regrets I have come from not understanding the “SWOT of ME” until well into my 30’s. For me, it was a Hassidic Rabbi focusing me on living ‘in the moment’ and filling each moment with the best good possible. My operating system is marginally capable of that and I’m still writing enhancements accordingly!

  • Amazing what we are capable of processing as bags of chemicals. 🙂

    • And it’s important to realize that the chemicals, and the concentration of them, change over time.

  • jamesoliverjr

    I love this article, Brad. I’ve started writing a post on my blog titled, “Be What You Are. What Are You?” The emphasis of the post is to be your authentic self and not make “safe” choices in life that are inauthentic.

    I believe it’s risky playing it safe with life.

  • Interesting post! My reality was forced upon me by forces that I didn’t control. And the new reality that I would like are controlled by forces that I don’t control. The last four years have been pretty tough. Thankfully, my wife and I are still married (we met when we were 21 and we are 52 now). Divorce can be totally destructive.

    Some of this is perspective as well. In my wife’s family, practically everyone lives to 96+. Mine is the same. So, at 52, we think we have a lot of living left. If everyone died in their 70s I would have a totally different perspective.

    I had a very very close friend get pancreatic cancer and die recently. Watching him approach mortality, and sort of walking down the path, and helping him down the path was pretty eye opening for me. I have also had friends shoot themselves-which leaves a different taste in my mouth entirely.

    I don’t worry about dying, or what grease spot my life will leave on the earth. I have my wife; I have my kids and figure that we will work it all out. I don’t understand “optimization”. I do think that if we take the approach of constantly learning, and expose ourselves to new stuff-we stay younger longer. Physically, weight lifting and yoga really helps!

  • ditto the sentiments. Brad. Very great post! Can relate. Not sure it’s all that different for women, but can speak for me. It’s like waking up after consecutive all nighters (of your lifetime of struggles, understandings, successes, failures, good/bad relationships, so far), and respecting the sunrise like you never did before, every day. Play this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-x0Rn0F5Lk It’s that feeling of “getting it” and also accepting of and excited that there’s lots more “to get” (vs. being stressed that you don’t), and another day to keep going (vs giving up).

    For me, I have grown an obsession for really smart, insightful and humbled doing-it and done-it people, including all their struggles. I am a confessed TedX junkie. This one endlessly blows my mind: http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight The fact that she can even do this talk, and the mental and physical stamina to come back personally and professionally is boggling, and proof of how strong a person’s spirit can be to the end of our days, with acceptance of who we are.

  • Rick

    I think it all depends on the person. When a person turns 50 they should change everything.
    Your post would have made a great podcast Brad.

  • Todd Vernon

    Good post and an excellent dinner (although loud)!

    I think you captured the conversation well. I had three very distinctly different view points on life at 42, 48 and now at 51. As you point out, midlife crisis is kind of a pedestrian way to look at it.

    For me I would say 90% of my personal “transition issues” were around work and my own personal development rather than relationship based.

    At 42 I felt like I was a solid 10 years behind where I wanted to be (professionally). I felt like earlier in my life I paid a lack-of-confidence-tax that put me on a higher latency trajectory than i wanted to be. Running faster was the logical response, although in hindsight that doesn’t really work.

    At 48, I felt like the clock was running out on my ideal of the where I wanted to be at 50 (when i got old). Much of the things i contribute to work and relationship I feel are creative in nature. Rushing creativity is a total non-starter and it became a cyclic negative feedback loop for me making me unhappy a bit. Some erratic behavior ensued, none ‘super’ destructive, but more disappointed in what I had accomplished for myself, with a little “mad” mixed in. Work played a huge part of that.

    At 51 I’m completely in a different head space, trying to enjoy the things i like, and ignore the things i don’t. Work is a big part of life for me and I feel, for the first time that I have a measure of control about my company, my situation and frankly my age. I feel like I’m setting the pace more rather than the pace is setting me. I also feel like all the years of hard work are paying back greatly in just knowing-how-to-do-things which reduces anxiety in my life.

    I’m undeniably more than 50% to the end, and I’m totally cool if my next 25 or 30 years are more of this. Of course i want more, and I’ll probably get it, but if not, thats cool also. I love my wife, she loves me, and now we get to go places and just chill out. If i can get her to stop bringing home dogs, we got it nailed 🙂

    Fuck that other shit 🙂

    • “Fuck that other shit” is a mantra that I say regularly when faced with stupid shit.

      • Great post Brad. Nail how I feel. I feel really fortunate. I wonder would have happened if I had not had success. I think about that sometimes, especially when it comes to my kids (who I have no worries will be more successful than me due to my wife)

      • I give you a great big +1 for that. When I am faced with stupid shit I say the say thing.

    • Chris Yeh

      My old undergraduate advisor and mentor, the author John L’Heureux (pushing 90 and still writing novels) once shared with me a comic line he was planning to use in an upcoming book: “True freedom is when the kids move out and the dogs die.”

      I dread both, but perhaps I’ll have to dig the old line out when the time comes for me to refactor my life.

      • Kids are out, still have a dog that keeps us moving.

  • Being just a few years ahead of you, I agree with all your points. It’s particularly fun for me to interact with younger people, including my kids and my kick-ass co-founder (all well under the age of 30). That’s when I am most keenly aware of the value of focusing on what matters, and how difficult it is to do that in your 20s (and for most people in their 30s), when you don’t really know yet what matters. As someone trained in cognitive neuroscience I can’t help but wonder how much of this is the result of chemical and physiological changes in our brains… if it is, I wish someone could develop a drug to help younger people get a glimpse of it! 🙂

  • I read most of your posts these days and continue be blown away by the breadth and depth to which you explore all of life. Thank you. This one brought tears!

  • Thank you – this really spoke to me.
    The wonderful thing is that whatever you are you evolve.
    Here’s to many more of those “crappy moments” that can be looked back on and can change you – and better yet to the good ones that show as the first glimmers of wisdom emerge

  • Very interesting…Losing a sibling and other loved ones very young and losing my only real parent in my early thirties, mortality has always been something I’m very conscious of. Even my four-year-old and I discuss it-in an age-appropriate way – since she was three when her grandma passed (a highly communicative child). My mother’s passing, however, was both a paradigm shift, and a release since her chronic, degenerative disease always loomed over my life from childhood. Deep concern for her – an only child with no surviving family- and knowing that as her only surviving child, it was my responsibility to be there for her at the end of life impacted my “being.”

    With my husband nine years my senior (having lost his father already and having a mother on another continent), I appreciate hearing this perspective in the context of manhood.

  • Chad A Fox

    I always enjoy reading your blog and today’s post was particularly meaningful for me. I turn 47 in a few weeks and relate to a lot of what you talked about. I have spent much of my life defining my life fulfillment by my career fulfillment. If
    I wasn’t happy with my career, it meant I wasn’t happy with my life. Over time (through some measure of professional success) my wife and I had actually created a less glamorous, less lucrative, form of a gilded cage. Last year, a series of events gave us a small window of opportunity to make a big change. We both quit our jobs and embarked on a twelve month journey around the world. It was the best decision we ever made.

    We started by spending the winter in Revelstoke, British Columbia where I managed to attain a life-long goal of skiing one million vertical feet in a single season. And I was able to donate my time to help a group of wonderful people get a start-up adaptive ski program for those with physical and cognitive disabilities off the ground.

    We were able to spend more time doing yoga than we ever had before. So when it came time to plot the next leg of our adventure, we decided to go to Rishikesh, India and study yoga. Our Type A personalities led us to actually get certified to teach. And the experience was one of the most transformative and humbling I have ever had. We again donated our time and helped this school create a strategic plan to reach their goals in a growing market in Rishikesh. We spent another month traveling through northern India looking for inspiration about what to do next.

    Because we were only a half an hour flight away from Nepal, we decided to do a trek through the Himalayas. A good friend in Boulder was instrumental in connecting us with one of his Sherpa friends who found an option that would work for us despite the fact that it was monsoon season. We trekked for 14 days through the Lang Tang region of Nepal and reached a maximum height of 15,500 ft. I remember coming down on the last day feeling more clear, confident and rejuvenated than I had since my 20s.

    We spent the final months of our year in the European Alps, traveling through Italy, Slovenia, Austria, and Switzerland. I spent most days hiking 7 to 8 miles, reflecting upon the road that had led me here and which road I was going to take next.

    In the past I had been a Research Scientist for NASA, a software developer and product manager for a large aerospace company, and a business development director for laser-optics company in Boulder. But my passion has always been on technology and innovation. It is what I study and focus on in my spare time.

    My travels and meditation have led me to a better understanding of how I want to define myself moving forward. Instead of defining myself by resume, I want to see how I find ways to contribute to my passion. I want to be part of developing mobile products that actually have a meaningful impact on people’s lives, not an antiquated idea of that in some enormous bureaucratic organization.

    As I set out upon my new road of my choosing, I hope to work with innovative startups or perhaps start my own. I am trying to establish a network in a new industry. It is at times unsettling to think about shifting direction in my career at 47 years old. But I believe that getting clear about your path and not being afraid to walk it, is what happiness is all about.

  • Love this. What would your advice be to someone in their early 30s for balancing pushing forward (“progress?”) versus being comfortable in oneself and growing without stressing about what you’ll be later if you don’t DO something specific. @jerrycolonna:disqus, I bet you have some insight to share.

  • Have you read Angle of Repose? You probably have, as you’re a bookworm. My old boss (who knew me very well) gave it to me over 8 years ago. I still haven’t read it yet. I think the repose angle is when you realize the coal is moving down the hill. It means you’ve settled into a good place. I hope to read that book one day soon.

    • hello what your name please I’am is souha from tunisia

    • Татьяна

      Здравствуйте. Меня зовут Татьяна, я с Украины с Донецкой обл. Весной вышла замуж и сейчас нахожусь на 6 месяце беременности, муж погиб месяц назад защищая ДНР в бою в Донецке. Я осталась одна с двумя родителями пенсионерами и беременная. Гуманитарка до нашего маленького города не доходит, родители пенсий не получают за 7 месяцев им только раз оказали помощь, прощу вас помогите выжить, есть практически нечего.Помогите кто чем может пожалуйста.

  • Well put. I turn 50 in August and have never felt more accepting of who I am and where I am in life. And I’m looking forward to putting everything I’ve got into the next stage. I’m just far more realistic about what I’m capable of and how I want to live.

  • Amazing write up… I have always felt as if i am not me i am someone else due to my parents pressurization.. i sometimes feel as if i have lost myself somewhere and not able to find myself back…

  • Chris Lema

    Great take on things. I think I started that process a little early (at 43), but very similar thoughts.

  • Kyle Matthews

    These are great thoughts. At 33, I’m on the young side of definition. However, losing two sons in 18 months has had a profound effect on the tone of my thoughts and my priorities. My wife Robyn and I have sat many times to discuss how not to be bitter, and to define what we want to accomplish and how we want to be affecting change. I keep a list in my notes of “how we’d like to live” and approach every day with those thoughts in mind. It’s a living document, but definitely is important to us.

    I love your approach to writing and infusing life approach into your words. Thanks for keeping it real.

    • Kevin Donovan

      You and wife sound like incredible people. Very sorry for your loss.

      • Kyle Matthews

        Appreciated Kevin. We definitely lean on each other daily!

  • Chris Yeh

    Sonja Lyubomirsky’s “The Myths of Happiness” mentions this interesting scientific point: Measured happiness (or to be precise, subjective well-being) tends to follow a U-shaped curve. Our happiness starts to decline as we become adults, and drops to its nadir at the ages 40-45. After that, it rises steadily with age, so that our lifetime peak of happiness tends to happen in one’s 60s or 70s.

    Lyuobomirsky speculates that as we age, we become more accepting of who we are, and focus more on savoring the past and present, rather than running towards the future. It sounds like you and Todd are wise examples of this process!


  • I have never been as sure of who I am until the last 3 years. It’s all true. Optimizing for what you are is the best thing you can do. I’m lucky to have a great job that keeps me around energized younger people. 50 feels more than fine.

  • Luke Vernon

    I’m so glad I heard this perspective at my current age – 34. Gives me something to reflect on when I get too wrapped up in “who I want to become.”

  • Great post, Brad — nailed it. Similarly it seems that as I level up, I also tend to want to minimize false positives — so many things are not what they first appear.

  • panterosa,

    I venture that women come to this idea earlier than men – probably just past 40. Differences in that are possibly relative to their age if they are parents, or the age of children.

    Happily unwinding an unhappy marriage around that time, I unwound everything else too. The book of silent rules and expectations we each carry with us gets examined. Was any page relevant to me in this new life which was becoming?

    There wasn’t much left of that book when I met @jerrycolonna:disqus . Jerry gave me something different and more powerful to do – make a list of everything I wanted. I exploded with desire and made a very long color coded list for at least a week. I’m still working on that list, passionately.

    There aren’t as many women here responding as men. Rather than “becoming” before 47-50 then “being”, I see women getting busy being and wanting things earlier. Not sure if this is true for your wife, not sure if Jerry agrees.

    Those women are part of the powerful wave of later stage female entrepreneurs who have intense desires in their work. I deeply hope those women to get more funding from men and women. They are the horses I’d bet on.

  • John May

    In sharing the same birth year with you, I find your posts relevant in a lot of ways. It is nice to be in a place in life where you just do what you do and do it well. There is no pretense or competition to be better than others. Instead, we get to use our experience to make things better and revel in doing so because it is good.

  • oszkar

    Thanks Brad! Please keep these “deep” thoughts coming. I’m 8 years behind you, but I will try to leverage your perspective to get ahead of the curve.

  • Sophia Athena

    I learn a lot from U. Thanks.

  • Denise O’Connor

    I love your Dad’s blog. His thoughts on healthcare are spot on.

  • John Routa

    “The age of 47 to 50 is optimizing for what you are. Up to that point, we are optimizing for what you are going to be.”

    For me I would change the “what” to “who”. I think around that time I realized the what I was isn’t nearly as important as the who I am, and the who I still can be as I seek to live more closely to my values.

  • Dilek

    This is a great post!! As a woman at early 30s, who just became mom and VC in a emerging market with lots of dreams and targets, actually I have realised I am trying to set my goals for my 50s. My husband and I had our goals and dreams for 30s and pretty much did most of them and but now we are at 30s know the question is what is next and for what? When I read your post, it really helped me to think clearly…Thank you.. I think people like you should share emotions like you, it really helps..

    • Super – glad it was helpful!