When are the best years of your life?

A group of us were in the hotel bar late one night after an all-day business conference. Fueled by some polychromatic cocktails, I asked the people I was with – all of us in our 40s – whether they thought their best years were ahead of them or behind them.

“Ohhhh,” said one woman. “No question. My best years were in college.”

“Really?” I asked. I was surprised. She was smart, attractive, and had a successful career. Not only was college decades ago, but she had 30, 40, or even 50 more years of living to do.

Why would she spend that time looking backwards?

“I always thought you’d be something special”

I was surprised and yet I understood. I used to look backwards, too, thinking of times that seemed more full of promise and potential. Of things I could have done but didn’t.

That feeling was particularly strong one night when I reunited with an elementary school friend I hadn’t seen in 30+ years. After a few minutes, she asked me with particular curiosity “What did you wind up doing? I always thought you’d be something special.”

She meant it as a compliment. We grew up in the Bronx but she knew I’d been admitted to the city’s best high school and had high hopes for me.

I paused, unsure of my response. I’d had a fine career and life, but I remember wistfully thinking “Yes, I thought I’d be special, too.”

The wrong model

The problem was that the woman in the bar and I both had the wrong modeI for how life really works.

We viewed life as a continuously dwindling set of possibilities. You start with an almost infinite set of things you can do or be. (When I was 5, I declared I was going to be a paleontologist. At 11, a baseball player. At 17, a psychologist.) But, over time, your options – particularly the special ones – become fewer and fewer.

Then I started to think differently.

Body and mind

My change in perspective started with how I viewed my health. I also had the wrong model for that, thinking of my body as a machine which, over time, inevitably started to wear down and break. So my best physical days were necessarily in the past.

Then a friend gave me a book called “Grow Younger Next Year”. It taught me, in simple language and accessible science, that my body is a much more dynamic system than I’d imagined. That by moving and eating differently I could change my circulatory system and produce new possibilities. I changed my habits and I changed my outlook.

Similarly, I learned how thinking and learning differently could change how my brain works and open up new possibilities there, too:

“During most of the 20th century, the general consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively immutable after a critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by findings revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood”

The same is true in other parts of your life. Working differently and relating to people differently open up possibilities you might have never even imagined when you were younger.

The road ahead

If I have a hero, it’s W. Edwards Deming. Born on a chicken farm in 1900, he was a statistician who worked with the census bureau into his 40s. At 47, he travelled to Japan to help with the first census after the war. While there, he met with people about statistics and quality control. And his subsequent fieldwork with factory managers in Japan marked the beginning of the Japanese quality movement.

His efforts unlocked tremendous commercial value while also helping individual workers regain their pride of workmanship. In 1950, Japan awarded the first Deming Prize. Still, for decades, Deming was largely unknown in the US, where he lived and worked. It was only after he was mentioned on a television show (“If Japan can, why can’t we?”) that his consulting business took off. He was 80. At 82, he published his most popular book.

He died at 93, having experienced things he could never have imagined as a young man on a chicken farm or in mid-life at the census bureau.

Deming is a great role model for me. And now it’s even easier to create the kind of full life he led. With new tools and practices developed since his time, it’s easier than ever to shape your reputation, control your career, and make a difference. Easier than ever to create new possibilities.

The best years of your life? They’re ahead of you.

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About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
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11 Responses to When are the best years of your life?

  1. Guy says:

    Loved this post – thank you. I don’t know anything about Deming – what’s the best book to read to learn more about him?

    • John Stepper says:

      Alas, Deming was not much of a writer or public speaker. His 500-page “Out of the Crisis” reads more like a rant than a treatise. And his talks, delivered in a monotonous baritone, are not much better. You’ll find better treatment of Deming’s ideas in short summaries online (eg, Google “Deming’s 14 points”)

      His genius was in his ability to apply his ideas in the field and to drive meaningful change throughout factories across the world.

  2. John, each time I have the pleasure to see or talk to you, I’m struck by your energy, humor and verve. Now I know why. Mindfulness, intention, active cultivation… keeps a person youthful and free! Thank you for this post!

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks very much, Trisha. That’s a lovely thing to say. While I still have plenty of, ahem, opportunity for personal development, I’m comforted by knowing the best is yet to come. 🙂

  3. ADAM MAYER says:

    Not being mindful and present in today results in continued preparation for tomorrow, forcing us to look back on “the best years” when trying to capture fond memories of our life.

    Great post John, reminded me of a parable in Zorba the Greek. “An old grandfather of ninety was busy planting an almond tree. What, granddad! I exclaimed. Planting an almond tree? And he, bent as he was, turned round and said: My son, I carry on as if I should never die. I replied: And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute…Two equally steep and bold paths may lead to the same peak. To act as if death did not exist, or to act thinking every minute of death, is perhaps the same thing.”

  4. John says:

    Another excellent post John. I only hope others will realize that an individual in his/her mid-forties has a lot left in the tank and is not ready to be put out to pasture yet. Many leaders discard “veteran” employees on the assumption there is not much left when just the opposite is true.

  5. briankeane99 says:

    Hi John, I liked this view.

    Brings back thoughts I had from a few years ago reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, where life’s purpose for the protagonists was to provide spare body parts for their DNA provider. The idea that their life had a noble purpose but ultimately abrupt conclusion was weighed against the contemporary view of best years behind you and ‘surviving’ to the end.

    This weeks blog was very poignant for myself, struggling with the realities of expanding family, pending school decisions for the kids and trying to come to a conclusion on where to live next and what that means for our lifestyle ( improvements hopefully ). I’m trying to see it as positives all coming together, but it’s tough not to be somewhat anxious that this may make life more complicated.

    Thanks for the blog. The timing was good for me to put those negatives back into drawer.

    B

    Sent from my iPhone

  6. Alexei says:

    Good today is better than perfect yesterday or excellent tomorrow. Carpe diem?

  7. Zhiwei says:

    Another very good post from you, John! Thank you!

    Watching my kids growing up, I do sometimes I am past peak. Then it depends upon best of what. If it is about getting taller, have more muscle mass, I would agree the best period of my life is over. If the best, measured by mindfulness (my favorite word of the 2012), critical thinking, level of happiness … I think there are good times ahead.

    Hope to see you in New York or London soon!

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