The Third Third
I had breakfast with a friend of mine not too long ago and our conversation turned to, as it often does with those hovering around the 60 year mark, to the subject of retirement. That started with a passing comment about my father who had recently entered his 90th year, as he fondly and often tells us. “I sometimes wonder,” I said, “if my parents had known they were going to live this long if they would have organized their lives any differently.”
My grandparents were, for the most part, gone in their late sixties or early seventies. Only my mother’s mother just made it to her late seventies but she was the last of that generation in our family by a long shot. So my parents, roughly 25-to-30 years their junior had little to go by other than, most likely, they had roughly 25-to-30 years to live. At the same time their children — my generation — would be thinking they had 50 years if they thought about it all. Which we didn’t, in our invincible, indestructible teens and twenties.
As my mother and father retired in their early sixties they might have thought of making the best of the ten years they were almost guaranteed to have together, short of accident or illness. Anything beyond that would be an unexpected bonus, and therefore an unplanned one. I’m not suggesting this was a conscious, daily thought, but if they planned decades at all, I believe they were only planning for one. In reality, they were embarking on nearly three. So far. Ironically, they would only know their guess was wrong when it was proven to be so and likely too late to do much about it.
“Think about it,” I said to my friend, “we allowed something like 20 years to ‘grow up’, learn how to read, write, do some arithmetic along with memorizing a little history for the test and enough geography to read a map.” He looked confused and uncomfortable, but I went on. “We then spent an open-ended blob of time dedicated to education, career and family. Whatever is left over is for some sort of retirement. Ideally, time to pursue that thing we probably should have pursued all along if we only had the perspective of age and gift of youth at the same time.” Now my friend’s look had evolved to either impressed or terrified, I’m not sure which. He may have just realized, at that moment, that his time was a-wasting. He had better start figuring out where he was going to go from here on in, as opposed to spend one more minute listening to a second rate, dime store philosopher without much of a plan of his own.
These days, if we at least break even on the genetic lottery and take reasonable care of ourselves, whatever happens after 60 should run 20, 25 or maybe even 30 years. A full third of our lives. Whether that’s a lot or a little depends on how we are eventually able to look back on it. It is going to seem like an unhappy, merciless purgatory if used to watch round-the-clock, breathless cable news coverage of the latest contrived outrage. On the other hand, if spent being that artist or musician or travel writer we’ve always known we were, but nobody let us be, we’ll eventually wonder where the time went and so quickly.
This is where I diverge from the happy, beautiful people in those annoying financial planning ads who seem to be forever walking on the beach, building wooden boats or driving convertibles under endless blue skies. I’m going to have to work in the third third of my life. Maybe harder than I ever have. With the evaporation of defined benefit pension plans just as I was starting my career—and left to my own devices with whatever defined contribution I have been able to hang onto — I’m on the Freedom 85 plan.
So heigh ho, it’s off to work I go.
Although not given to what-the-hell, come-what-may optimism — the exact opposite, in fact — I’m actually looking forward to the third third of my life. Mostly because I’m once again being forced to leap without a net and where the consequences for getting it wrong are pretty dire. The choices I make matter. What I do matters. Not doing it — whatever it turns out to be — is going to be a problem. I’m thankful, for yet another of countless reasons, for long-lived parents. Amongst myriad blessings, they also provide the best and most reliable indication of how my DNA will fare over the years. Pretty well as it turns out. From what I’ve seen so far, though, better to have a little too much on my plate as opposed to a little too little.
I was helped along to this point by events over which I had little control. The industry which had paid so many bills over the years went into a catastrophic tailspin from which it is uncertain it will ever recover. Skills which were narrowly applicable to that industry were rendered suddenly and unexpectedly useless. I was forced to look at whatever natural skills fate had given me and had the opportunity to develop in some way, and finally ask “with who I am, and with what I know, now what?”
The first third of a 90 year life should be devoted to growing up in every way which includes getting an education both in theory and in practice. If you are going to be really stupid, get it out of your system before this first third is over. Your life — and your body — simply become less able to cope with your abuse as the years go by. Most importantly, any decision made in this formative first period should come with a right of absolute revocation because you really don’t know what the hell you are doing.
Do over. Then do it over again.
The second third is getting your life in top gear and putting your foot to the floor. Thirty years is a long time, but really not that long at all. This is the time where your personal desires take a back seat to making a good living, being a good citizen, a good spouse, a good parent and a good son or daughter. This is a time for sacrifice, not gratification. Best just buckle in, buckle down and get it done. You’ll be surprised how seemingly little time goes by before, for the first time, you’re passed over for someone younger, smarter, cheaper and better looking than you. Once that happens, the second third is rapidly coming to a close. Wipe away those tears, stop feeling sorry for yourself and most importantly stop believing you have accomplished something by simply staggering over what you think is the finish line.
What you have accomplished, by entering the third third of your life, is survived the first two thirds intact and developed a pretty clear idea of who and what you are. You are fully formed and worn smooth by experience. Time to make the best of things with the tools you have in your bag right now. Stop competing with youngsters. That’s a race you’re eventually and inevitably bound to lose.
In my case, the first time I was asked a question based primarily on how really, really old I was, I bristled. I had always thought of myself as sort of 30-something, in attitude if not by the clock. Whenever I hung around with 30-somethings that feeling was reinforced. I began to realize, however, they weren’t thinking of me like a peer, as one of their own, but like their not-very-hip dad or oddball uncle.
Wow. Wow. That was it — the second third was over.
Recently a great new job, completely unrelated to anything I had done previously fell out of the sky and hit me in the head. What took some time to realize, looking around this wonderful, precocious startup I had joined, was that I was the old man — the very oldest employee they had. The most concrete impression in the relentless blur of the first few weeks was how on earth I was ever going to keep up? They all seemed to be running around at breakneck speed and speaking a language I barely understood. It wasn’t exhilarating. It wasn’t challenging. It wasn’t a great opportunity to learn new things and meet new people. It was terrifying. It felt like I had been thrown out of the airplane with some cloth, a sewing machine and told to make a parachute before I hit the ground.
For quite some time, I could not think of one good reason why they would have hired me. It seemed like it was just a matter of time before they realized they had mistakenly skipped a line on the short list and hired the guy they shouldn’t have hired in a million years. I seriously thought about just handing in my resignation. That said, metaphorical seppuku really wasn’t an option for me. I had made enough mistakes in the first two thirds of my life that trying to put them right in the third third was simply something I had to do. As a result, there was little option but to leave it all out there every single day. If it wasn’t good enough, at least I knew there was nothing left to give. I had done my best.
At that moment, I realized what I had been trying to do and the big mistake I was making. I was trying to live the third third of my life using the unforgiving rules from the second third. That came to me when I finally and absolutely accepted that maybe this company had hired me not inspite of being older, but because of it. I was not another person to run around with my hair on fire. Not a chance. There wasn’t enough left to which to put the match. I was not there to be developed into something else. I was there precisely because of who I was at that specific moment.
What an incredible relief. It was an affirmation that I must have done something right in the first 57 years of my life.
In the first two thirds you are constantly tormented with the notion that there is another alternative path that, if we just work a little harder, we can achieve. It’s all about not accepting reality and feeling compelled to put some sort of Jobsian dent in the universe. Not smart enough? Go back to school. Not rich enough? Save more or get a second job or both. Not enough kids? Have some more. The whole game is figuring out what is lacking in your life and then formulating a response that will address that in some way. The third third, on the other hand, is all about doing the best you can with what you have accumulated along the way. The time for rehearsals and do-overs is over. Whether the audience cheers or boos is entirely out of your control.
There are a few things about the third third of my life I now know for sure. Actually, it’s mostly what it’s not: It’s not the end of anything. It’s certainly not a time to kick back and relax. And it absolutely is not a time to put in time until I finally get to do what I want. It’s also not the time for wishing away the days thinking about what might have been, could have been or should have been.
I’ll admit, I have absolutely no idea where this third third of my life will take me. That’s what makes it beautiful and scary and thrilling. However, there’s an open road stretching out beyond the horizon. It’s a cool and brilliantly clear, summery evening and I have a just filled the tank.
I’m here. It’s now. Time to go.
©2018 Terence C. Gannon