April 08, 2012

Measuring Up at Life's Checkpoints

According to my blog history, I turned 30 years old five years ago. So that correspondingly means that today marked my hitting 35. When I got the somewhat congratulatory call from a high school best friend this morning, I asked what in the world could possibly be different at 35 than 34, aside from being qualified to run for president. He quickly said that when you hit 35, your back goes out... you become incontinent... so yeah, not great stuff.

Any time life passes an arbitrary number, it becomes second nature to do a self-evaluation and compare where you are against life goals, or where friends, family or famous people were at similar stages. It's easy for me to look at my own parents, and realize that by 35, my mother had five children, and my dad, two years younger than she, crossed that mark by 33.

By age 35, Steve Jobs had started Apple and been summarily fired, moving on to launching NeXT computer. Larry Page had been at Google for 10 years, and was only 3 years away from taking the CEO position. Bill Clinton had been governor of Arkansas for 3 years. John F. Kennedy was entering the U.S. Senate. Barack Obama was elected to Illinois Senate. In the year he turned 35, Jack Dorsey held down CEO positions at both Twitter and Square. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg still has yet to reach his 28th birthday, and history will tell which direction he will go, atop one of the web's most powerful companies.

So that's humbling. Take a small roster of some of the world's top leaders, put them on the wall as comparisons, and it's easy to get depressed. That's made even worse with visits to sporting events, when rookie baseball players could theoretically be your own biological children, and peers your age are seen as being on their career's last legs. Eric Chavez, the one-time Oakland A's star and multiple time Gold Glover, is hanging on to a role with the New York Yankees and has considered retirement. He's 8 months my junior. Roy Halladay, two time Cy Young Award winner, turns 35 next month.


Even at work, it seems many more of my peers are just as likely to have been born in the late 1980s as the late 1970s. There was a time when I was consistently among the youngest in meetings at the office. I remember interviewing candidates to report to me - only to have HR tell me they declined after meeting me in person and learning of my youth. I once got a roster of employees in 2001, organized youngest to oldest, and I was third on the list. That won't happen now, obviously.

But rather than point to incredible people who have put a dent in the world, it makes just as much sense to take stock of the place one has in the world, and the trajectory on which you have set for yourself, your family and your future. Living in the Silicon Valley is fantastic and invigorating. Being married for just about 9 years now, and having three incredible kids, a nice home in a safe and beautiful neighborhood is great. Being able to quickly reach out to friends and remote family, with or without the latest gadgets, is a plus. Working at an aggressive and innovative company taking on hard challenges is exceptional.

The aforementioned Steve Jobs stated in his famous commencement address at Stanford, "'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."

Nobody's life is a perfect one. No couple goes without argument. No child goes without accidents and disobedience. No job goes without surprises and the occasional annoyance. But achievements and pleasure can be had when one determines what it is that is valuable, and how that can be predictably obtained. The question is not whether one can keep pace with the Jobs and Pages and Zuckerbergs, but if you could look forward to a date in the future of five, ten or twenty years and think that you would be pleased with your future self. Can you look backwards the same and think that your past self would be happy with who you had become, or wistful that you had not challenged yourself and let opportunity go by?

Exceptional people are exceptional because they are the exceptions. Incredible people are incredible because they accomplish things that defy belief. When you think of how you measure up, consider whether it's your own expectations, or those of the people around you who matter, and did you? 35 isn't quite the middle of the life mark it once was, when getting to 70 was the target, but it's a number that says you have some history behind you, and hopefully, much more to go. With each data point, I'll keep measuring.