What Prime?

What Prime?

5-minute read

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One of the ways to beat the odds is to go against what most people assume to be true. For example, you stand to make superior returns if you are buying shares in a bear market, and it turns out that the market got it wrong.

You can acquire this type of advantage by being original, or once in a while, you might stumble across it in a blog like this.

Somewhere along the line, I came to believe that we reach our prime in our 40s and 50s (younger if you rely on your physical prowess to earn a living). This is when we have had enough time to accumulate knowledge and experience, and before any significant loss of physical energy and mental agility has set in. Here’s proof: the average age of CFOs and CEOs is 49 and 54 respectively. Headhunters say that if you’re older than 55 and still haven’t made it, your chances of becoming CEO are slim1. People over 60 are generally considered “over the hill” or “past their prime”. Beyond 65, people generally start to hand over the reigns of power, wind down their career, and shy away from taking on big and audacious projects.

For Gen Xers like us, the line of thinking above is one of the most damaging fallacies we’ll come across in our lives. And if we factor it into our mindset in any way, even at a subconscious level, we’ll be vulnerable to making terrible life choices, and ageing in a not-so-graceful way.

You only need to look at the small number of people who appear to defy the odds.

Do artists like Picasso have a prime? Towards the end of his career, Picasso experienced a flurry of creativity and produced more art than any other period of his life2. He lived till 91. Monet’s Water Lilies, a series of 250 paintings, were produced in the final years of his life3. Monet lived till 86.

Do writers like Clive James7 have a prime? Clive James wrote 40 books in his career, of which 22 were written after the age of 50. He was diagnosed with leukemia at age 71, but still managed to publish 13 books in the remaining 9 years of his life (he was also suffering kidney failure and emphysema during this period).

A study of 2.7 million startups in the US found that there are as many 50-year-old founders as there are 30-year-old founders (and there are more 60-year-old founders than there are 20-year-old founders)4. Furthermore, 50-year-old founders have twice the probability of success than the 30-year olds5. A quick search on the internet will yield examples of retirees starting new careers in their 60s and 70s6.

People who define their prime years too narrowly are like football players in the final minutes of a game (don’t you hate it when they push passes or give away penalties?). As Gen Xers, if we think that we only have a few good years left on the clock, our decisions might reflect our panic. We see examples of this all around us:

  • We get annoyed when people delay or deny us of what we want. We think it’s now or never. This kind of thinking has caused me to, on multiple occasions, behave like a hungry baboon.
  • We stick to a job we hate or no longer feel passionate about, because we think we need to make the most of our small earning window.
  • Forcing ourselves to “keep going” comes at a price, and that price is paid in multiple ways ‒ some of us overeat, some become lazy, or act out by bullying, being territorial, obstructing progress, grandstanding, complaining, backstabbing, gossiping, and having marital affairs.
  • We prioritise work over our loved-ones. Some people sacrifice time with their children and families on the belief that they have to make the most of their most productive years. The time to amass wealth is now, family comes later. This kind of thinking sets you up to be one of those oldies that complain about their children not visiting them enough. “After all the sacrifices I made for them, how can they be so ungrateful?”
  • We suppress interests. We think we should focus, focus, focus, so we kill off desires, curiosities and side ambitions. “I can’t afford to take time out to write a book, I need to be running my business.” We deny ourselves from pursuing the things that make us happy and feel alive. This sets us up to be the kind of bitter, regret-ridden people that are difficult to live with.

Those who interpret this as a licence to live a life of leisure would be missing the point. Quite the contrary. I’m encouraging Gen Xers to fit more in by taking a longer time horizon: 30-50 years instead of 5-15 years. As any economist will tell you, there is a big difference between investing for the long term versus the short term. If you believe in the latter, you’ll be making suboptimal decisions. “It’s too late to start writing a book now, I should have started it ten years ago.”

If you’re a Gen X like me, the good news is that we’re just getting started! 60 isn’t the new 30, it always has been 30 if you have the right mindset. To quote from the movie Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a beautiful thing. Maybe the best of things.” I hope that my readers will keep on creating, experimenting, inventing and having the courage to start over, or take time out of your career ‒ no matter how old you are.

The bad news? Graceful agers like us (what I like to refer as “The Gragers”) are in the minority. Society thinks we only have a few years before we become “over the hill”. Headhunters looking for a CIO role will favour a 45 year old over a 75 year old. Even if we believe we still have a lot to give, society might not give us the chance. So what is the point of “hope”?

And some readers might ask, “Hang on James, I work as a chef, do you really expect me to be slaving away in a hot kitchen when I’m 85 years old? Do you expect me to be able to keep up with the orders, let alone stand upright for hours? What if I’ve been doing it for the past 20 years, and no longer feel passionate about what I do? What if I’m bored?”

I plan to tackle these questions in future chapters (please subscribe below if you’d like a copy sent to you automatically). I’ll look deeply into the careers of Gragers like Clint Eastwood. As I’m writing this, Clint Eastwood is 90 years old. Over his career, he directed/produced 44 films, of which 28 were released after the age of 60. He received 11 Oscar nominations and won 4 ‒ all earned after the age of 60. Had he stopped working at the age of 70, we wouldn’t have seen films including Million Dollar Baby (aged 74), Gran Torino (aged 78), Invictus (aged 79) and American Sniper (aged 84). How did he do it?

Some readers will be saying, “Hang on, James. Pablo Picasso, Clive James and Clint Eastwood ‒ they’re one in a million. Statistically, not everyone will be able to have such long careers. Do you really expect to defy the odds?”

To which my answer is: “You betcha ‒ why do you think I am writing his book?”

Thank you

Thanks to Jermir Punthakey for reviewing early drafts.

Call for help

My mission is to help Gen Xers age as gracefully as they can ‒ to make the second half of our lives even better than our first half. The best way you can help me is to invite your friends to read and subscribe to my blog. You can do this by clicking the icons below.

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© James Lau  May 5, 2020

  4. Azoulay, P., Jones, B., Kim, J.D. & Miranda, J.. 2018. “Age and high growth entrepreneurship.” National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper 24489, p.37. These statements were made by “eye-balling” the chart of page 37.
  5. Ibid, cited in KelloggInsight School of Management
  6. Here is an example:

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