4 Life Lessons From A 40 Year Old


It was my 40th birthday yesterday. In a funny way, I feel a bit embarrassed saying I’m 40. It feels old to me, for some reason, which it's not anymore. 40 is the new 30 apparently. Either way, where the hell the last 20 years of adulthood have gone, I have no idea.

There’s something about turning an age with a zero on the end of it that often prompts the start of a new developmental stage, I think. It definitely gets you reflecting on life, that’s for sure. I remember the same thing happening when I turned 30, although there’s something quite loaded about turning that particular age - it’s often laced with pressure to have everything sorted - house, partner, family, career, etc.

At 40, it’s a different series of questions. “Is this it?”, “Is this what I want?”, “Did I make the right decisions in the past?” I came across something called “Existential Coaching" this year - if that isn’t a sign of the perspective shift turning 40 creates, I don’t know what is! Better that than me running out to buy a motorcycle or a Porsche though, I guess. Or maybe that's for when I turn 50. The cliches are endless, but perhaps that’s because they’re true - we all go through developmental shifts when we reach milestone birthdays.

For me, it’s got me thinking about what I’m doing with my life. Is this what I want? Am I on-track to make myself proud when I’m on the way out? Luckily, in the main, the answer is yes to the majority of these types of questions, bar a few things I want to tweak and change.

Sleepwalking through life

It’s also got me reflecting on how I spent my 20s and 30s though. I slept walked through quite a lot of that period in some respects. I didn’t really think about whether I wanted to get married, but I did. I didn’t really think about whether I wanted kids, but I had one. I didn’t really think about whether I wanted to buy a house, but I did. What I realise now is that, I did these things because everyone else was, and it’s what felt expected of me (although no one was pressurising me). It felt like those were normal things to do - a natural progression, a societal norm that I followed without too much questioning. I just did them without much thought, because they felt the natural next thing to do at the time.

I hear many clients describe a similar journey with their careers. They find it hard to understand how they got to where they are now. It’s certainly not something they planned. They describe taking the first job that was offered to them after university, accepting it because they wanted to start earning so they could stand on their own two feet, and that it sounded like a good plan for the next year or so whilst they figured out what they really wanted to do. Or it gave them something to aim for, a clear plan to follow at least (even if it wasn’t one they particular wanted in the long run). But then that first choice turned into their whole career. It’s so easy to sleep walk into a career, and find yourself so ingrained in it, that it’s very hard to see a way out of it.

I did that with my first career. I studied Psychology & Criminology at University. It therefore seemed logical to do something in that field. I took an admin job with the Probation Service, which led me to training as a Probation Officer, which gave me a plan for the next two years or so. It was only when I qualified that I realised what I’d really let myself in for. I hadn’t really thought about what that career would look like in the long term. 6 months qualified and I knew I didn’t want to do that job for the rest of my life. So I began to explore other options, coaching being one of those. I tried out Marketing too, which, in the end, supported me financially throughout my training as a coach and whilst I started my own business part time. Funny how these things work out in the end.

Life Lessons

So, with all these twists and turns, turning 40 got me thinking about what I have learnt so far and what advice I would give my 20-30 year old self. As a result, below are my main life lessons so far. No doubt there will be many more across the next decade, but these are the ones that stand out to me thus far:

1. People don’t think about you as much as you think they do.

It’s not because they don’t care. It’s just that they’re way too busy thinking about themselves (or worrying what others think of them) to spend as much time as you think they do judging or bad mouthing you. They might pass judgement for a fraction of a second, but then they’re off thinking about the next thing. They do not dwell on you or what you said or did. People move on, in the same way you do when someone does or says something. In the same vien, I’ve also learnt that it really does not matter what people think about you anyway. Often, their thoughts stem so much from their own beliefs, past hurts and fears, that what they think has nothing to do with you at all. Remembering this can have such a profound effect on how we choose to live our lives.

2. Chasing “happiness” can make you unhappy.

Western society has drummed into us this continual need to search for “happiness”. I feel I have learnt the hard way that it is impossible to be “happy" all the time, and reading too much into it when I'm not. We often quit jobs, careers, relationships, hobbies etc because they don’t make us “happy” anymore. But that’s because we can’t be “happy” all the time - in the same way we can’t be angry, sad, irritated, fearful, joyful, or positive ALL the time. These are all emotions and feelings that come and go.

A much more realistic barometer is how CONTENT you are. It’s a much more sustainable and fulfilling state to aim for…whilst also accepting that there is no final destination to this path. We never arrive at our final state. It’s a journey that requires continuous maintenance along the way. Our minds are similar to a garden, in that weeds will always grow back, so it needs ongoing pruning in order to feel content with the life we have. Our brains are not designed to be happy with what we’ve got; it’s how we have evolved so significantly as a species. We are designed to want more, more, more, and we think the next thing will be what finally makes us “happy". Switching to a focus on being “content” over “happy” (and realising this all comes from within) has been a steep learning curve for me.

3. Life is tricky.

I spent a lot of early adulthood making changes to my life in the hope that it would help things feel easier. Alas, I’ve come to the realisation that life is just hard, and it’s not fair sometimes. There’s very little point trying to fight or control that.

The most helpful thing to do is to untether, to stop attaching your worth and happiness to things and people. People and life events will always rub you up the wrong way. Instead of attaching to these experiences, we can learn to let go and accept that rubbish things happen. We can spend years building a fortress around ourselves in the hope that it will protect us from the things and people that we find hard and that hurt our feelings. But, in the end, we are the ones that suffer as a result, because we’re not living life to it’s fullest. We’re living a life full of fear and self-doubt, staying in our comfort zones so we don’t get hurt - which we think makes life easier and more comfortable, but, in actual fact, it makes us more uncomfortable, as we become trapped in our own protective castles.

It takes time (and a lot of therapy!) but we can learn to take down our self-built walls, let go of how we think the world ‘should' be, invite it in in all it’s messiness, safe in the knowledge that we can cope and work through whatever life throws at us. We can ride the adventure that is life.

4. No one “makes” you feel the way you do, you make yourself feel that way.

It’s not always the fault of others. Usually, it’s the way you’re seeing things, or it’s the expectations (should, ought, must, etc) that you’re carrying around with you that are the cause of your problems, frustrations, and stresses. People behave in all manners of ways, and we take those behaviours so personally. To tie in the first life lesson above, how someone behaves says very little about you. It says a lot about them and what they’re going through (and what ‘shoulds’ etc they are carrying around with them). No one makes us feel bad. We make ourselves feel bad through the interpretations and meanings we attach to how they behave or what they said. What’s liberating is that we have a choice about how we react and respond to people (and situations/circumstances). We can’t control how others behave or what they say. All we can do is control how we respond.

I wonder what the next decade will teach me. I’m looking forward to the growth and learning those lessons will bring.

Alice Stapleton

About Alice

Alice coaches those who want to change career but don’t know what they want to do instead. She offers Career Coaching designed to help graduates, early to mid-level career-changers, and parents returning to work gain a clear vision of what career is right for them, and how to achieve it. She is also an accredited Coach Supervisor, and host of The Career Change Diaries podcast.