Reflections on Turning 40

I spent the first half of my twenties as a starving student, reading all the time and scraping by on poor food and the cheapest no name coffee that comes in a giant tin. I didn’t start traveling until after I graduated, and I felt like I had to make up for lost time. I spent the second half of that decade working horrible temp jobs for very little pay, and saving it all for trips.

When I was 28, I took a 3 month solo journey through Central America. It changed the way I saw myself and the world. I spent most of my thirties trying to figure out what it meant. I wrote and rewrote those experiences, and I travelled to the world’s marginal places and desert regions in an effort to find more of the same. I never really did. Nothing equalled the insights of that first trip. Everything after that was different somehow. Less pivotal. But there were some pretty damn good adventures along the way.

As my twenties drew to a close, I quit my job in Japan and bought a one way ticket to Mongolia. I didn’t want to turn 30 while teaching ESL in the Tokyo suburbs. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that occupation, of course. It just felt miles away from my hopes and dreams.

I turned 30 in Mongolia while traveling with two 21-year-old Swedish girls. It was a pretty good way to mark a new decade. Those 6 months on the road—through Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang and Southeast Asia—turned out to be the high point. They provided the memories that would keep me going during the years to come.

I spent most of my 30s frustrated and poor. I worked mind-numbing office jobs for minimum wage (and less), and I was down to the last $15 in my wallet on more than one occasion. That grind went on and on for years, punctuated by a couple small trips to keep the dream alive, paid for by cashing in a life insurance policy. I started publishing my writing in travel magazines, but it didn’t pay much. And it was still a long way from the books I wanted to write.

Things broke open for me only very gradually and with much effort and struggle. Ironically enough, it started right when my dad died of cancer. He supported my goals for so many years, but he never had a chance to see even the earliest modest success. My first big magazine feature was in layouts the day he died. I made my first DVD later that year. By then I was 32.

It was only around age 38 that my work finally started bringing in enough of an income to live off of. I got married that year as well. We’d been together for 14 years, which I’m pretty sure makes me the longest holdout among any of my friends.

It’s been a couple years since then, but it seems like a lifetime ago. I built an online business that provides a portable income, and I’m working to automate as much of it as possible so the results are no longer tied to the hours I put in. I also moved to a small island in the Mediterranean, fulfilling a decade-long goal of living in the same type of landscape that inspired Lawrence Durrell. I still have a long way to go before I’m outsourcing the work necessary to spend the majority of my time on the things I love. But at least it feels like I’m finally making progress.

And that brings me to this year. And to today in particular. The border I’m about to cross from one decade to the next.
I’m not big on birthdays, but 40 seems different somehow. It’s introspective in a way that turning 30 wasn’t. It’s a little shocking—halfway to 80, and halfway done? It comes with a sense of mortality. A sense of time running out with so much still left to do. And a sense of sadness for lost innocence, and for all those things you will never have again.

By 40 you realize that people drift in and out of your life.

It’s strange to think of the world going on without me. I remember all those people I went to elementary school with. People I grew up with. We shared our childhood and our formative years. We came from the same small place and shared the same past. And because those childhood and teenage years seemed so long, so thick with experience, it felt like I would always know them. At 40 you realize life doesn’t work that way. People drift. And the thought that I might go through the rest of my life never knowing what happened to those people, how their lives played out, is difficult to accept. There are too many loose ends. Stories don’t wrap up like that.

By 40 you realize that your goals can no longer be open-ended.

“Someday” doesn’t apply anymore, because you face the cold realization that you only have so many days left. It’s a time to abandon some goals and focus with renewed energy on the rest. If you’re going to get clear about your life, better do it now. I know I have.

By 40 you have less patience for time-wasters.

I have less tolerance for people who waste my time. For bad service. For things that break or don’t perform as they’re supposed to. I’m much less willing to put up with things, out of politeness or anything else. At the same time, I have a deeper appreciation for good service—because I know from experience what it takes to achieve it. I have tremendous respect for someone who’s skilled at their job. And I appreciate things that are well made and well designed.

But all is not decrepitude, gloom and grouchiness on the grizzled fringes of middle age…

By 40 you also realize that you’re just coming into your decade of power and opportunity.

Sure, I have to watch what I eat a lot more than I used to, despite always having been naturally thin. That little roll of fat accumulates a lot faster on my waist, and it takes more work to melt it off. But I’m stronger and fitter than I ever was before, simply because I know so much more about training and nutrition, and I’m able to apply it.
By 40 the uncertainty of your 20’s is far behind you.

And so is that mid-30’s worry that things are never going to change. I’m absolutely confident in my knowledge and abilities. I’m satisfied with the decisions I’ve made. And I’m comfortable with my place in the world and the path I’ve chosen through life.

Hopefully by 40 you’ve got your finances under control, and you have the opportunity to fund some of the dreams you couldn’t afford earlier on.

I’m just entering that period now, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. If you’ve worked hard over the past twenty years, then you’ve also begun demonstrating mastery of your craft. And that brings new opportunities and new challenges. This is the decade of your greatest successes. I don’t just dream up cool projects and exciting travel schemes and add them to a list. Now I can actually finance them. In your 40’s it’s a matter of deciding which to do first.

I have to admit it’s a pretty exciting time, despite the sobering reflections and despite it’s melancholy moments. And—for the next decade at least—it looks like it’ll only get better.

I don’t remember where I was when I turned 20. Thirty was Mongolia. And 40…? I’m spending this week in Spain with my wife. Disconnecting from the electronic world to hike in the Pyrenees and explore deserted coves along the Costa Brava. Unplugging for a while and thinking about where to go next.

That’s not a bad way to mark the decade. Not bad at all.

[Ed. Note. Ryan Murdock is coauthor of the Shapeshifter Body Redesign program. When not helping people rediscover the body of their “glory years,“ Ryan travels the world’s marginal places as Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Outpost magazine. Ryan’s work has also appeared in Alo Magazine, the anthologies Traveler’s Tales Central America and Traveler’s Tales China, and Toronto’s Eye Weekly. His Outpost feature “Taklamakan: The Worst Desert in the World” was nominated for a National Magazine Award in Canada.]
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  • Beth

    Fifty was my favorite birthday so far. Half a century of memories to remind me how far I have grown as a person. More people actually remembered I was having one, so wished me a happy birthday, and sent me a card or lovely gift. My husband took me to a b&b and we had fun while away playing ping pong with a former world champion. This birthday made me realize how much I want to LIVE and how full of gratitude I am for all the experiences leading up that point in time.

    My mother died at 68 and my dad at 69, so at 54 years of age I am very aware that I need to focus on my priorities, values, and strongest desires to bring to fruition.while I still can. That drives me, and life is exceptionally good when I stay on that path and do this. Volunteer work to make a difference in the world, interesting work, spending time with loved ones, being creative, traveling to new places, and spending time in nature are some of the main things that make up my life now.

    I am taking time to “smell the roses” and remind myself regularly that I control my own pace. Faster is not always better. Slowing down can me a magical thing. I can take deep breaths, get many more insights, and see my vision with more clarity. I used to be afraid of turning 60. Not any more! Now it’s just part of this special journey we call life. Living fully is the best way to be. 🙂

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Thank you Beth, those are wonderful reflections.

      Craig

  • Mike

    Birthday reflections:-
    I remember my 21st birthday, sat in my room doing coursework for my engineering degree.. However it has set me up quite well..

    I got a job on a significant aerospace project, pension, sick pay, holiday, training..etc… but when I turned 29 I had an “Is this it?” moment… so I quit my job and went international contracting. 35 now, and I still think it was the best thing I ever did!
    No job security, but potentially more income, and a chance to immerse in different countries… I did consider upside and downside risks, and I am grateful that my niche would allow me to easily go back to where I left off.

    It’s about as exciting as engineering gets without breaking stuff!

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Awesome Mike, appreciated your reflections.

      Craig

  • Andrew McDermot

    Birthday Reflections-

    So far for me in my life it is my sixteenth birthday. I am only 17 right now to clarify why it is only 16… but 16 marked the day my whole world changed. The day my life was cast on a new path. My dad bought me Michael Masterson book automatic wealth for grads. Probably the best birthday gift I have ever been given… which lead to reading every book he has written. Yes that first book was incredible, but there was a deeper meaning to it. It hit me deep in my heart that I didn’t want to live just an “ordinary” life. As cliché as it sounds, it’s true. Since that birthday I have made it my goal to achieve financial Independence by age 21.

    I have made it my goal to live a unique life , a life lived the way I believe it should be lived. I can not imagine having to work for SOMEONE else every single day. No way, no how, I am going to be my own boss and live a life so incredible that most people only dream of living. Since that sixteenth birthday I have dedicated my self to learning internet business, the financial markets, and greater spirituality. I will continue to grow every day, and each birthday look back and make sure I have improved. This post wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t thank my dad. He is my best friend and the greatest man I know. I hope everyone’s endeavours are going great and dream big, work hard!
    —————————————————————————————————-
    Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
    -Calvin Coolidge

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Andrew, you rock. You’re a great kid. Looking forward to hearing about your success.

      Craig

  • Here’s my two cents. I have to be honest. With all due respect, I didn’t like the article at all. It was not inspiring in the least. In fact it was depressing. Three months after my 18th birthday, I was hired as a cop to escape a life of hard manual labour carrying 140-lb flour bags. I left behind my football playing career to start earning a living. By 26, I was a detetctive and head football coach of a high school team. At 33, I quit policing and became a college law enforcement professor. Policing tuaght me that we don’t choose who we cross paths with – “time-wasters” or not. College teaching and coaching football taught me that we don’t cross paths only with people who don’t waste our time. I learned people crossed our paths who have thought we were “time-wasters.” Looking back in my life, I was mentored by people who easily could have considered me a “time-waster.” At 40, I started my own non-profit collegiate football team to give unrecruited athletes a second chance. Most were considere “time-wasters” by those who gave up on them. I wasn’t vacationing or having a mid-life crisis. At 40, I wrote my sixth law enforcement textbook and started my own publishing company. At 43, I started a 24 hour gym. That was over a decade ago. I have been working out for 43 consecutive years, naturally. I’ve coached and taught thousands of student-athletes and here’s the key – I’m just getting warmed-up. I haven’t lost my tolerance for “time-wasters” or “bad service” because everyone we cross paths with has a purpose. The greatest reward is putting up ladders for other people. Lifting others who need to be lifted in the greatest reward. ‘People who waste our time’ are a product of our own unwillingness and incapacity to make an impact. I’m blessed that people don’t “drift” in and out of my life. I have been blessed to have built a powerful network of former players, students, and colleagues that we’re connected for life regardless of where we are. If you feel a sense of mortality at 40, you’re not busy enough or not fulfilled enough. I learned in policing that life and death have nothing to do with age. But focusing on mortality is a waste of time. Totally. I had to deal with deaths of all ages up close and personal. Detectie work put life in perspective. Forty is too young to even consider mortality. My three daughters and my granddaughter inject youthfulness in my life every minute of every day. My workouts today are off the charts. It starts with mindset. In conclusion, I don’t classify the world into those who waste my time and those who don’t because making the biggest impact and making the biggest difference won’t happen with those who who I like being around. Thanks for the air time.

  • Nicky

    Andrew – you’re my freaking hero! I wish I was setting my goals and learning the things I’m learning now at 17. People like you are one of the reasons that I’m so excited to be in the world at this state of change. The younger people of today (and I’m not 40 yet) have so much potential and are expressing it in new and dynamic ways. As for me, I would like to use my years to help those young people to gain credibility and help them temper their enthusiasm with some of the wisdom that I have learned.
    For birthdays and other milestones I like to mentally reflect on past decisions, and focus on what I want to experience next. Sometimes I take myself out of my physical space, and sometimes I only take myself out of my mental space, but stepping back to that “30,000 mile vantage point” is so important to leading a life of intention. Thanks for the reminder, I have a birthday coming up in less than a month; it’s time for me to start planning.

    • Craig Ballantyne

      well said, Nicky.

  • As i’m turning 40 in four short months I had a passed friend of mines tell me that when she turned 40 that she begined to see the world in a total new light. and as i’m fast coming to my 40th birthday I’ve seen hear in the past three months or so that Yes she was really right! smh…. I see what i will not keep dealing and putting up with from family/friends/personal relations. Just a entire host of things. Too long to try and put all into words. So what i’m saying is for my life as it is now.. I want more than ever to just learn “re learn to love me! Enjoy me.. My life in its entirlorty. Re connect with the people .. person’s that over the 20’s and 30’s i pushed away to try if they will let me that really loved me and had my back through all my good.. bad.. and ugly times in my life. I’ve really learned so much this passed ten years of being in my 30’s That now all i want and will do now is just rest my mind.. my heart. This is now my time to do me and smile.. Really smile with end. Enjoy smelling life in a entire new way. and inbrase my up coming 40th birthday with love and ease.:))))))))).