Navigating Life's Stages
Bill Rogers was a smart, charming, well-dressed man. He always had a warm smile and a friendly disposition. He was a friend every leader needs. I always complimented him on his dress. “You’re looking good, today, Bill.” One day he asked, “Do you know the three stages of life?” “No,” I responded. With a chuckle, he whispered: “Young adult. Median adult. And, ‘you’re looking good.’”
We all venture through distinct stages of life. At each stage, we tend to reassess and rebalance our priorities and values. It's helpful to know these phases and their characteristics, so we are aware of what's happening and know it is normal. The movement is a progression. As we move through each stage, we learn and mature in the process. We become better humans and mature as people.
As I reflect on my life, I discover some valuable learnings at each phase. Others have written extensively on these matters and provide a more in-depth view of the life stages. But for our purposes here I will focus on three broad periods.
Following adolescence, I spent a great deal of my early adulthood in college and graduate school. It was the learning stage for me. I moved away from home, adjusting to life on my own. Following my graduate school experience, I took on my first full-time job, learning the ins and outs of the workplace. I got married and began to navigate life with my wife. This was a period of adjustment and recalibration. I was moving away from dependence to autonomy.
During this time, I was learning more and more about myself, the world, and what was most important. Some of my learning came through trial and error. Sometimes it was a matter of watching and observing. A psychology professor told our class that if you find yourself in a new situation and don’t know what to do you watch others and mimic their behavior. Longing for approval and not wanting to embarrass myself, I often employed this tactic.
In time, I lessened my dependence on parents and others. I was now responsible for my livelihood, my family, and my career. I needed to hear from others, but not allow other’s opinions to dictate my behavior and my values. I was defining myself as an individual—no longer as my Father’s son, or as a college athlete, or a graduate student. Mostly, I was learning who I was.
I left that first job to return to school again. Following that school experience, I took my first full-time management position. A year later my wife and I had our first child. Life made a compelling turn. It became increasingly involved. I was responsible for an organization and a family. Before, I enjoyed the freedom of being a subordinate employee and not having children. Now, all of a sudden, I was in charge. My time and my finances were demanded with little left over. My decisions had broader and longer ramifications than before.
The fact that I was leading came glaringly home when I was in that first management role, during a discussion over a volatile issue. Finally, after a period of heated discussion, one of the managers turned to me and said, "You're the boss. What do we do?" At that moment, I knew that I was the leader. I would have liked to have had time to confer with someone else—but a decision was demanded, and I was the only one that could make it.
The learning stage prepared me for the leading stage. Later, in the leading stage, I had been asked to serve on a non-profit’s board of directors. Informed that I would serve two terms consecutively of three years each for a total of six years, I asked, "Why two terms?" "Because," said the board member, "it takes the first term to figure out what you are doing so you can make an impact in the second term." His words proved accurate for the board experience.
And, they proved right for me as I moved from the learning to the leading stage. I implemented my learning experiences from the first phase now in the leading stage. In high school I had enrolled a typing class to get an easy A. I've used those typing skills most every day. I wondered why I needed art appreciation in college; my artistic learnings help me to design newsletters, give input to logos and branding. The administration, leadership, and public speaking classes pay incredible dividends weekly.
The leading stage was one of commitment to the choices I made in the learning stage. Those duties have grown deeper, involving my career, family, and time. During this accomplishment period, I fulfilled the dreams and goals I established earlier in my life.
Also, in this stage, I grasped my limitations. I could not do everything. I had to prioritize. If I were to lead my family, my business, and myself, I needed to set boundaries. I discovered other people were better at some tasks than I was, so, I enlisted their help, delegating work. My obvious weaknesses were exposed; and, I had to confront my failures. In time, I doubled down on what would have the greatest impact. I focused on what was most important, maximizing my potential. I would like to say this process was done easily with vivid clarity. But, most of the time, it was arduous as I muddled through the fog.
I have entered the final phase. Bill called it the “You’re looking good” stage. I call it the legacy stage. I see retirement on the horizon, though I hope it is still several years away. And, I'm growing more and more aware of my mortality. While I'm not ready to yawn my life away in the recliner, I know that I have wisdom and knowledge still to give. And, the best thing I can give is an investment in the lives of others who will carry on after I’m gone. I meet regularly with a group of leaders to pass on some learnings and insight. I lead a Bible Study for community business leaders. I’m assisting a church in transition. I continue to write, fulfilling my call to use the printed word to impact people’s lives. I lead a chaplaincy ministry that serves businesses. In many ways, I am more productive now than ever, having a greater impact on God’s kingdom. I’m giving back, and, hopefully, investing in a way that will last after I am gone.
For me, the issues of mid-life are behind me. I’m less driven, less ego-centered, less compelled to compete with and impress others. I’m focusing on what matters most. I’m using my learning and leading experiences to invest in others that, hopefully, will have a greater influence on the church and the community.
What about you? In which stage are you? What do you realize about yourself? What do you need to do to move fluidly from one stage to the next? How can you maximize your resourcefulness in the stage you are in now?