Things I’ve Learned in (Almost) 55 Years: Post 1 of a bunch

I forgot how old I was for a while. Someone asked me how old The Rocket Scientist is and I said 57, then I had to think how that could be when he is three years older than me. So, yes, I will be 55 this year. I guess turning 54 happened when I was busy and it kind of came and went. This is the age when one could theoretically retire under a lot of the old gold-plated retirement plans, though people usually don’t. The Rocket Scientist actually retired at 56. Young people starting work now, I think have to work until they turn 82 or drop dead in their tracks, whichever comes first. It’s also the age at which one is supposed to have some sort of wisdom to impart.

Inspired by this really good post from the Chicago Tribune on 50 things I’ve learned in 50 years, I decided to add my own, but since unlike that author, writing is NOT my full-time job, I thought I would try to get 55 out by the end of the year. Maybe even by my 55th birthday. Here are my first three. These aren’t necessarily the most important, but these are three things I learned that were worth learning.

1. Learn tact.

Last week, I was interviewed for an HBO special they  are doing on my daughter’s upcoming UFC fight. The interviewer was incredulous when I said there were some things I would not say, since even someone who has known me for only 20 minutes can see that I am pretty outspoken. Here is when you should not say something:

  • When it would gratuitously hurt someone’s feelings. There is no point in telling your neighbor her baby is ugly as a little monkey. Young people often excuse this kind of talk by protesting, “Well, it’s true! I’ve seen spider monkeys that look just like that!” Just because it’s true doesn’t excuse you from causing someone else pain, even a little bit.
  • When it offends the people who pay you and there is no ethical reason you have to say it. This is known as not biting the hand that feeds you. What I am NOT saying is that if your employer is biased against certain religious, political or ethnic groups that you can’t post pictures on your Facebook page with people from those groups talking about how awesome your black, communist, Buddhist, gay friend Bob is. What I am saying is that if your employer thinks everyone on earth should use Gantt charts and has published several white papers on that topic, you don’t go writing a blog post on how the Gantt chart is the stupidest idea anyone ever had and spend 1,700 words mocking them. Again, I hear young people object, “They can’t tell me what to do!” After kindergarten, you shouldn’t be using that excuse to justify your behavior any more.

Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean you should. You can’t go through life not offending anyone. That’s impossible. You should try not to hurt people and not to do damage to your professional relationships. In short, don’t be an ass.

2. Find some perspective

For 14 years of my life, I competed in judo. I won a world championship, the first American to ever do so. Even though I earned two degrees, married and had a job, for most of that time, my life centered around judo training and competition. If I lost, I felt as if I had lost my best friend.  Then, I went on to have four children, get divorced, get a Ph.D., bury my second husband and start a couple of companies (not in that order). The first time the national championships had passed months ago without me even remembering to check who won, it made me realize how much my priorities had changed.

These days, I can be working 80-hour weeks trying to get a proposal out and it seems like getting funding for our game is the most important thing in the world. Actually, it turns out that the world is a really big place and that billions of people have never heard of our game. To some of them, this year’s harvest is the biggest thing in the world. To others, it’s that their a capella group wins the nationals (I presume they have nationals) and to others it is finishing that needlepoint that they have been working of for months, or getting tenure as an Associate Professor of Italian in the Modern Languages Department and if they don’t, they’re a FAILURE.

country road

How can I possibly equate a life-changing event like failing to get tenure, failing to complete a needlepoint and crop failure? Two reasons. One is that while it may be of great importance to you personally, to the vast, vast, overwhelming majority of humanity, it doesn’t matter a rat’s ass. It is NOT even close to the end of the world because …

3. Failure is not permanent and neither is success.

Now that I am old, and I have my own office, it often happens to me that I will be looking for something in a file drawer and I will come across a reminder from years ago – a medal, or a grant proposal. At the time, whatever it was meant a lot to me – several hundred thousand dollars that we used to pay staff for a couple of years and provide training to people in reservations across the Great Plains. But now it’s over. Maybe it was an article that got published or a grant that got rejected. Either way, it made me happy or upset at the time but now it is just stuck in a drawer. Even my trophy from the world championships is in a box in a closet somewhere. I’d really, really like to get the proposals I’m working on now funded. But, if I don’t, I’ll just turn around and write another one.

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