I've come to think that there are, ideally, four basic stages of life. Let's imagine a lifespan of 100 years. And with this assumption, we can imagine each of the stages as spanning about 25 years, give or take. if you think that's unrealistic, I should share a recent experience.
One of my friends is very active internationally in top track and field events, at the age of 66. Recently, I read somewhere about another man who is 100 years old and is setting new records in track and field competitions. So I told my friend about this guy and asked if he knew such a person. He said, "Which one?" It turns out that he knew five people 100 years old or older who have been competing and setting records in track and field events. So, there you go.
Each of the four 25 year periods that structure our lives has a focal activity definitive of it. This is not an activity exclusive to the stage, but it rather serves to organize and structure most other activities that take place during the stage.
The First Stage - Up to Age 25 or so: We're Focused on Learning
In our first 25 years, our focal activity is Learning. From the moment we're born, we're learning about the world, about other people, and about ourselves. We're learning to move, to walk, to talk, and then finding out how to do things that we see others do. We go off to school and the learning gets formalized. But so much still takes place outside the structure of the classroom. We're learning sports. We're learning the difference between true friends and false friends. We're often learning another language. We're learning how to reason, and how to see as an artist would, or a scientist, or historian. Until our mid-twenties, at least, this is, in a sense, the main activity among many in which we're engaged.
The Second Stage - Age 25 Up to Age 50 or so: We're Focused on Building
Throughout the second stage, from around 25-50 or beyond, we're building. We're building careers, families, homes, and networks of friends that can endure. We're building skill sets, lifestyles, reputations, and habits within which we'll engage in launching ourselves independently into the world. We don't usually think of it at the time, but this is when we begin building our own legacies for the future. It's an exciting period, often for trying new things, for being creative, and for gleaning the first deep satisfactions we may experience from making a difference for good for other people as well as ourselves.
The Third Stage - Age 50 Up to Age 75 or so: We're Focused on Serving
This can be a subtle shift or a big one. We begin to think of our work more than ever before as an act of service to other people. We may have lived competitively and sought to be winners in all that we did, until now, but this period in life often sees a shift. Leo Tolstoy had a famous midlife crisis at about the age of 49. He realized he had been living his life up until then trying to get as rich as possible and as famous as he could become, and that he had finally attained all of his desires through the books he had created. But when he thought more deeply about why he was doing all this, he couldn't figure out the reason for any of it. And he went through a two-year crisis as a result. In the end, he writes in his great little book Confession, and sums up a subsequent discovery that revolutionized his attitudes in the words: "What then should man do? Man should live his life in service to others." During this period of our journeys, ideally, this refocusing begins to happen in a clear and compelling way. We begin asking more how we can be of service, to our neighbors, our communities, and our world.
The Fourth Stage - Age 75 Up to Age 100 or so: We're Focused on Guiding
We've had by this stage a lifetime of learning, building, and serving. And with good nutrition, ample exercise, and help with managing whatever genetic glitches we may have been born with, or whatever accidents we may have experienced along the way, we can still have a vibrant and meaningful fourth quarter, where the focal activity is ideally that of guiding. If we do it right, we're still learning, and even building, and certainly serving. But the new focus of this period is on guiding others with the accumulated experience and wisdom that we've earned over the years. Many other cultures do better than we do in making this possible, and expected. The elders are revered for their stories and lessons. But we need this in our time and society as much as it's ever been needed, if not much more.
Each Stage Along the Way
At each stage along the way, again, ideally, all four activities I've named are taking place. Children often learn by building - forts, playhouses, snowmen, sleds, fishing poles, and countless other things. And I've seen plenty of people under the age of 50 serving their fellow human beings - working with The Boys' and Girls' Club, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, or Habitat for Humanity, for example. Furthermore, at any stage, we can guide others with what we've learned. Again, none of these activities is exclusive to their focal stages, and should never be. We do best when we involve ourselves in all these things. But at different life stages, there are different priorities and main activities, or perhaps, orientations. A full life allows for these differences and shifts of perspective.
How we think of success, and what makes us happy, may also vary stage-to-stage. Approaching every one of life's journeys as if they're all the same will miss out on the subtle differences that can make all the difference.
Of course, I'm just doing my best here to capture an aspect of the human experience, but in the end, treat these ideas with all due respect given the basic fact that I'm just making all this up. But at age 63 my focal intent, of course, is to serve you with ideas that may spark insight.
And in a dozen more years, come to me for all the guidance you want.
But what then, after 100? I hear you ask. And I've pondered it.
Then, the focal activity may just be hanging on for dear life, by our fingernails. Or preparing for the next big adventure.