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Half-century notes

Welcome to the first in a series of one, or maybe two, Half-Century Notes. Time to look back on how things have gone for me over the past fifty years!

§ Back when I was 20 or so, looking ahead up my visual number line of ages, 30 seemed a long way off. 40 was in the far distance. 50, 60, 70 and the rest were clustered together on the horizon. Almost unimaginable!

But now I’m 50 I look backwards at 20 and earlier, and forwards at the later milestones. Now, they all seem a lot closer, within reach.

A decade used to seem like a huge chunk of time – after all, so much had changed between the ages of 10 and 20 – but now I realise how quickly each one whizzes by. And, ssshh… the rumour is that they keep getting quicker.

So I can see that, from the point of view of someone in their twenties, 50 is officially Old. But 50 is only about half-way through adult life, give or take. There is lots of life left. I’ve only done half of what I’ll do. In theory.

So, anyway, how have the past 50 years gone? In summary: pretty good, and I am very lucky.

Let’s take a quick whirl through each decade so far…

§ Decades

0-20 years

School photo of me in a red shirt and brown tank top
Me at 5 or 6.

I’m not going to go through my childhood in detail; none of us need that. Life was generally good and I’m lucky to have wonderful parents and a wonderful sister.

So much of life is out of one’s direct control as a child so, looking back from here, it’s not like there are many decisions or events about which I think, “I did that well/badly”. Maybe two stand out, near the end of my teens:

Grainy black-and-white photo of me in a school shirt and tie drawing on a drawing board
Me at 15, by Ted Mills
  • I’m glad I gave up Economics A-Level a few weeks into the first term in favour of Art, despite teachers being concerned that I needed three “proper” subjects. It was definitely the right decision for me.

  • I’m glad I chose to apply to Bristol Poly (which became UWE, Bristol). There were probably better courses, and other good locations, but it was fine and I didn’t want to live in London. I loved Bristol, the course was very varied, and I made good friends.

My twenties

Dithered black-and-white portrait of me
Me at about 24, photo by Jay Grace

Some highlights of that decade:

  • πŸŽ“ Finished my degree in Bristol.
  • πŸ₯£ Did some modelmaking at Aardman Animations.
  • πŸ–₯ Discovered the internet; life-changing.
  • 🏒 Moved to London for my first proper job, at Wired UK, the place I most wanted to work in the world (after Wired in San Francisco).
  • πŸ•Έ Got a job making websites. Getting paid to make websites!
  • πŸ“» Realised I didn’t like working at an agency and moved to working on Capital Radio’s websites.
  • πŸŽ“ Did a Masters in Studies of the Future in Houston, Texas.
  • 🏒 Back in London, got a web developer job at a non-evil company with nice folks.
  • πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ Had some great holidays, mostly in the US, including long train trips, driving around, interesting conferences, and an early Burning Man.

Looking back I’m quite pleased with that decade.

On the down side there was some moping around, and in some ways I was a bit lost towards the end of my twenties. I did the Masters because I couldn’t think of anywhere I wanted to work (assuming I had a choice); so many “new media” companies seemed terrible. And then being a student in suburban Houston wasn’t the experience I’d hoped and it was pretty lonely.

But, otherwise, there were many good times, lots of friends, and lots of fun. Well done clueless young me!

My thirties

Black and white portrait of me, smiling and looking to the left of the frame, my chin on my right hand
Me at 37, by Matt Locke

The highlights:

There are many excellent things here, obviously. More on the work side later. A pretty good “settling down a bit” decade, with the added spice of two years prancing barefoot around a black-curtained room.

My forties

Portrait of me
Me at 45, by Carl Proctor.
  • πŸ‘¨πŸΌ‍πŸ’» Broadly, freelancing continued, aside from a year at BERG.
  • 🎭 Re-started different acting classes.
  • πŸ’· Saved money.
  • 🏑 Moved to Herefordshire.

If my thirties went by more quickly than my twenties, my forties just zipped by. If we hadn’t left London near the end of the decade there would not be a lot noticeable to show for that ten years.

§ Two quotes

Let’s have a couple of quotes here because, as a wise man once said, “Quoting a famous person makes all your reckons more truer.” (Gandhi.)

Recently I re-read Douglas Coupland’s Life After God and, because I was thinking about writing a post like this, I noted this passage:

I said that time was linked to emotions. “Maybe the more emotions a person experiences in their daily lives, the longer time seems to feel to them. As you get older, you experience fewer new things, and so time seems to go by faster.”

“Christ, how depressing,” said Kristy.

From the short story ‘1,000 Years (Life After God)’ (p. 334).

That’s definitely a theory with something behind it, based on my single experimental life.

Also, I liked this take, from another of the first-person stories (published in 1994, for context):

I believe that you’ve had most of your important memories by the time you’re thirty. After that, memory becomes water overflowing into an already full cup. New experiences just don’t register in the same way or with the same impact. I could be shooting heroin with the Princess of Wales, naked in a crashing jet, and the experience still couldn’t compare to the time the cops chased us after we threw the Taylors’ patio furniture into their pool in eleventh grade. You know what I mean.

From ‘My Hotel Year’ (p. 48).

I do know what you mean! And I also wonder what I made of this when I first read it, in my own twenties.

Memories of things I did in my twenties feel much stronger, emotionally, than similar things I did in my thirties or forties. Is it just because they’re longer ago? Will I feel the same about the forties’ events in another couple of decades? I’m doubtful. Even insignificant events from my twenties — like chatting with a stranger via a command line, or playing FIFA Soccer with a friend — live in my gut as much as my head. I feel those memories.

There used to be occasions in my twenties and probably into my thirties, maybe two or three times a year, when I’d look at what I was doing, where I was, who I was with, and think, “This is it, everything is just right, this is one of those moments.” It was an intense feeling that, right then and there, everything was perfect. Gradually those moments became rarer. I can’t remember if I experienced any of those exact moments in my forties at all. Which isn’t to say I’ve been unhappy. It’s just that perhaps the emotional experience of events, even minor ones, lost intensity as I got older.

§ Lessons

Is there anything I would have done differently? Certainly, there are so many embarrassing moments that I would love to re-shoot. And there are ways in which I could have done better at things, but only if I’d been a different person. There’s no point looking back and saying, “You should have been more x,” if I could never be like that.

But, reflecting now, my professional life is perhaps the least satisfying and there are three general ways in which it could have been better.

  1. Having a plan can be helpful

    When I was in Houston, one project involved coming up with our own personal future plan. I really didn’t want to do this and talked my way out of it. At the age of 29 life had been interesting so far and stumbling from one thing to another seemed to have worked. Why not just carry that on? Why come up with some plan for my distant future? It felt like I had a lot of experience — I was in my late twenties, so wise! — when, actually, I was still just starting out.

    I can see the benefit of a plan now. Having a positive ambition gives you next steps to take as you head towards it. Maybe you’ll change path on the way but that’s fine; you’ll still be heading somewhere. Without any direction it is, as I’ve found, too easy to bumble along comfortably at the same level.

    And, even if you have ambitions, what do you do if you achieve them? I really wanted to work at Wired and I got there for my first job! I also really wanted to make websites and did that in my second job! I wanted to live in another country for a while and did that by the time I was supposed to be coming up with this stupid personal futures plan.

    That was all of my professional-ish ambitions. So, well done for achieving them Phil, but what next? I should have come up with what we’d now call “stretch goals”.

  2. Work out what you want, not only what you don’t

    Deciding to go freelance was partly a negative decision: I wasn’t excited about anywhere that I could possibly work and so I opted-out and went freelance. But you need positive drivers to develop a freelance career. Aside from wanting to work with nice people (βœ“), I haven’t had these.

    I mean, it’s been fine and I’m very lucky — I’m kind of amazed I can still get work making websites on this basis, so that’s an achievement. But trundling from one similar-scale project to another, taking whatever comes towards me, year after year, isn’t growing. I could have tried harder to work out an alternative.

  3. Do difficult things

    Often, the only way to move on, to progress, is to do things you’d rather not do. Which I expect parents tell their children all the time. I was better at doing hard things when I was younger — I was clueless and terrified for my first weeks at Wired, and going to Houston seemed crazy (it probably was a bit daft).

    As a freelance developer I’ve managed to avoid lots of meetings and office politics and commuting and collaborating with difficult people. That has all been great. But I’ve also not worked on or built anything more substantial than a series of small websites for other peope, hardly any of which exist any more. The short-term downsides of a more difficult path may have been outweighed by the long-term upsides.

All of that is “do as I say, not as I do,” of course.

§ At 50

Photo of me in a garden
Me at 50

And now here I am at 50. Bloody hell. How are things?

  • I appear to be in good health. Given that I didn’t do a lot of exercise in my early twenties I’m possibly in better health now than I was then, despite this gradually-decaying frame. πŸƒπŸ»‍♂️

  • My family are in pretty good shape and they’re still lovely. πŸ‘¨‍πŸ‘©‍πŸ‘§‍πŸ‘¦

  • I have many extremely nice friends who I didn’t see enough even before the global pandemic. πŸ‘©πŸ»πŸ‘¨πŸ»πŸ‘¨πŸΌ‍πŸ¦°πŸ‘΄πŸ»πŸ‘©πŸ»‍πŸ¦°πŸ‘¨πŸ½‍πŸ¦±πŸ‘±πŸ»‍♀️

  • I am very happily married – which I would love to be able to tell mopey twentysomething me – and living in a nice place. πŸ‘©‍❀️‍πŸ’‹‍πŸ‘¨ 🏑

  • I’m in good shape financially and, if I’m not about to completely retire, I’m aiming to ease into it gradually and early. πŸ’°

  • Despite the days when I’m feeling a bit lost I know I have been, and am, very, very lucky, and I’m grateful for that. 🀞

§ I guess I’m now supposed to come up with a plan for the next half of adult life. Hmm. Anyway, see you for the next Half-Century Notes!

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  1. I think this might be my favourite thing I’ve read in the last year.

  2. Aww, thanks Ian!

  3. I just came across your website for the first time during a stroll across the web (via Tom Critchlow's link to your post last year on tracking reading), and I loved this latest writing of yours. You said you "should have" set stretch goals, but it's not too late, and I'd encourage you to do it now. Let's say you live to age 85. That's the same amount of time that you have lived since age 15! Plenty of time for some stretch goals. (I learned this calculation from Margaret Lobenstine's book The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One; your post reminded me of it.) It may be a good time to revisit Tim Urban's blog post "Your Life in Weeks" at Wait But Why. Thanks for the important reminders!

  4. While your writing is a weekly must for me, this was really special and a wonderful read.

  5. @Nat Thanks very much. I should definitely follow my own advice and come up with some goals, so I'll have to think about that. Thanks for the book recommendation. I've also seen recommended (but never got round to reading) Barbara Sher's 'What Do I Do When I Want To Do Everything?'

    @Thomas Thank you, that's lovely to hear.

  6. This is great! Something to ponder as I'm in my early 40s now.

    Also, because this is the internet: your link to pepysdiary is broken - an extra space has slipped in just after the https I think.

  7. Thanks Phil, and thanks also for the correction - fixed now.

  8. Thanks for sharing you're insights. I really enjoyed reading these – and immediately added a calendar entry/reminder for me to publish my half-century notes in 2035:…