Are you stagnating in your midlife? Living and Learning.

The year is up, and it’s time for the next year. At this time of the year, I usually asked myself a question. What have I accomplished in the year. And for the many past years that I have asked myself this question, the answer has been in material terms or about life events. Got a promotion. Bought a flat. Had a child. But today, I want to ask myself a different question. What did I learn in my Midlife?

What did I learn this year?

Indeed, for a person like me, smack in the middle of my midlife, asking about what I learned this year is plain stupid. Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Is it really true that in our midlife we know everything there is to learn? Now is probably the time to give back some of the learning to others. Which I think is partly a little true as it’s always good to give back some of the wisdom and learning that you have gleaned so far. But, not being able to learn anymore is totally untrue. There is so much to learn, but only if you have a mind that wants to sponge up everything there is.

The top three things that come to mind are

1. Invest in relationships

People are key – essential
in your work life, but more so in your personal life.

And why is it so important in your work life? Because in every sphere, it’s the people who would help build your dreams. Your boss, your colleagues, your employees, your customers, your consultants – every one of them have strengths and expertise that you would be able to harness. Which you could do only if you tried to collaborate in a mutually symbiotic way.

And how will you nurture and build your relationships. The one foolproof way, I think, is to be genuinely interested in those around you. Last year, I was asked to call a person who was a local authority on 3D printing. At this time, I knew very little on the subject, and I was keen to meet with as many people as possible with knowledge of the industry. Later, when I spoke to the gentleman over the phone, I felt that he was fairly standoffish. Consequently, I didn’t pursue the conversation further. But I did meet the same person many months later. And this time in person. He was still very distant, till the time I asked him about how he became an expert on 3D printing. This seemingly simple question opened up the floodgates, and he told me his entire history, his passions and what keeps him motivated.

Today I fundamentally think he is a fascinating person, but introverted. But this facet of his personality came out only because I wanted to know more about him.

Everyone is interesting. It’s up to me to find out what that is.

This is a maxim that I have been trying to follow for a while now. And to effectively do this, I try to find the person the most unlike me in a group, and make conversation. And I have had the most interesting conversations with these people. Like the time when I used to live in London, and got invited to a dinner as a banker’s home, and I met a woman, in her 60s, clearly uncomfortable amongst the bankers. She was the wife of a retired London cab driver, and for the next one hour I heard the wonderful stories of being married to a London cabbie. With this anecdote I will list out my 2 maxims for better relationships.

Relationship Maxim 1: Find people to talk to who are unlike you

Relationship Maxim 2: Find out what interests them.

And with regards to our personal lives, why is it so important to nurture your relationships?

Very simply it is because the world is getting very connected. And as we get more connected, it means that our attention span moves towards distant connections who are in different parts of the world. This sounds great, till you realise that you are neglecting those around you – your partner, spouse, parents and kids. How often do you see a family at dinner with all of them looking into their phones? Too often, right?

But what can you do about this in your own life?

Change what you can. Which is yourself. Ask what you are giving to the relationship. They say that the world around you is a reflection of yourself, and if you spend quality time with your family, they too will start putting the phone down to have a meaningful conversation. They are the ones to be around you at your death bed.

A little over a year back, I had a dear friend, who used to want to have meaningful conversations and I found those too heavy, too soppy. Today, with my new found understanding, I prize those moments the most.

Relationship Maxim 3: Spend quality time with those closest to you

2. Keep learning and have an open mind

My inspiration to write this blog happened as I waded through hundreds of messages on my college WhatsApp group. The vast quantity of messages was very polarizing, with people very stuck on their views. Political affinity tended towards jingoism, the religious became fanatics, and the proponents of woman’s rights saw men as intrinsically flawed. While I am sure that they have their reasons, what struck me the most was their stridency, with beliefs systems that have been formed once, and consequently very difficult to dislodge with reason and facts. Most of the people formed their opinions a long time back, and only had their beliefs reinforced with discussions with like-minded people, and from reading similar ideologies on the internet.

The internet is at the same time wonderful and a scary place.

Wonderful because there is all the information that you would ever want. But scary. To understand why scary, Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote exemplifies this point very well. “And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee”. You can keep looking for information that will reinforce your inherent opinion, to the exclusion of the counter opinion. And before you know it, you will be sucked into a single vortex of fanatical views of the world.

Instead, to find the opposing view, you have to deliberately seek out people and thoughts with such differing thoughts.

Further you have to keep an open mind knowing that you may have to change your deeply held views with the new information. The new information may fundamentally take you away from everything you hold dear, and the people and opinions that you were comfortable with.

The maxims from this are a couple.

Learning Maxim 1:  Read. Read a lot

Learning Maxim 2: Embrace differing views and keep an open mind

3. Cultivate a multi-dimensional mindset

I used to think that the world rewards specialists. And that is true in most jobs. It’s not enough being a banker, but to make a niche for yourself, you have to have skills in specific sectors like real estate, technology or media. Or you have to specialise as a pastry chef to get employed at a restaurant.

I spent many years honing what I knew, and disregarding other sectors. Till I started giving into my passion for reading – reading whatever I could lay my hands on. Business, physics, history, biographies, finance, leadership, entrepreneurship, psychology, philosophy. I don’t think I understood everything, but I understood a lot more than I had done previously. There are times when I tire of a book, and start reading something else that catches my fancy. And at any point in time, I have about 6 half read books lying open in different rooms at home, plus a few on my kindle.

Finding the intersect – only some are good at it.

Charlie Munger, a wonderful thinker and value investor says that reading different subjects will over a period of time make you multi-dimensional and an idea from one sector can be deployed in another. Furthermore, it is at the intersect of the domains that good ideas and business models get formed. And these intersects can be identified only by those who are actively building out their multi-disciplinary domain knowledge.

Growth Maxim 1: Cultivate a multi-disciplinarian mindset.

In conclusion

I wrote this piece in one sitting, and after reflecting on what I had written, I realise that this year was largely about reemphasising relationships and relentlessly embracing new ideas and thoughts. I do think, I have progressed – not as much as I could have, but definitely a lot more than what I did in past years. It has helped me introspect and understand myself. I understand better what drives me, and how I would want to lead my life, and what impact would I want on those around me. The coming year will be about putting all the learning into actionable practice.

Have a lovely Christmas and a great New Year.

Key Links

Charlie Munger Bio – Definitely read up about him.