Business by the decade

October 3, 2012

Earlier this week, I met with a group of fellow business people — both business owners and employees of larger companies — and we were discussing what business looks like through the natural phases of life.

Our group leader shared something with us that his mentor shared with him many years ago. It went something like this:

In your 20s and 30s, you’re focused primarily on building and accumulating. But as you approach and enter your 40s and 50s, you find yourself wanting to simplify and clear out. You’re confronted with all this stuff, and you don’t want to be worried about it all anymore. And then, as you get into your late 50s, your 60s, and beyond, all you care about is relationships, because you realize that that’s what truly matters.

As a group composed almost exclusively of people in their 20s and 30s, we were unable to speak to the truth of this. But I think there’s a lot of wisdom here. And it hit me on several levels.

I see myself in this.

Most of the examples given for these phases had to do with physical possessions — houses, cars, art, and so forth — and when looked at solely from that angle, it may be harder to relate. But there are many things we can accumulate — both tangible and intangible. You may not care about driving a German-made automobile or having jewelry that needs its own insurance policy, but what about accumulating degrees, skills, knowledge, and resources? If you were to ask me, I would say that relationships are my first priority, with simplicity — a “small but valuable life” — not far behind. But if I look at how I use my time, does it tell a different story?

This analysis isn’t a value judgment, but it does give some perspective.

The point is not that accumulating and building are bad. The point is that relationships are of greater value, and they persist. Whether you’re accumulating property and furniture or expertise and skills, you will ultimately feel rich or poor based not on your physical or intellectual wealth but on your relational economy. It’s about connection and the impact you had on others.

By this model, we spend upwards of 40 years focused on two versions of the same thing.

Let’s assume that this model is true — your 20s and 30s are about accumulation, and your 40s and 50s are about simplifying. Here’s the thing: Both are focused on the stuff in your life rather than the people. That’s four decades of thinking that stuff is the answer — that you either need more of it or less of it. In reality, neither are true. Neither gaining it nor getting rid of it is the answer. The stuff needs to move out of the center altogether.

Where’s the fourth quadrant?

As I listened to this, a diagram started to form in my mind.

Perhaps it’s the naïveté of my 20s, but shouldn’t we be able to hold these things in tension?

Where we go astray is starting with the stuff, as the model predicts we will. When we start with people instead — how to serve them, how to connect with them, how to create abundance and value for them — it’s easier to see what really needs building and what’s truly of value and worth keeping around.

Where do you see yourself in this?

What do you think of this model? Is this our natural inclination? Where do you see yourself in it? Do you think it’s possible to hold these things in tension?

Filed under:

Creating, Intentionality, Time

(add yours >)

  1. This is interesting. I am in my 30s, and I would say that relationships, simplicity, and joy are my focus. That being said, relationships and joy are relatively new focuses, because it took coming home to myself and identifying what I thought was important (as opposed to what I thought I should think was important, not joy, or what I thought I was possible, not relationships). But I value tangible simplicity because it fits my aesthetic and how I like to live. It makes me wonder what I am accumulating that is intangible.

    • What a wise observation — that you had to come home to yourself before you could shift your focus. I think that’s so key. Perhaps this generational shift is what happens to us when we fail to check in with ourselves and ask these kinds of questions about what’s important and what we WANT to value.

  2. I love that you’re giving thought to this. I certainly see myself in it. Even though accumulating stuff isn’t a priority for me (living in NY means I’m constantly trying to get rid of physical things), I certainly see that accumulating knowledge is something I’m always doing. I think it has to do with how I was raised to value knowledge and intellect very, very highly.

    I also accumulate knowledge because, for me, it’s less challenging than focusing on building relationships. There’s more vulnerability in putting yourself out there, trying to connect more deeply with people. That said, relationships are the most rewarding part of my life. I’m always working on challenging myself to pursue them, instead of pursuing knowledge, which is easier (for me).

    • I love your transparency here, Kylie, and I can absolutely relate to what you’re saying. Relationships are hard, even when they’re highly rewarding and enriching.

  3. Allie, I love this post. As I reflect on my life and my friends as we tip our toes in the waters of 40, I see lots of simplifying, releasing judgement and expectations. Stepping away from the list of ‘shoulds’ and seeing that an authentic life is a unique life for each of us.
    But while we are doing that, we are still not at the wisdom of 60’s and 70’s. We think we need to accumulate special experience in order to facilitate meaningful connections in our relationships. Thus lots of vacations, or boats or cabins in the woods or at the shores- not bought or rented or borrowed for the sake of stuff – but for the assumption that we need to go somewhere else to create connection.
    Maybe the relationship wisdom that comes later is the realization that meaning is right here, right now. When we are mindful, we carve out beauty and simplicity right where we are. We don’t need external stimuli to signal ‘now is the time for meaning’.
    Thank you for such a lovely, thought-provoking piece. It will be the start of many conversations with my friends.

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