It’s been 365 days since I’ve seen my co-workers in person. One year. A full year since my last day commuting into New York City. An entire trip around the sun since spending 10 hours a day in an office. 52 weeks since trying to figure out how to get the video AND audio to work in our conference rooms (Remember conference rooms?). Every single person on earth has celebrated a birthday in some sort of socially-distant isolation.
It's been hard not to think about our mortality in that time and impossible to ignore how the decisions we've made in our own lives have gotten us here. I'm not much of a crier, but three very different events nearly brought me to tears this week. 1. Reading Scott Galloways’s newsletter about putting his dog to sleep; 2. Reading the story about the teenager who was off at college when both of her parents died from COVID; and 3. Thinking about International Women's Day and the many, many women who have had a profound impact on my life.
Talk about a range of emotions! Oooof! So why is this all coming together now? I'm not entirely sure, but let's do some pensive probing and productive problem-solving, shall we?
Something Personal: Creating A Midlife Crisis
Maybe what I need right now is a good midlife crisis. Kinda getting to be that time… I’ve been hearing about these for years, waiting my turn, hoping that, if and when it does hit me, that I end up better on the other side with some new purpose or passion. But what is a midlife crisis, really? How do you know when its happening? Is there a formula for having a meaningful midlife crisis? Are there certain triggers that I need to trip? Does it have to start with some sort of catastrophic breakdown? In seeking answers to all of these questions, I have reached an age that likely puts me smack dab in the middle of my life. So now seems as good a time as any.
The very concept of the midlife crisis is relatively new. Prehistoric ancestors whose average life span was only 30 or 40 years were probably not off crying in the cave pondering their own mortality at age 18. Several millennia later, in 1965, social scientist Elliot Jacques first gave a name to this notion in an essay called “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis.”
By the time we reach our early 40s, there are some hard truths to acknowledge. We realize that many of our childhood and adolescent dreams will never come true. We realize that disappointment and boredom are real. We realize that we are mortal.
The loss of parents or even friends might be an extreme trigger, but so are random aches and pains that arise seemingly out of the blue. Some decisions we made turned out great. Others… not so much. Things we haven’t achieved, and may never achieve, begin to haunt us. For many people, this can be a bitter pill to swallow. This is the nadir of our “Happiness V,” a term I just made up. But we start out as fairly happy, growing somewhat dissatisfied in middle age, and then hopefully finding contentment in our older years.
When I was in high school, I took a philosophy class and found myself equally enamored by Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism and John Stewart Mill’s obsession with his own happiness (and how it had actually made him miserable). Mill cared about social reform, but his focus on fixing problems and improving society meant that he neglected other aspects of his life. We can all fall into this trap, but what truly matters is making time for the things we enjoy and love.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but decisions we’ve made throughout our younger years had massive consequences. I once turned down an unpaid summer internship with a prestigious sports agency in order to work a paying job and earn money for my senior year of college. I had big ambitions to become a sports agent… and yet, I never did (Read: Failure!). Every one of these decisions involves a trade-off. And although you may have chosen wisely in the end, it’s still natural to wonder about the options you decided against. Sometimes we have regrets that are more significant than any wistfulness about lives not lived. Sometimes there are decisions we sincerely wish we hadn’t made – and unfortunate events we wish we could have avoided.
But then I look at my amazing wife, or my lively children, and realize that past decisions would undoubtedly have precluded their existence. Who needs a midlife crisis when I have them?
As for that death… yes, it’s inevitable. Everyone grapples with it at some point. Death, which once seemed so very far away, suddenly seems to have moved a few steps closer. But I think I feared death more as a child than I do now. It would be nice not to have to die, sure – but why worry when we don’t possess that superhuman ability any more than other superpowers?
At times like this, I think of the advice that David Stern shared in our last conversation on my last day as an employee at the NBA: “Love the process, not the goal.” Some tasks have an end. Life has an end. But for everything we do, there is a process. That’s the best part of the lives we live.
Whether or not a personal midlife crisis is in the cards for me, I’m not afraid of it. Learning to deal with regret, finding time for the things we enjoy doing, and embracing reality, rather than the outlines of imagined alternatives, will propel me forward. But just in case, does anyone have the number for a good therapist?
Something Practical: Embracing Your Mediocrity
The vision of the American Dream has been rooted in the idea that hard work creates opportunities for each of us to achieve greatness. But what if greatness is actually… overrated? Maybe it’s time to accept that mediocrity is really the ultimate goal. This understanding and acceptance may actually prevent the onset of any such midlife crisis.
Some of us first come to terms with mediocrity at a young age. It could be the realization that we will never be great at drawing, or math, or basketball, or making friends, or handwriting. Ideally, those realizations of limitations helps us to focus, find our strengths, and make better decisions. As we grow older, acceptance of limitations becomes a more frequent, everyday occurrence. We accept that rejection, failure, and misaligned expectations are part of life… that perfection is a myth.
We’ve been led to believe that our lives should be extraordinary. We’re often told that it's important to have high self-esteem. Not only that, those of us who experience self-doubt feel like there’s something wrong with us. But there’s good reason to be grateful for only moderate levels of self-esteem. We may idolize confidence, but there’s nothing wrong with anxiety. And there is a great deal to be said for the appreciation of what you have and what you are able to control.
We’ve been led to believe that our friendships should be extraordinary. But trying to maintain too many close relationships doesn’t make us happy at all. Instead, it creates a psychological pressure known as role strain. Evolutionary psychologists believe that human beings are only really capable of having one or two best friends, and no more than five close friends. The key to friendship is quality, not quantity. Even with love, there is no perfection. So the next time you compare your rather ordinary relationship to other people’s Instagrammed romances, ask yourself why that couple needs to flaunt their love.
We’ve been led to believe that wealth can make us extraordinary. But maybe striving for comfort and security is a better goal than being rich and famous. In fact, the higher your wages, the more likely you are to get divorced and to experience all other sorts of stress. Getting everyone above the poverty line must be a social goal, but the ceiling for comfort and contentment is actually (on average) reached at an income of $75,000 a year mark. Any more than that and the psychological difference becomes negligible.
We’ve been led to believe that high intelligence is synonymous with being extraordinary. Some of the most financially successful, happiest and most well-liked people I know probably fall in the middle of the intelligence bell curve. Lewis Terman’s famous intelligence “lifetime study” showed that many children with highest IQs ended up in ordinary jobs, with average incomes. Their intelligence didn’t protect them from unpleasant life events, and their rates of divorce, addiction, and suicide were no different than that of the general American population. And too many believed later in life that they hadn’t lived up to what was expected of them. This just goes to show that being the smartest person in the room might not be all that great after all.
We’ve been led to believe that physical attributes and appearances can make us extraordinary. But being objectively good-looking doesn’t make you happy. While our late teens and twenties are the years when we tend to be at our slimmest and freshest, an average sixty-year-old woman is more satisfied with her body than most eighteen-year-olds. Many “highly attractive” people report that they struggle to be taken seriously in the workplace and that their colleagues expect them to be less intelligent simply because they’re good-looking. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, experts believe that most people underestimate their own attractiveness by around 20%. Research has also found that your partner finds you more attractive than an average stranger would. So even if society thinks you're just ordinary-looking, your significant other probably thinks you look extraordinary.
None of those external things you think will better your life likely will. So let’s not spend our lives wishing for what we can’t have. We can’t all be special, but we can all thrive. Consider this your license to feel liberated. Celebrate your ordinariness… and embrace mediocrity!
Another reminder: We’re a week away from NCAA Tournament tip-off, and you’ll want to get into the 27th (now non-consecutive) March Mattness Pool. To get onto the invite that secures your invite, click here.
Something Political : Inequity and Inequality
Normalizing "ordinary" may actually be the path to achieving greater social equity and equality. Sounds ambitious, right? Last week, an influential member of my industry said the following Clubhouse: “There is inequity in every organizational and social construct.” At the full risk of whitesplaining, uppermiddleclasssplaining, and mansplaining, I am fully aware that what I’m about to write comes from a place of privilege. Yet, as a white male with a position of some influence in society, I also don’t want to avoid difficult topics like inequity, inequality, and poverty.
Being poor and feeling poor are different things. The first is a crisis. The second is less about material circumstances than how people are compared to others. Research shows that only about 20% of people who report feeling poor actually meet the definition of poverty. That other 80% see themselves as inequitably disadvantaged even when their income places them squarely in the middle class.
Even people who aren’t objectively poor, but perceive financial inequity based on social constructs, suffer negative consequences when feeling poor relative to others: More likely to experience depression, anxiety, and chronic pain; More likely to have weight issues, diabetes, and heart problems; And more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, underperform at work, and make bad life decisions. Inequity IS real. The world’s 85 richest people have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion.
Regardless of income, inequality of opportunity and access yields different outcomes. Our politics are polarized, society divided, families even permanently fractured. At a macro level, this comes down to power and control. People who see themselves as advantaged are determined to not let the disadvantaged level the competitive playing field. The best way to exclude them from decision-making is disenfranchisement. People who see themselves as disadvantaged, by contrast, want everyone to have an equal say, an equal vote, even those who disagree with them. Feeling superior in status, in other words, magnifies people’s contempt for those who disagree with them.
This divide perpetuates a negative feedback loop, where the societies with high inequality have worse health outcomes than those with more equal distribution, thus putting more obstacles in the path of achieving equality. Race and ethnicity play a massive factor here in the United States, but it’s a global epidemic. A middle-class person living in high-inequality Singapore has statistically worse health outcomes than a middle-class person living in low-inequality Finland. The more equal a society, the healthier its inhabitants.
The average person will experience inequality most directly and frequently at work. As the wages of ordinary workers stagnate and the executive pay rate shoots through the roof, the vast majority of workers will experience high levels of stress and fail to perform at their full capacity.
But this wouldn’t be a Four P’s topic if all hope was lost. We need to continue organizing, voting, and putting pressure on lawmakers to create new redistributive policies that not only raise the bottom rungs of the ladder, but also, crucially, lower the top one. In the short term, I would love to share more of my “reach” here with those who are living with these challenges and working to create solutions every day. Collectively, we can also highlight and enact more control over the way we compare ourselves to others. Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, for example, focus on what you do have. No time like the present to re-evaluate what you really value in life. Consciously thinking about what really matters to us is an antidote to the unconscious default of looking to others to figure out how much we value ourselves.
Something Professional: Rebuilding (Digital) Communities
Thinking about what matters to us also applies in our careers. Changes in company, title or role often trigger these thoughts. As a result of the recent acquisition of Revelation by Jellyfish, joining a global company, and meeting so many new people, I‘ve been learning a lot about updates in the media technology space, while still talking a lot about insights-driven creativity. After hours, I found myself deep-diving to learn more about the analytics features of the Google Marketing Platform… while also evaluating dozens of entries as a judge in this year’s Reggie Awards.
All of this is to say that I’ve come to appreciate being what Herrmann would call being “whole brain.” This is what I truly find to be most professionally fulfilling. Finding left-brain solutions to right-brain challenges… and right-brain solutions to left-brain challenges. And while I can look back and realize this is always the case, the ability to master both is what first made me such a passionate, curious digital community manager 15 or years ago.
Well before there was social media, there were digital communities. And AFTER there is social media, there are digital communities. Brands and marketers were among the first to recognize the potential of digital communities, which is what ultimately drove the early success of MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. As those platforms each evolved (or, in the case of MySpace, devolved), the niche community opportunities also subsided. But we are now in the midst of a niche digital community renaissance, and I couldn’t be more excited. From Reddit (subreddits) to Discord to Slack to Goodreads to Quora to Houzz to Capture to, yes, Clubhouse, new forms of content, connection and collaboration are changing online conversations yet again.
Digital marketing and media maven Neil Patel recently wrote about niche communities driving meaningful conversations again. He cited a study showing how a growing number of people ae frustrated by bullying and offensive language on social media. These experiences lead people to pursue more comfortable settings that speak more to their interests and personal experiences.
Ultimately, the internet has become so diverse and disparate that there is something for everyone. Niche communities are more focused and allow you to connect with people with whom you share common interests no matter where they are in the world. And it’s a much more personal experience… and these days, we could all use a little bit more meaning and personal connection in our lives.
I’m glad we’re connected.