What do you see when you look in the mirror?

A morning ritual of brushing my teeth takes a philosophical turn as I look into the mirror. I know what I want to see…mostly that guy I knew in the past: a college athlete; an Airborne Ranger and Cavalry Troop Commander; an elected official and policymaker; a dynamic entrepreneur. Someone with stature and meaning.

That’s not who stares back at me this morning. He’s stoop-shouldered and out of shape. The contours of his face bear the scars and the wrinkles of time. The hair, while still mostly blond is thinned and receding. Beneath the obvious, the mechanics are also frayed (the product of a misspent youth). In short, he looks his age.

These thoughts are not melancholy. You can’t relive the past and I wouldn’t want to even if I could (although clearing up some regrets might be nice). And I do sometimes ponder the paths not taken and where they would have ended up. But I digress.

The physical manifestations are apparent, but the real (and frightening) changes are mental. I have often mused on the transition to “retirement.” I’m not yet totally ready for it (and I suspect it is not ready to welcome me). At its heart, this is really a question of “meaning.” How do you ratchet back and yet retain a sense of purpose. Playing golf is all well and good, but it doesn’t change the world (and I’m not really any good at it anyway).

Perhaps the most apt description is that I feel that I lack a certain relevance. What I do matters to me (and not much beyond). The thoughts are my own. Perhaps most disconcerting is that I lack the drive I once had. Carpe Diem! “Seize the day” has become “pass the day.” I am reticent to add new stressors to my life. This is a new development for someone who thrived on challenges.

There are (and always have been) headwinds. As if by providence, I recently heard an old favorite of mine, Bog Seger’s “Against the Wind.” The same sentiment is echoed in a favorite verse from Robert Frost, “Ah, when to the heart of man, Was it ever less than a treason, To go with the drift of things, To yield with a grace to reason…” I’ve never been very good at floating along (only dead fish go with the flow).

I taught strategy at West Point. The essence of which is identifying and prioritizing objectives. I have always had a goal, some desired outcome toward which I strove. Perhaps all too often these were Quixotic in nature. Never-the less, it entailed moving things ever forward until you win or lose (as the case may be). Failure was just the start point for the next round…and there is always a “next round” (until there is not).

The Army taught me the importance of individual leadership. “Things don’t happen of their own accord; they happen because someone makes it their mission to bring it to fulfillment.” Someone has to lead the charge.

But not today. “Tilting at windmills” is a young person’s game. (a term derived from Don Quixote, who rides with his lance at full tilt against a row of windmills, which he mistakes for evil giants). Even when the “evil giants” are real (the bureaucracy of government or the collapse of a supply chain), it takes an extraordinary effort to overcome inertia (an object at rest tends to remain at rest until acted upon by an outside force). Sadly, the magnitude of the available “force” tends to diminish over time. This has become abundantly clear over the past few years. I seem to lack the “fire in my belly” that dedicates one’s whole being to the cause. I had that in the military and likewise when building my companies. Today it is diminished.

This is not to say that I have given up, far from it. I am now working with a wonderful, talented group. The ETSU Research Corporation has embarked on a journey to transform the regional economy. My efforts to improve the entrepreneurial ecosystem are but one component. I am thrilled to work with motivated early-stage companies trying to bring their passions to life. I suppose I now live vicariously through their efforts and enthusiasm. I am now a mentor and advisor, not the “doer.” It will take some time to accept this new role.

This has created an internal dichotomy. I want to “make a difference,” but I also want to begin to enjoy the fruits of my previous labor. One day I feel excited, and the next I feel overwhelmed and that I have let people down. It is difficult to find the balance.

I have been counseled by wiser folks than I, “Do the best with what you can give and don’t feel bad about it.” I have heard that tune before. Unfortunately, it was usually followed by less-than-optimal outcomes. When is good, “good enough?”

Coming to grips with “age” is understanding that what applied before is not necessarily applicable (or even desirable) today. Moderation (something antithetical to my personality) is becoming the watchword. Maybe that guy in the mirror represents more than just old battle scars. Perhaps it is time to pass the torch. Dispersing the “accumulated wisdom” to the next generations may just be sufficient.


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1 Response

  1. Steve Wintermute says:

    When ideas for the next column will not come I often think it is time to throw in my pen….but eventually an idea appears and I continue. For how long, I ask myself. Then my self replies….what would you do without continually exercising you mind…..especially having done this for nearly 40 years.