50 Is Not Old

It was November 1989 and I was studying abroad in Brisbane, Australia. It was early summer in the southern hemisphere and my friends and I were sitting on the bank of the river with a bottle of wine and some snacks. It was terrible wine. Back then the Shiraz coming from that part of the world was young and strong, too much oak and pepper. But we didn’t care because we were 19 and we had wine! Nick, Peter, Michelle, and I sat on the soft blanket and talked about very important things, like the stats of Nick’s beloved Manchester United soccer (football) team, and Michelle’s and my adventure the previous week when we had seen Simple Minds in concert.

Someone mentioned the future, I don’t remember who it was, but it suddenly got quiet on our blanket. I could tell we were each retreating into our heads for a few minutes, imagining our goodbyes coming up in just a few weeks when I was scheduled to return to Colorado, and the semester ended for the others and they went their separate ways.

“We should all meet back here in the year 2000 when we’re all 30!”

“Yes, let’s make a pact that we will stay in touch and come back to this spot in November, 2000, to celebrate our birthdays.”

We all agreed, but in my head, I was thinking: “30? I’ll never be 30. I won’t live that long.”

Okay, it sounds morbid, I know, and maybe it was, but my thinking was simply that I knew I had a tendency to be impulsive and take unnecessary risks. As a matter of fact, that week I had already decided to hitchhike through New Zealand by myself on my way home in late December and early January. I did that, by the way, and was lucky not to have any really scary experiences. But I didn’t tell my mother about it until years later.

So there we were, talking about the year 2000 as if it was some far-off place.

As adults over 30, we all know how quickly time can pass, and it did. Thirty didn’t sound old to me, it just seemed unlikely.

Why do those decade birthdays hold so much fear, discomfort, and angst? I really don’t understand it.

Many of my friends and family members struggled with turning 30, 40, 50, etc. saying it made them sad to feel like they were OLD, like old is an insult. But why is old such a bad thing for people? When we turn 30 and get sad because we’re “old”, is it because we’ve forgotten the angst and discomfort of our teen years? Sure, getting older has its frustrations and discomfort, I know it takes me a lot longer to recover from a big night out, a rigorous hike, or even the first gardening day of the season (my hamstrings are screaming at me this week.)

I don’t miss the anxiety of my youth. Am I pretty enough, thin enough, active enough, smart enough? That search for comfort in my skin, for confidence and identity, was so painful over the years. I’ll take 50 over 25 any day.

A few years ago as we sat at my dining room table, my mother noticed a few gray hairs on my head.

“I can see your gray hairs, Sarah.”

“I know! Aren’t they cool? They sparkle when the light hits them!”

“You’re going to have to color it.”

I thought, but didn’t say out loud, “I don’t HAVE to do anything.”

“I don’t think so, mom. I might want to at some point, but right now I have no plans to do that.”

“You’re going to look OLD.”

And there it was. That projection of what old looks like to her – it looks ugly. Never mind that she’s beautiful at 70+, that she happens to have awesome genetics to lean on, like I do. To her, signs of aging are ugly, and I suppose that’s the case for a lot of people.

I look at her smile, I know her heart and her compassionate soul. I think she’s beautiful.

So what is it about those decade birthdays that make us so uncomfortable?

Are we worried about the future?

Are we facing regrets?

Are we concerned about no longer being relevant?

I’m guessing those are a big part of the angst as we pass a milestone birthday. I’ve been thinking about how to address this, especially now that I’ve passed my own milestone of 50.

Name it.

  • What exactly makes you so sad about your upcoming birthday?
  • Regrets? Not where you thought you would be?

Own it.

  • What brought you here? Were any circumstances beyond your control? Do you have some complicity?

Choose your future.

  • Will you face the same disturbing questions in 5 years? How far do you want to take your past regrets into your future? What changes do you need to make in your own mindset and communication to improve your relationships in the future? What really matters to you, and how do you want to celebrate your next milestone birthday? Where do you want to BE? (I suggest you think deeply about this, and not in terms of financial or career goals, but in terms of your relationships and personal development.)

Make daily adjustments.

  • What small thing can you do each day to avoid those future regrets, and to look forward to your next big birthday? Take a 15-minute walk twice each day? Write a thank-you note to someone who had a positive impact on you? Begin writing that book you’ve always wanted to write, 15 minutes at a time? Work on your resume, build a supportive professional network, spend time in self-reflection to improve your communication and relationships? You will be surprised what you can accomplish in 15 minutes each day when you’re consistent with it.

And for goodness’ sake, stop thinking that growing older is a bad thing. As long as you’re breathing, communicating, growing, and learning, age is a blessing and you have something of value to contribute. Your relevance has nothing to do with your age, just like your income has nothing to do with your success.

Face your next birthday with gratitude and excitement, because some of your best stories haven’t even been written.


Sarah Elkins
Sarah Elkins
Sarah is a communication coach, Gallup certified Strengths coach, keynote speaker, writer, and professional musician. Sarah uses storytelling as the foundation of her work with management teams and individual clients to improve communication and relationships. Her podcast, Your Stories Don’t Define You, How You Tell Them Will focuses on storytelling themes, the primary concept being that the stories you choose to tell - and how you choose to tell them - impact your internal messages and the perception of those around you. Her podcast was named in the top 50 in the category of emotional intelligence on Her passion for connecting people and helping them learn to better connect with others is embodied in the events she hosts, No Longer Virtual, which are small, interactive conferences based on the theme of connecting beyond the keyboard, recognized twice by Forbes as “Can’t Miss Events for Entrepreneurs” in 2017 & 2018.

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  1. Sarah, what a great gift to others on your birthday!

    One word in your piece jumped out at me because I’ve wrestled with it now and again throughout my 69 years: “regrets.” I have regrets – didn’t go for that Phd in history; didn’t major in organizational psych; wasn’t offered a semester to study abroad during college, etc. etc. etc.

    But you tied that word regret with another important word: “facing.” And when we face our regrets, we face the past. If I simply turn around and face the present and future – and this was my epiphany a while back – there is no reason I can’t go for a PhD now; there is no reason I couldn’t go back to take classes in org psych; there is no reason I can’t create my own semester abroad. (Jen and I have actually talked about doing that.)

    I have the gift of personal choice.

  2. The various stages of life, their way of living them, the correct relationship with the idea of ​​death are factors that significantly affect the quality of life and therefore it is right that they have a relevant place in our reflections.
    In De Senectute Cicero said that “nobody is old enough not to hope to live another day or anyone young enough to be sure to live another day”. In this sentence, which recalls that of the half-empty and half-full glass that allows us to distinguish optimists from pessimists, the propensity to fear of aging and panic that the idea of ​​death can generate is enclosed.
    Time passes and nothing and nobody can stop it, it is important, therefore, to remember to live the present without anguishing the flow of the instants.
    In the fear of aging, the fear of not being able to do the things that have been done for years, primarily their job and role in society, which with retirement fail, tearing a piece of identity that must be rebuilt in a new form. The feeling often is that of losing value and utility and not being more important and considered. Alongside this, the disease that often appears in old age where the strength and energy to deal with it is already less and everything appears insurmountable and the resources available are few. Even in old age, however, it is important to savor time, every moment in order not to lose the many opportunities that life still has in store for us.
    The fear of aging does not depend on wrinkles, but on repeating the same things over and over again. Renew yourself and it will pass!

  3. I think that I remember turning 50 – I had started a new job and no one knew. That felt pretty good and kind of sad, at the same time. As I sat in the cafeteria with an ice cold Diet Pepsi, I raised it to toast myself, and said to no one “Here’s to making it this far.” I like your version of 50 better – and so cool that Bob invited a good chunk of the planet in to help you celebrate. My parents are in their 90’s (who doesn’t know that fact by now…) and I’ve learned that it’s important to make peace with wherever you are. In 30 years, I’ll be their age, and no matter what I do, that time is coming. I’m going to marinate in some awesome friendships, like the one I have with you and many of the NLV tribe… and try to keep the focus on what’s here and now, and be open to what’s ahead. Happy 50th Sarah, it keeps getting better, and so do you. Thanks for the pep talk that works at any age.

    • Thanks so much for this comment, Tom. I remember one birthday, #24, when I woke up seriously sad. I figured out that I was sad because I wasn’t where I thought I’d be – where I wanted to be – at that age. It didn’t take more than a few hours to get over it, but experiencing it helped me to be more compassionate for people who had a tough time with certain birthdays. It also made me double down in my efforts to make sure I didn’t spend another birthday considering regrets and unfulfilled goals/dreams.

      I’m grateful for this incredible tribe we’ve created, Tom, it definitely makes life a lot more interesting and fulfilling.

  4. I appreciate your perspective and insights offered in this essay, Sarah. Within the last five years I finally feel like I’ve arrived in what I’ve been calling the Bonus Round of Being Alive. Living free, safe, and clear of years of trauma/drama have me looking forward with relish to these days, months, years that I’m blessed to be alive, to write, to speak, to share, to dance, etc., etc. I finally freed myself from the inside out. I know my value, my dignity, my foibles, and failings. I know with every cell in my being what I’ve come through and who I’ve become. Aging does not make me sad nor does it scare me because I actually feel a bit like Benjamin Button -the movie with Brad Pitt-like on the inside (I know, not on the outside-I’ve got face lines and gray hairs) I keep feeling younger, more playful at the core of my being and in my expressions. Years ago I read Deepok Chopra’s book, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind– his core messages remain imbedded in my mind and heart. I guess I simply didn’t “buy in” to other people’s limiting beliefs about aging. I think death continues to teach us how we want to live!

    Our culture tends to not treat the elderly with reverence-we could learn from the First Nation People-(the Native Americans) and other cultures about having reverence for the wisdom, compassion, and rich experiences of the oldest members of our community and our world. Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, and the poet, Mary Oliver come to mind immediately as wonderful examples of people who held great wisdom and esteem during their later years of life.

    • Laura, as often as I see you living this life, and for as long as I’ve been hearing your stories about your growth, gratitude, and adventures in self-discovery, it makes me smile and feel a sense of warmth and inspiration every. damn. time.

      I’m so grateful for your contributions to my life and attitude. Sure wish I could give you a fierce hug right now.

  5. I’ve never really understood this weird negative slant on aging. I mean, I’m heading into 50 soon myself, and I get it, the aches and pains and stuff that comes with the natural process, but overall, why does our culture disparage age so much? I have always loved the sort of “maiden/matron/crone” idea, that while we are certainly ~different~ at different stages of life, that’s something to be celebrated and appreciated! That doesn’t disparage the contributions of any of those chapters. Youth’s classic exuberance, the steadfast practicality of those years when you’re raising kids or growing your career, the bone-deep knowledge that you survived all that other stuff, and you’ve got the skills to figure this out, too…

    The only shame is in wasting life wishing we were at a point other than where we are, whatever that is!

    • Exactly, Sarah! What is that all about? Wasting life wishing for something other than what we have and what we can create is such a waste of energy. I’d much prefer to spend my life and energy building the relationships and legacy I want to leave when I’m gone, whether that’s in two weeks or 30 years. Thank you for your excellent addition to this discussion.

  6. This is a GREAT post! I agree, the idea that “old” imparts less value is pure and utter nonsense. Sadly, somehow this attitude seems so pervasive in North American society.

    For many of us, I’d hazard to guess the real personal crux of the matter (whether some of us realize it or not) is…

    Coming to terms with our own mortality.

    • Yes, Roger, our mortality seems so much more real as we get older. All the more reason to live life to the fullest, I would think.

      I really think it also has a lot to do with feeling relevant. If we don’t see relevance in the older people around us, it makes us fear for our own relevance.