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Wednesday
Jul112012

The Four Stages of Life

I'm a very analytical person. It's part of my nature. I'm also a visual learner. As such, I like to come up with 'models' that help me sort out life's problems. Once I've built a model and mapped my understanding of the world into it, I usually picture it in some way to keep it clear for me. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about how we advance through our lives, and phases we go through. My brother recently sent me a book for my retirement, and wrote on the card that I would now be entering the third and final stage of my life. I thought about it a bit (and wept quietly to myself), and realized there aren't THREE stages to life....there are FOUR.

The first stage is all about LEARNING. From the moment we're born, we learn to demand attention, and satisfy our basic needs. We go on to learn about human interaction and social conduct. We learn to talk, and walk, and do differential calculus (well, we learn to talk and walk anyway), and while our education never stops, it is the prime focus for us during our early years, until we're 20 years old or so.

The next stage is about BUILDING. We get jobs and build our careers. We make money and grow our possessions. We get married, have families, and grow our financial and parental responsibilities. It's hard work. We often don't have time for much else, but it's often thought of as THE reason for being.

Let's skip the next stage for a moment...

The final stage is, sadly, a stage of AGING. It's marked by decline. A decline in health. A decline in friends and family our own age. A decline in abilities and capacity. It doesn't have to be gloomy and unproductive, but there is a certain realization that our best years are likely behind us, and much of our energy is given to those who will outlast us.

So what about the third stage? Here's the good news. In between BUILDING and AGING is a stage of pure opportunity! It's a stage where anything is possible. It's a stage when we can take all that we've learned, and all that we've built, and take advantage of our not-yet-declining health. It's a stage of LEVERAGING. In this stage, everything comes together. We've made enough money that we don't have to worry about income. We've learned enough about our desired field that we can be immediately effective. We can look at the world through experienced eyes, before they develop cataracts. We can concentrate on all the wonderful things we like to do, and eliminate all the fluff and drudgery. It's a FABULOUS stage, and one that not everyone gets to experience.

When I think about goals, I think that our goal in life should be to maximize this stage. Some people will never get there, due to financial pressures, premature aging, or traumatic events. Others will never realize it when they do arrive. But the lucky ones will build a life plan around this stage. It doesn't mean you have to 'retire'...just take control over your situation. A friend of mine is a talented and successful business owner. Her 'job' is exactly what she makes of it, driven more by servicing people than by quarterly reports. She's been making the most of this stage for years. My Dad retired into this stage. He took up painting, and community involvement, and became an accomplished wood carver. I'm sure he got more out of this stage than his 35 years of government employment could have ever provided him.

We don't get to deal the cards in life, but we do get to play our hand. Make sure your life plan is more than just accepting status quo. And try to leverage as much as you possibly can! See you in stage 3...I plan to be there for a loooong time.

  Don

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