I lost my father 18 months ago. He was only 66. He departed a decade earlier than the average life expectancy for men in Brazil. To go through this loss has changed me, and is changing me, in ways that are hard to quantify.
For a while, there was a sprinkle of anger in my grief. I was annoyed that my dad didn’t prioritise his health.
He was overweight, had type 2 diabetes and also a heart condition. Ailments that are completely manageable through diet and exercise (how maddening is that?). But underlying his physical health was something more dangerous, depression.
His mental hardship is not something he opened up about, but something that was present in his life since he retired from his professional career. I could see it with my own eyes. I just didn’t know what to do to help.
Don’t get me wrong, my dad was an incredible man. He achieved the unimaginable in his lifetime. He lifted himself out of poverty through hard work and education. He started a successful business that was able to provide for his family, put me through private education, invested in my hobbies (and I had quite a few), afforded us family holidays and more. In more than one way, my dad is still my role model.
So, why am I telling you this? Because you can get a lot of things right and still fuck up the basics.
Lesson 1: Health is Wealth
If you follow me here for a while, you know how passionate I am about physical and mental health. Any given day you will find me on the yoga mat, or at the gym, or on my bike, or at the tennis court, or the local park run etc. On the days that I don’t move my body, I feel off.
My diet isn’t perfect, but it’s very good. I eat plant-based 99% of the time. I watch what goes into my body. I avoid processed foods and sugar. I drink very little alcohol, and not very often.
My mental health hygiene is also a priority. I optimise for 8 hours of sleep. I try to do breathing exercises daily. I read ‘The Daily Stoic’ daily and reflect on how I can be a better version of myself. I consume great information through books, articles and podcasts. I journal to get clarity of mind. I practice gratitude. Obviously, I am not immune to the news cycle or the unending feeds, but I keep it in check so it doesn’t take over my life.
I am doing all the things my dad didn’t do. And I am doing them passionately because I have seen what happens when you don’t.
It’s easy to postpone your health when you are young. To fall into the trap of working the long hours. To say ‘I can sleep when I die’. To eat take-away because cooking is too time-consuming and it’s easier to get Deliveroo. To skip physical exercise because you are exhausted from work. But like everything in life, it compounds over time.
And guess what? It’s not going to hit you until later. But later the problem is bigger and harder to solve. It will require more energy and effort than it would have if you had done it all along.
As the stoics say: It’s easier to cross a river at its source. Start now.
Lesson 2: Communities Matter
My dad was an example of work ethic and commitment. He woke up every day around 5 AM. He left home to the office and didn’t come back until 7 PM at night. He worked 6 days a week. He loved heading up to the office on Saturdays because it was a day when people were not in the office, and clients were offline, so he could catch up on thinking-work and other important stuff.
From as early as age 7, we used to wake up on Saturday, have breakfast together and go to his office at around 8 AM. He would get stuck in his work and I would get to play with the computers and pretend I was a grown-up working at a desk. This evolved over time, by age 14 I worked with my dad every afternoon after school. I did everything from distributing the post to fixing computers, from helping someone with admin work to bringing refreshments into important meetings.
I owe the professional I am today, to those early lessons on work ethics.
For my dad, his work was his community and he loved it. He was well regarded. He attended conferences. He won prizes. His friends were his colleagues.
What my dad failed to do was to translate some of this effort into other areas of his life. He never built a strong community outside of work. So when he retired, he lost his community. With my mum still at work and completing yet another degree (proud of you mum!), his siblings relatively far away, and his only daughter on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, my dad spent the last years of his life, alone at home.
I know that didn’t feel good to him. But he didn’t even know where to start a change.
He wasn’t ready to admit he felt lonely for the first few years. It was only a few months prior to his death that he called me and uttered the words: I am lonely.
Humans are social creatures, we need connections. We crave communities and belonging. The older we get, the more meaning comes from being part of a group of people.
If you have a young family and a job it can seem impossible to fit yet another thing. But you will leave your work, your kids will grow up and have lives of their own, and your partner might be on a different timeline than you. So you need to foster communities beyond the nucleus of work and family.
It can be taking an active membership in a club, or maybe you have really close friends that meet regularly, or perhaps you take on regular volunteering work with an NGO… Whatever you choose, prioritise building strong relationships outside of work. Find communities that give you meaning.
This one is a harder one for me. I am not great at it. I devote a lot of time and energy to work. As an expat, a lot of my friends are people I met through work over the years. I am also an introvert. Putting myself out there in front of a new group is my idea of a nightmare. It gives me anxiety just thinking about it. But the funny thing is: every time I push through the initial discomfort, it feels so good.
For example, I joined a co-working space 6 years ago called Tara Buildings. It wasn’t your typical corporate workspace. It was a local community of artists, writers, marketers and technologists. People from all walks of life. Tara put on a ton of amazing events and at the start, I knew nobody. But after attending a few events, hanging around the coffee machine a little longer to introduce myself to somebody and a series of other awkward social situations, I got to meet a great bunch of people. Some of my best friends are the people I connected with there.
I am no longer in Tara, but Tara is always going to be a community I feel part of.
Lesson 3: Avoid the ‘Study-Work-Retire’ Trap
We are conditioned to think that there is only one path. You will gain a qualification through a formal college education. You will find a job. You will work for 35 years. You will retire. You will die. But that’s not the only option.
While that’s exactly what my father did (although he worked for 54 years and not 35) and likely what most of what we see in our parent’s generation, I now see the importance of approaching life differently. I don’t want to wait until I am 65 to enjoy life (that’s if the retirement age doesn’t go way beyond that in my lifetime). I want a ‘enjoy it as you go’ model.
As I mentioned here, I love work. It’s a huge part of my identity. But I also love experiencing new cultures, hiking, surfing, reading classic novels, listening to music, learning new things etc. So in order to give my life meaning, it’s important that I get to do all of these things.
I believe I can have it all. Just not all at the same time.
So here is how I think of a more modern life design: A few years of working and challenging myself professionally, a break to travel through New Zealand exploring the outdoors for a few months, back to focusing on professional growth, take a break to write a book, and so on and so forth.
It doesn’t need to be 3 massive blocks. It can be dozens of blocks.
While it can seem utopian, I believe the key to this is financial freedom. If you are able to maximise your earnings, invest smartly, and most importantly avoid the trap of raising your living costs each time you make more money, you can build the financial freedom to afford you a more flexible life.
Life expectancy is rising. Globally, life expectancy has increased by more than 6 years between 2000 and 2019 (WHO).
If that growth continues, it’s not wild to predict that our generation is likely to live to 100 years old.
Do you want to spend the third act of your life feeling sick, lonely and with no sense of purpose?