Thursday, October 4, 2007

Today I Turn 50

I turn 50 today.  I was born on October 4, 1957, the same day a 184-pound aluminum sphere called Sputnik streaked skyward from 100 miles east of the Aral Sea, launching the Space Age.

1957 was somewhere just past the mid-point of the Baby Boom and turned out to be the largest birth year in the midst of the largest baby boom in U.S. history. So, at a time when the country was only 60% of its current population, we graduated the largest batch of infants ever from hospitals, and then on into high schools, colleges and the job market. The class of 1957 has been fighting for position our entire life.

At 50 I am smart enough to ask for your sympathy on this point, and wise enough not to wait around for it. Just know, as you go to the polls to vote on the bond issues to renovate and expand all of those elementary schools built in the 1960s: They were built for us.

So, we've had to adjust to the Space Age, the Cold War, the British invasion, Kaizen, the oil crisis, globalization, and the knowledge-based economy. We survived folk music and disco and grunge and Neil Diamond. We've gone from three black-and-white channels (and some very weird puppets on PBS) to satellite TV and Tivo (and, come to think of it, still some very weird puppets on PBS). We used to have a single pair of "sneakers" that we wore for any and all sports, and now have made room in our closet for running, cross-training, tennis, hiking and biking shoes.

And speaking of that, we have walk-in closets that are as big as our bathrooms used to be, and bathrooms as big as our bedrooms used to be. In fact, I grew up in a house built around 1900 that had no shower--only a bathtub in a single upstairs bathroom. We got two adults and three children cleaned and fed and out the door every morning by 7:30 a.m. We did not know at the time that we were breaking the laws of physics.

Our class and its Boomer kin have perhaps traveled the furthest technologically: We are the people that can program Tivo and improve reception with rabbit ears. We may have been the only junior year high school Physics class forced to learn the slide rule while hiding our Bowmar Brains under the desk. We are still capable of changing a typewriter ribbon and text-messaging with our thumbs. And, not to put too fine a point on our technological flexibility, but we know how to rip MP3 files (legally, of course) and how to tape a nickel to a tone arm of a record player so the record won't skip.

Now that I think of it, we've bought "Sympathy for the Devil" on vinyl, cassette, CD, and iTunes. And we would have bought it on 8-track had that technology lasted more than five minutes. No wonder the Rolling Stones are so rich.

I suspect, given our capacity to adapt, we'll make it through the digital economy and Web 2.0, we'll weather global warming and outsourcing, we'll survive the meltdown of the nuclear family and the polar ice caps, and we'll do just fine with whatever the next half-century throws at us.

To be fair, we've had our share of breaks as well. Being born in 1957 kept us out of Vietnam and even gave us a free pass on the draft.

Being 50 creates a set of indelible markers. We are the first-graders who got off the bus to find our mothers in tears at the news of President Kennedy's shooting. We stayed up late to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. We were building our careers when the Challenger exploded and were beginning to really hit our stride on 9/11.

The trip to 50 is also about perspective. The First Lady has gone from being our grandmother to our mother to someone we might have dated. The oldest veterans in professional sports, hobbling around in extended careers, are still just youngsters. We place our lives in the hands of experienced doctors twenty years younger than us. We hire people in entry-level jobs who were born in 1986. We remember when "Made in Japan" meant something entirely different than it does now. We miss getting prizes in cereal boxes. We ask people to "roll up the window" in the car. We still call CDs "albums" and occasionally say "it's quarter-to-two" when our digital watch says "1:45," and we know enough about the old Moxie not to want to try the new Moxie.

It helps, of course, that we were born into the greatest country in the history of the world and have lived for the 50 greatest years of its history. Having done a bit of traveling, as well as a bit of history, I am pretty well convinced of that. It is nothing short of a miracle how democracy, a belief in the sacredness of life, and the ability to create endless amounts of wealth and intellectual capital all came together at a single time, in a single place. Add the existence of over 20 different kinds of Coke, and life has been awfully good.

So, what have I learned during my 50 years? Here are 13 very minor take-aways: 1. This is how you get old: One day you wake up and your face looks tired. You take a shower and your face looks refreshed again. A years later you wake up and your face looks tired again. This time when you shower, it still looks tired. When you go to bed you check again, and now it really looks tired. Now, you’re old.  2. Never be the first or last person to drink from a quart of milk.  3. If you haven't made at least three good enemies by the time you're 50, you're not really trying.  4. I saw an analysis that showed that Cal Ripken's career production would have been much better if he'd rested occasionally. I get that.  5. The worst musical mistake generations make is to carry their tired, old songs with them through life.  6. I own a mountain bike that is as expensive as my father's first car, and my grandfather's first house. We call that progress.  7. By 50, you begin to accumulate ghosts, the many people who have touched your life but who are now dead.  Many lived long, active, full, meaningful lives. To my children, they are stories, and a name on a family tree. It is a very odd feeling to have parts of your life slip away like that.  8. Speaking of slipping away, I have this sinking feeling that the Baby Boomers may be pitied as the last generation that didn’t regularly live to be 125, or maybe even 200.  9. Write this one down: If you turn the spout of the plastic lid so it lines up with the seam of the coffee cup, you will drip coffee on your clothing on the way to work. Guaranteed. 10. If you're explaining, you're losing.  Count on it.  11. When I first became a CEO I pulled aside one of my trusted board members and asked, "Any advice for a new CEO?" Without hesitation, he said, "Make your numbers." "Anything else," I asked? He thought for a second. "No. Just make your numbers." The secret to credibility? Make your numbers.  12. I agree with Homer Simpson when he said, “When someone tells you your butt is on fire, you should take them at their word.”

I was told once that if you can double your age and still reasonably expect to be alive, you're alright. I'm hanging onto that thought all day.