Thoughts at 40

It was weird how the day I turned 40 in August was the same day I became long-sighted.

Suddenly, I had to hold my smartphone further away to read the fine print, and the same goes for my Pebble 2 smartwatch which features tiny fonts thanks to its millennial designers.

How did my eyeballs know when to start degrading with clockwork precision?

Indeed, 40 is a strange age to be in. I’m not old enough to be a cranky elderly citizen, nor am I young enough to be considered a spring chicken.

I drive my car and get frustrated with the middle-aged drivers with typical uncle-style gelled hair who turn street corners at a snail’s pace. Then I realize I could be considered middle-aged too.

I speak to younger colleagues in their 20s and 30s, and I can understand where they are coming from, but there is a distinct disconnect between how we view life and work.

From others’ point of view, 40 means I’m too young to be considered wise, and too old to be allowed to be foolish.

For peers my age, 40 means different scenarios for each of us.

Many of us are just starting out as young parents and learning the meaning of a sleepless life, while my own kids are already entering their teenage years and are already taking over the Spotify music playlist blaring on the home speakers.

Some friends have told me that I was smart to start my family when I was young, but I point out to them that I didn’t really have much of my late 20s and 30s to myself as we were too busy changing diapers or making mistakes as parents.

At this juncture, I have also seen my fair share of deaths and calamities. Illness and death have struck my friends and family at any age, and you don’t really know when someone is going to just disappear tomorrow.

I remember making friends with a chap who was the local distributor for a fuel-mapping module for my Ducati Monster 1100. I only met him once as he turned up at the workshop to tune my bike. He also showed me his beautiful track motorcycle and we had a great conversation. The next I heard about him a year later, he had passed away from a tragic freak accident on the race track. He was 41.

On this blog, you’d have read about my heroic friend Dr Darren Chua who overcame a stroke at the age of 21 and now at 40, has become an inspiration to many with his achievements. Yet it’s not the end of the continual challenges he faces at work and in life. No, I still don’t know how he does it!

Some of my schoolmates are highly successful (in the capitalist sense) with a smooth track record of achievements, others have found themselves getting retrenched as young as 38 as disruption ripples constantly through different industries.

The outcomes are as random as you get, yet we can now also observe how our specific family backgrounds and social network have influenced our careers over the past 15+ years since most of us entered the workforce.

You are unable to have that view on things at 25, yet at 40, we wonder which fork in the road we should take. This often manifests as the usual mid-life crisis at work or at home.

The mid-life crisis (in whichever manifestation) is really nothing more than a desire to define oneself for the next decade. When I look back at my last 18 years since I started work as an intern at SPH, I can only faintly remember being a photographer, writer and so on. This blog has served as a memory archive for my children since 2005 but I don’t even revisit my old posts because I am no longer the same person who wrote it.

I always tell people that “nobody cares about your past achievements that much, except you and your family. It’s who you are today that matters.” Some folks do not like hearing that at all, as if I am dissing their past.

No, don’t be mistaken. The past is over and done with, that’s all. But on certain things, I do dwell on what I have done.

When the old boys discuss things like PSLE results and which schools our children should enroll in, I think back of the past five years when I started to write about the education system and agitated more than a few people in the education ministry.

At 35, I hoped that the pen could bring some sense to the system or the populace, but at 40, I have come to accept that I can only guide my children to be a citizen of the world and not of this tiny island called Singapore.

Because by this age, we have also figured out the archetypes of people that populate the world – change will be resisted as long as someone is uncomfortable about the truth.

It is always demoralizing when you hear some SG ministers (who have never worked in the private sector before) telling people to become entrepreneurs. Yet at 40 you also accept the fact that some people will experience a privileged life, and most of us will not get to live in an ivory tower.

The question is whether you want to walk the talk for yourself and accept the consequences of your choices. I have deliberately resisted the system and refused to follow the path of other parents to make my kids do the whole Singaporean education grind.

But I must also confess I wonder if I will regret not following the Joneses when I am 50 (that is not too far away). Will my kids understand the paths I opened or closed for them?

Health-wise, I am probably in better shape than in my 20s or early 30s, thanks to my cleaner diet and regular exercise. When I first started my healthy initiatives three years ago (which was then chronicled in my weight-loss book), it was really not that difficult to prevent any weight-gain.

But at 40, it really gets tougher to keep the weight constant no matter how disciplined a life I lead. The effects are aging are real, and I wonder if it is futile to keep fighting back against the atrophy of our physical bodies.

I have also given up trying to preach a healthy lifestyle to others – the reality I have learned is that most people do not want to deprive themselves of the creature comforts that inadvertently make us fat and later, very ill. So be it.

Perhaps I should just pretend to others that I have always be slim my whole life, so I do not have to waste my time giving them advice on weight loss that they’ll often just forget or cast doubt upon.

This is not cynicism, but really a desire to conserve what energy we have left at 40 to outrun our own impending obsolescence.

But let me tell you what is the most dreadful or wonderful thing you can think about at 40 – we actually have another 30 years of work left to go, provided we do not drop dead first.

I am not even halfway through my working life, so really, it is not time to rest or to think too much.