40 things I have learned at 40

Colleen and John at Colleen's surprise 40th birthday party

John surprised me with a 40th birthday party that included dozens of friends, my favorite cupcakes and a jazz trio in our living room.

Today I am kicking off a new occasional series, under the theme “Things I Have Learned.”

I turned 40 this year and have spent considerable time reflecting on what that big round number means. If the average American woman lives to be 80, part of what it means is I’ve just hit the 50-yard line.

It also means I’ve gone around the sun enough times to have learned a few things. Sometimes it took me screwing up the same way repeatedly to get the lesson, but I’d like to think I got there.

So with deep and abiding gratitude to no longer be in high school, I share a sampling of 40 things I have learned at 40. It is not exhaustive nor in order of importance. It’s more in the spirit of those 25 Random Things notes that were popular on Facebook a few years back, a mix of the deep and the mundane. Sort of like life itself.

In the coming weeks, look for similar reflections from a number of guest bloggers. If you’d like to share your own list, leave a note in the comments below. The more the merrier.

  1. I spent most of my first four decades trying to impress other people, worried about whether my job or my home made people think well of me. Then I realized I probably shouldn’t care that much about the opinions of people who would judge me by my job or my home.
  2. Being older means you can get away with some things — if you stroll into an expensive restaurant or hotel to use the bathroom, for example, you probably won’t get stopped as long as you act like you know where you’re going. We’ve used the pool at hotels we aren’t staying at, because who’s going to suspect the nice middle-aged couple of pool crashing?
  3. It’s wonderful to have a doctor, an accountant and a tailor you can trust.
  4. Losing a job seems like a big deal at the time, but it’s happened to me twice and both times, it worked out for the best.
  5. Loving someone and having them be a good fit as a life partner are not the same thing.
  6. It’s important to put enough salt in your pasta water. Old Italian women say it should taste like the sea, so we aren’t talking a sprinkle but more like a handful.
  7. Apparently you can get grey hair and zits at the same time. Unfair, but true.
  8. I interviewed Helen Thomas, Pat Buchanan, Ray Bentley and others before I’d graduated from college. It taught me that famous people are still just people. And that being a reporter is pretty cool.
  9. We live in a tsunami of electronic communication, from email to Facebook to texts, so there’s something extra special about sending or receiving snail mail and care packages. Taking the time to address and send a physical something shows more intent than firing off an IM.
  10. The keys to good coffee at home: use enough coffee (at least a tablespoon per cup, many people say two), put a little salt in with the grounds, make sure your coffee pot gets the water hot enough. I learned all of this by marrying a former Starbucks barista. I didn’t even drink coffee when we started dating.
  11. Staying with people should be more about the intimacy of sharing a roof than about saving money. If I don’t want to hang out with someone in my PJs or brush by them in the hall in a towel with my hair wringing wet, I’ll spend the money on a hotel. Conversely, the bonding of being the last people you see before you go to bed and the first people you see when you wake up is priceless.
  12. Related, “friends” and “friends you can travel with” are not identical groups.
  13. I love coming home from vacation to a clean house, so although it adds to my to-do list to tidy up after I’ve packed, it makes returning so much nicer.
  14. There is a time and a place for honest feedback and a way to deliver it constructively. In front of the entire department, minutes before going on stage or in the heat of the moment generally aren’t ideal, for example. If you want the message to be heard and acted on, choose the way to make that happen.
  15. We live well below our means, have no debt and a comfortable cushion in savings. This gives us so much more freedom in our decision making. Or, as one of my Michigan Business School profs put it, we have “fuck you money” if it ever comes to that.
  16. I considered a microwave and cable TV essential when I was fresh out of college. We have neither now and we get along just fine.
  17. Being happy in a relationship requires learning how to be happy on your own first. You mate can’t do for you what you can’t do for yourself.
  18. I hated doing dishes in my teens and 20s so much that I’d stack them all up and eventually have to have an epic, dreadful dish scrubbing event. Though I still don’t love doing dishes, I learned that doing a few at a time before the food sets makes it far easier. This seems like a good analogy for many things in life.
  19. Journalists are stereotypically math phobic. Turns out I love numbers enough that I did better than some of my engineer friends in my statistics class, and I learned to love Excel pivot tables. Many thanks to Chris Cansiani for his patient tutoring on this amazing tool.
  20. Parents aren’t perfect because they’re human. We all make mistakes. It’s even possible I wasn’t a perfect daughter. Ditto for bosses. And employees. And friends. And neighbors.
  21. It messes up my hair to wear hats in the winter but it’s worth it to stay warm.
  22. Married people have crushes. This shocked one of my single friends years ago. Getting married does not prevent you from being attracted to other people, and being attracted to other people doesn’t mean you have to have to an affair. It can just be a nice reminder of the zing of flirting with someone new while consciously choosing your mate and your relationship as more important.
  23. It’s never too late to say you’re sorry.
  24. Many of my treasured friendships have fizzled. I don’t take this as a sign they weren’t special and important at the time. If our circumstances changed, our priorities changed and we moved on, that doesn’t devalue how special it was to have had those people in my life when I did.
  25. In other cases, I have made conscious decisions to distance myself from people. I’m a sensitive person and having negative people around me brings me down. If I only have so much time and energy, I’d rather spend it with people who uplift and inspire me.
  26. Taking the time to write out life goals makes a difference. I made a list of what I wanted from my life partner, and a few months later, I started dating John, who’s nearly everything on that list. I made a list of what I wanted from my first post-MBA job and got almost everything on the list, down to an office with windows with lots of sunlight.
  27. Working hard and being smart are not the keys to getting ahead in your career. They don’t hurt, but it often comes down to who likes you.
  28. A real friend will tell you if you have spinach in your teeth, your fly is open or you have bad breath.
  29. I am a miserable bitch to be around if I’m hungry, so it’s my job to make sure I eat before that happens.
  30. The older I get, the less I have to drink before I might suffer a hangover. Drinking higher quality alcohol helps, as does drinking tomato juice and eating some starch before bed or immediately upon getting up. But it’s easier to show some restraint in the first place.
  31. Relationships take effort. All of them: significant others, friends, coworkers, family.
  32. I am typically more comfortable in a dress than in jeans. That means I might turn up overdressed sometimes, but I’ve learned I’d rather be comfortable than worry about what others are wearing.
  33. I like to have a plan, but having a Plan B really helps. Sometimes so does Plan C, D or E.
  34. Many high-end restaurants are not worth the expense to me, but having a good home that feels like my sanctuary is.
  35. One of the best feelings in the world is a hearty laugh. I like having people in my life who can make me laugh til I snort.
  36. It’s OK to not know what you want to be when you grow up. I keep changing my mind and that’s sort of fun.
  37. I spent middle school and high school feeling like the biggest misfit, the ugly unpopular girl. Turns out learning how to shop for clothes and spending some money on good haircuts helps. So does carrying myself with confidence.
  38. Putting on some favorite music almost always puts me in a better mood. Van Halen, Dean Martin or Erasure are all easier than antidepressants and don’t require a prescription.
  39. After a certain age, if you can afford to hire movers, it’s not OK to ask your friends to lift your couch and schlep your boxes. I’m not sure what that cutoff age is, but I’m positive 40 is within the range.
  40. I would so much rather be 40 than 20.

This might be cheating, but here are some past blog posts I’ve written on life lessons:

What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with the above?

And if you’d like to join the line up of guest bloggers sharing their own lists of things they’ve learned, you can volunteer in the comments. I’ll need your list, a photo of you and a short bio.


Categories: career, creativity, food and drink, health and well being, home and family, lifestyle

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

17 replies

  1. 41. Take a few minutes every day, even when you’re swamped, to read a few extra pieces of wisdom.

    My favs on your list:
    1 — Stop trying to impress with job, self, home. Why ARE we so slow to realize this??
    2 — We’re middle-aged adults. If we need to use the restroom or want to use the pool — let’s do it. OK, I’ve following the restroom philosophy for years, but the pool idea was a big AH-HA! OMG, that’s hysterical. Bet I can’t get Jim to do it, tho. And, I probably can’t teach Lauren this trick for a few more years. When I come to NYC, Colleen, we soooo have an agenda!
    11 — Staying with others. Makes me think!
    15 — Living w/in our means and SAVING. We’ve always subscribed to this theory too. Now we have a new name for it. Thanks, Colleen!
    20 — Um. Yeah. Not perfect.
    32 — Jeans, but with really stylish tops. Awesome shirts, sweaters, jackets look great with jeans. And all my favorite shoes look best with jeans. Thank God I live in Ann Arbor, where jeans are the thing.
    37 — So related to #1. Colleen, if we had magic powers, we’d banish mean girls forever and make sure every other girl realizes her own beauty and value.

    Which leads me to my #42: Movies with happy endings, even if they’re cliche, are good.

    • Thanks, Sherry.

      If you get inspired and want to do your own list, the thought you put into your comment tells me yours would be fantastic, even if you’re swamped.

      Come to NYC and we’ll go pool crashing. I haven’t done it in Manhattan yet but I’ve got my eye on a really good one. 😉

  2. Love your list! These are all soooooo true.


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