I had the second major fall of my life last week.
The first was years ago in Barcelona. We were in the ancient part of the city. My favorite part of being a photographer is the composition, and it consumes me in the moment. Stepping onto some uneven pavement, I went down like a boneless sack of corn meal. One second I was taking pictures, the next I was lying on the ground on top of my camera.
But that experience didn’t trigger any particular kind of reflection or fear. I just got up and went on about my life.
The second major fall has been different. I was getting out of the Board Chairman’s car; we were on our way into a company meeting called by the CEO. I either didn’t see the curb (which I have stepped over successfully hundreds of times in the past) or I just didn’t lift my right foot high enough. Suddenly I was halfway into a face plant onto a muddy sidewalk. I had the wherewithal to grab a large planter to help break my fall. With bandaged arm and muddy clothes, I proceeded into the meeting and participated in a serious discussion about the company’s strategic pathways forward.
During the meeting, I stayed focused. Call it reflexive professionalism. It wasn’t until later that I really acknowledged the fall to myself.
In retrospect, my three injuries were:
- A bleeding, butterfly-shaped gash in my left forearm (from the planter).
Fortunately, I was immediately treated by a senior colleague who spent three unhappy years in medical school before abandoning it to become who he really wanted to be: a world-class chemist. My arm was so cleansed, disinfected, and well bandaged that it felt like a holiday ham dressed in gauze.
- Major bruises to my competence-centric identity, accompanied by a major dose of embarrassment.
Ordinarily, I feel capable and self-assured. And I am. I think of myself as the CEO of my career and my life. But that trip and fall in front of a client made me feel like a clumsy fool—certainly not a CEO. Barely an intern.
- A lingering, several-day level of doubt that I don’t usually experience.
To my shock I eventually realized that the doubt was actually a deep, morbid fear of ageism, aimed at myself. I already wear hearing aids to help with mild loss. Now I have fallen. If more age-related issues start stacking up, will people stop taking me seriously or question my competence? Will I stop worrying whether this is the beginning of an irreversible physical decline? It has taken several days for me to find my center again.
I’m a strong, capable guy committed to the quality of this phase of my life. I’m running four small businesses simultaneously, my new book will be out in 2016, I have a virtual team of brilliant people working for me, I ride my new bicycle up to 30 miles at a time, am a committed board member of an NPR/PBS affiliate, have stimulating friends unwilling to coast at this time in life, and am married to a brilliant woman who challenges me every day on some front. It’s a wonderful way to live.
I know I shouldn’t let a simple stumble trip me up this way. So why has it shaken me up so profoundly? I think it’s because ageism – and the fear of it – wasn’t part of my past. I don’t plan to let it be any part of my future, yet on some level I know it inevitably will be. This is completely new territory for me. I’ll have to work with what’s new as it arrives.
The fall was my first opportunity to adjust to the new normal. I suspect it won’t be the last.