On Saturday, June 18, 2022, a group of Telegraph columnists shared the lessons they learned at the age of 40.
‘What I wish I had known at 40’ is a thought-provoking article and worth sharing with younger family members. I hope that Prince William, who is reaching this milestone on June 21, reads it.
Some of these columnists are well over 40 now, which makes their observations all the more worthwhile.
Excerpts follow, emphases mine.
Janet Daley had no choice but to leave her academic career abruptly, aged 40:
Not very long after my 40th birthday, I lost the career to which I had devoted my adult life. From the time I arrived at university – which seemed to me like heaven on earth – I had never wanted to be anything other than an academic … But then came one of those brutal moves for which academic life is notorious: my department was closed down and I was out. It was like a bereavement. My family were for a time seriously worried about my emotional stability.
But there was, as you may have guessed, to be a whole new chapter. By an extraordinary stroke of luck, newspapers were at that time expanding exponentially. This was just after the Wapping revolution when the press was freed from the decline to which the domination of the print unions had once condemned it. This liberation also encompassed the old National Union of Journalists rule, which had made it very difficult for Fleet Street to hire writers who had not served years of apprenticeship on provincial newspapers. Those two factors combined to allow me to enter what would always have been a natural alternative profession. I started out as a commentator for The Times. Then The Independent – only recently launched and very fashionable – offered me a column. Then, a year later, The Times brought me in as a columnist. Five years after that, I joined The Telegraph, where I have had a happy home ever since.
So what do I wish I had known back in that period of grief and hopelessness in my 40s? That you can reinvent yourself at almost any point in your life, and that there is a world of possibilities out there if you refuse to be defeated by despair.
Bryony Gordon is still learning, every day:
It wasn’t that long ago that I turned 40 – I will be 42 in a couple of weeks – but two years in pandemic years is like 20 years in normal human years, so perhaps I have managed to gather some pieces of advice for my marginally younger self. Namely: don’t trust your Prime Minister, don’t imagine you’ll ever go abroad again, and don’t wait to get work done on the kitchen, because building materials are going to be more pricey than printer’s ink.
Practical matters aside, I wish I had known that I didn’t have to live in fear. Fear of failure, fear of not doing enough, fear of losing everyone I love. If I have learnt anything in the past two years, it’s that I have very little control over anything, so I might as well start enjoying life, instead of waiting anxiously for it to end. At 40, nothing is certain any more – not immortality, not oestrogen, not the 8.47 to Waterloo. You can sit around railing at the unfairness of it all, or you can start sucking the delicious juice out of what you do have. This is the option I have decided to take, but only after a fair bit of railing, flailing and pain.
But what do I wish I’d known most at 40? That I barely know anything at all, and if I’m lucky, I’ve got a whole lot of learning on the way. Bring it on, I say.
Christopher Howse recounts the mistakes of his his middle years and says:
At 40 I still hadn’t realised that almost everyone’s troubles were as big as mine. It took a few more years to swim along with other people cheerfully. The worst thing would have been to make my woes define me against a world that was to blame for my miseries. But now, like minnows in a stream lit up by the English sun, we swim one way, then swirl round in formation, then dart explosively apart. It’s better than solitary splashing, exhilarated one moment and towed under a dark wave the next. To me it looks like the Prince learnt to swim some time ago.
Judith Woods says that it is important to be oneself:
I wish I’d known at 40 that it’s not too late. To start a lifelong quest. To end a toxic friendship. To be reckless. To be careful. To be, in George Eliot’s immortal words, what you might have been. If only your inner critic could be silenced …
I spent my early life worrying, ruminating and second-guessing what “other people” thought of me, would think of me if I went blonde, brought supermarket wine to a dinner party or let my baby daughter have a dummy. Silly things. Stressful things.
Finally, at 40 I started to realise that unless anyone (by which I mean someone who mattered) explicitly said something to the contrary, it was safe to assume my dress wasn’t too short, my work was fine, I didn’t say anything unforgivably awful in the pub and I was not a high-functioning failure, in danger of being outed at any moment.
Do princes suffer from impostor syndrome? Apart from the one moonlighting as a pauper in Mark Twain’s classic novel, I suspect not. An heir to a throne is, of necessity, schooled in resilience as well as tireless public service.
Here in the cheap seats, I’m more than a decade ahead of the Duke of Cambridge and can joyfully report that not giving a monkey’s about other people’s (unvoiced and entirely putative) opinions of how dreadful I am is gloriously liberating. Curtailing the self-sabotage remains a work in progress of course. But it’s never too late to begin.
On a similar note, Michael Deacon points out that, at age 40, one can finally ditch the conformity that defined one’s youth:
We think of the young as rebels, but in reality the opposite is true. The young are conformists, desperate conformists. In everything they do they crave acceptance, perhaps not from their parents or teachers, but always from those their own age – and in particular from those they deem to be cooler or more attractive than they are.
And inevitably this frantic, fevered craving makes them unhappy, because it compels them to do things they don’t really want to, things they don’t actually enjoy. They force themselves to go to parties they’d been dreading, go clubbing even if they hate the music, buy clothes they know don’t suit them, pretend to love books they’ve never read – and all in a neurotic attempt to impress others, or at least to avert their contempt.
By 40, however, all that nonsense has dissolved. We go out when we want to, and stay in when we don’t. We choose the music, films and books we genuinely enjoy, rather than slog our way through unrelieved tedium in a miserable bid to seem clever and sophisticated. We lose all interest in the concept of cool, and accept our tastes and our views as they actually are. We allow ourselves to think what we really think, rather than what we think we should think. In short: we start being honest – both with others, and with ourselves.
No longer do we have time to worry about how we might look to people we don’t even know. This is the wonderful thing about middle age. Things that don’t matter don’t matter any more.
I couldn’t agree more. My 20s were miserable, especially as I was still trying to find my own identity as a person — and be accepted for my foibles.
I was so relieved to turn 30. It felt as if a shroud had been lifted from me.
At 40, I was even happier in myself. At 50 and 60, my personal happiness increased. Long may it continue.
I am closing with Philip Johnston’s warning about weight increase after the age of 40. Monitor it and get rid of it:
My advice is mundanely practical. Remember that just putting on a mere 1lb in weight a year can add two stone by the time you are in your 60s, so watch what you eat. I wish I’d taken a friend’s advice on reaching 40 to apply for MCC membership as I’d be in by now, just. I wish I’d taken up those Italian classes and properly learned the piano but didn’t. Do it. As Housman said, the land of lost content cannot come again.
But I also like the somewhat opaque observation of the American rock singer Bob Seger: I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.
On the subject of weight gain and loss, one of the greatest British success stories is that of Labour’s Tom Watson, who used to be the party’s deputy leader.
In 2018 the former Labour deputy leader astounded everyone when he lost eight stone, going from 22st to 14st in two years and reversing his type 2 diabetes, going on to write the bestselling book Downsizing.
Watson still admits to the occasional eating binge and has to resist temptation when he goes down the biscuit aisle in the supermarket:
Watson will never be free of the urge to eat sugar. The mere thought of a Hobnob can still have him salivating. If he finds himself needing to re-fuel on the go he’ll grab a packet of turkey slices from the likes of M&S. “But I could so easily go to the biscuit aisle and eat a packet there and then,” he says.
He has another book out about his weight loss:
Calling his new book Lose Weight 4 Life might at first seem a bit of a boast. As Watson says: “That’s a heavy and onerous responsibility I’ve given myself there”.
However, the title in fact refers to the cycle of small setbacks followed by resets that are inevitable.
Not every day will be a success, and those losing weight will have to adapt to good days and bad:
“You are losing weight for life because you’re going to have good days and bad days. You’re going to put a bit of weight on and have to learn how to put yourself in the mood to shift it. Whether it’s logging your food that week, or starting to take your measurements, as long as you’ve got a reset programme that brings you back to the journey, you’re going to be OK.”
Multiple times during our interview he tells me that weight loss is a “journey, not a destination”.
In Week One, he advocates:
- creating and maintaining a log of food consumption along with one’s weight;
- preparing oneself mentally;
- avoiding getting down when one has not lost weight;
- taking it one day at a time and reviewing the food log to see if any bad habits are apparent. If so, those are the ones on which to focus.
He makes it clear that what works for him might not work for someone else:
Not everything he did, he makes clear, will work for everyone else, but it’s a place to start.
His overall strategy is to adopt the keto way of eating:
Watson’s reset is to go keto, cutting back on the carbs.
If he was a minister now he’d be reengineering the British breakfast away from sugary cereals back to Fay Weldon’s ‘Go to work on an egg’, he says.
Cutting carbs also means cutting out beer:
… he hasn’t had a beer in five years (“Too much sugar”), now favouring spirits such as vodka and gin.
Correct. Dry wine is also good with meals.
He also advocates the following:
- not eating straight from the fridge; place your food on a plate and eat it with cutlery;
- avoid snacking when going to parties;
- don’t despair if your clothes suddenly feel tight; recalibrate and carry on;
- pay attention to what is going on in your life and how it can affect your eating habits;
- build a support group of friends who can help keep you on track;
- get plenty of sleep; lack of it can cause people to gain weight.
I have a lot of posts about the ketogenic diet, which also improves mood, just the thing one needs at age 40 and beyond.
In closing, to my readers in the Northern Hemisphere, best wishes for the summer!
And many happy returns to Prince William on his special day.