Approaching 40: Thoughts, reflections and some tips


In less than two months I’ll be 40.

Gosh! (as  Napolean Dynamite would exclaim) where has the time gone?

One minute I’m finishing high school in Johannesburg, South Africa is stepping gingerly into a brave new era of democracy, Freddie Mercury had just died from AIDS and I’d decided to become an architect.

Flash forward nearly 22 years: I’m a newspaper journalist in Melbourne, (apparently the world’s most livable city, if you believe those sorts of surveys) with a bald patch, a blog and a family with three different passports (South African, Kiwi and Aussie) plus a few other bits and pieces.

It feels like a time to reflect, but not morbidly so, as I feel 40 is still an age of possibility (I’ll wait till at least 50 for melancholic reflections) plus I’ve been lucky, life has treated me more or less “pretty, pretty, pretty good” as my self-appointed mentor Larry David would say.

Of course I’ve just about given up hope of making it on the BRW Young Rich list (a list of the richest Aussies 40 and under), unless I do something drastic in the next couple of months – like rob a bank or win the lottery, but I think I can live with that.

Anyway, for nostalgia sake (and to poke fun at me relentlessly) here I am 22 odd years ago in the bottom right hand corner of this photo taken some time in the mid-1990s.

larry schol

That’s me. The geeky, chubby face with glasses looking a tad sheepish on the periphery of things. Something of an outsider.

Hardly any of the people in this people are still living in South Africa; certainly I thought I’d be one of those who stayed behind (or at least left and came back). Instead I’ve joined the expat South African community that used to be called when I was in school, the PFP (not the Progressive Federal Party, but an acronym at the time for those ‘Packing for Perth’).

But have I succeeded? I have no idea.

Success of course is a personal thing and can be fleeting. You can accumulate vast sums of money and lose it very quickly, or build up your reputation on your achievements and status only for it to be smashed to smithereens by a rash decision or revelation about some horrible character flaw: think of the careers of Lance Armstrong or Rolf Harris and what they will be ultimately remembered for.

In many ways I feel I have succeeded – I’ve gotten married, have a beautiful wife and daughter and a son on the way, I overcame a seriously debilitating period of panic attacks that threatened my sanity about ten years ago while living in London (there is no greater fear in life than losing your mind I can tell you), I’ve  been lucky enough to see many interesting parts of the world (I think I am up to about 30 countries or so), had a to date fulfilling career in five different cities (Jo’burg, London, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne) and for the most part have been healthy, happy and well-fed.

But in other facets of my life I feel I’ve not: for one thing I have not built up any great wealth, nor do I own property or shares.

I don’t feel or act my age (both a good and a bad thing). I don’t pay enough attention in conversations. I’m often in my own world.

Of less concern I’ve also not yet published a book (or really written one either), I’ve haven’t yet been invited onto Q&A, had tea with Stephen Fry or discussed my anxieties with Woody Allen and I’ve still not bought a BMW (Everyone’s allowed one flashy, material craving right?)

But enough of that. Perhaps the Gods of fame and fortune will smile favourably on me yet.

I’m healthy and relatively sane and life is for the most part very good. I have time to read books, watch movies, listen to music, drink and occasionally be merry. Many people would be content with that.

So what have I learnt? Is there any wisdom I can impart as the big ‘Four Zero’ approaches?

Perhaps this?

  • Try to worry less? Things rarely happen as you think they will so its a pointless exercise. Good and bad awaits you in ways you could never imagine.
  • Avoid trashy books and reality television. Spend your time doing something else.
  • Think less about what you eat. Obsessing over food is a waste of time.
  • Get a bike or start jogging. Avoid gyms (too many mirrors).
  • Hug your kids, your wife, your pets, your friends, your family when the mood strikes, without any particular reason.
  • Worry less about what others think of you.
  • You can’t cook a Jamie Oliver meal in 15 minutes

And if every in doubt about life, watch Annie Hall for the opening monologue at least (the rest of the movie is pretty terrific too):

		There's an old joke.  Uh, two elderly 
		women are at a Catskills mountain 
		resort, and one of 'em says: "Boy, the 
		food at this place is really terrible." 
		The other one says, "Yeah, I know, and 
		such ... small portions." Well, that's 
		essentially how I feel about life.  Full 
		of loneliness and misery and suffering 
		and unhappiness, and it's all over much 
		too quickly

The terrible boredom of the rich

For those of us who are not very rich, the idea of having great wealth is very appealing and the focus of many a day-dream along the lines of: “If I had $100 million I’d….”

No mortgage to worry about, no tightening of the chest everytime an envelope stamped with “your bill enclosed” arrives in the mailbox, no having to fight with the person next to you for the shared arm rest on economy flights, and on and on it goes.

But the thought occured to me that perhaps being very rich can also be very boring.

I was struck by the idea while attending a commercial property auction (I wrote this story about it) as I found myself sitting next to one of the bidders in the River Room at Crown Casino.

Without meaning to sound to mean-spirited, I’ll say the bidder looked like a toad with fat lips and fatter jowls and liverspots, though I may be embellishing.

Up for grabs was a petrol station on a busy road in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, a dull, but valuable piece of real estate.

Bidding started around the $5 million mark and the price rose rapidly in $100,000 jumps with my toady bidding friend lifting his hand every thirty seconds or so to up the ante.

When it reached $7 million, he stopped and simply said to his rival bidder, like he was ordering a drink beside the swimming pool, in a lazy, nasal drawl:

“He can have it.”

Like spending or not spending $7 million was like deciding whether to buy an ice-cream from the vendor on the beach or deciding between a cappucino and a latte.

But what if this is what life is really like for the super-rich?

Where things lose their value, no matter how much they cost, be they petrol stations, mega mansions, luxury cars, or overseas holidays – because if you’re super-rich you’ve already tried everything on the menu and there’s nothing left to buy.

And then it occured to me that maybe that’s the reason why billionaires keep on working until they’re one foot in the grave and seem never satisfied no matter how many zeroes are on their bank accounts.

And why they’re always trying to reduce their tax bill.

Or denying their children their inheritance.

Or just keep complaining about everything (and making cheap looking preachy videos).

Perhaps, we with less should appreciate that fact that a good bottle of red wine, a new car (or even a second-hand one), or a holiday one street up from the beach rather than on the beach can be celebrated and cherished.

Even if we drop dead the next day from worrying about the size of the gas bill…