The Best Days Are Ahead
I went to a Coast Guard retirement ceremony recently. I have to tell you, the military really does it right, with all the pomp and circumstance and speechifying and shadowboxes and awards and fancy medals. In contrast, when I told my boss at Lehman that I was leaving after seven years, he said “okay” and I walked out the door.
Anyway, the guy retiring was a very dear friend—we were roommates on our first tour of duty on a Coast Guard cutter out of Washington state. The best of times, the worst of times. We were very close. He went on to be an aviator and I went on to be an agitator. He had an incredible career, going to the East Coast and the West Coast and the Gulf Coast and the North and South Pole, and a lot of stuff in between. At the end, he was running HITRON, which is where they hook up machine guns and sniper rifles to helicopters to stop drugrunners in speedboats—the elite airborne fighting unit of the Coast Guard. Real Top Gun stuff. And he looked the part, with his white T-shirt and aviator sunglasses, a throwback to Miramar in the 80s.
So I went up to him before the ceremony, and I asked him, “What are you going to do next?” He said, “I have no idea.” I was stunned. My friend could walk into any executive job in the corporate world, having led hundreds of people in high-intensity environments—and—not to mention—he is one of the nicest, most charismatic guys I know. I’ve never met a person in the world who didn’t like him. Me, I make enemies without even trying. So with those kinds of skills, not to mention 3,900 hours of being a stud pilot, now is the time to cash in.
And then I started to think about it. After being Iceman for 27 years, what do you do as a second act that could possibly be better than the first act?
You want to know what the answer is? The second act must be better than the first act. Because your best days must always be ahead of you, rather than behind you.
There are a lot of people in the world whose best days are behind them. Professional athletes, for instance. I met a guy in Myrtle Beach who used to pitch for the Orioles. In fact, he was the visiting pitcher for the last game at old Yankee Stadium. I had this guy on for a full two hours of my radio show. You would not believe the stories. And better than the stories on the air were the stories that he was telling me on commercial breaks. He has stories to last a lifetime. You want to know what he is doing now?
He is a roofer.
Before the class warriors pull an arrow from their quiver, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a roofer. It is an honorable profession. People need roofs to keep the rain out. But all that glory is in the past, or sitting on the mantle. What is there to look forward to?
There must always be something to look forward to.
I will tell you a story. When my first book Street Freak came out in 2011, there was a big rush of publicity and attention and people were blowing up my phone, and I got to go on TV and all that, and then after a few months, things settled down and my life went back to normal. And then I started to think, I am never going to top that. That was the pinnacle of my life, and it is all downhill from here. I became depressed. Not clinical depression, mind you, but existential depression. I was a mess. I couldn’t stand the idea that I might never be able to top that achievement. So I bought a motorcycle, knowing full well how dangerous motorcycles were. I just didn’t care if I got greased by a Dodge Ram on the highway. What was the point? There was nothing to look forward to.
It is a good thing that I didn’t get greased by a Dodge Ram on the highway, because as it turns out, there has been a lot to look forward to. Three more books, for starters, a radio show, speaking gigs, an MFA, a gig as an op-ed columnist, lots of money, and a whole bunch of other stuff. It’s funny—I was talking to my literary agent about a year ago, and he remarked how I’ve continued to build my career after Street Freak, the implication being that there are a lot of authors who write books and end up being one-hit wonders. And you know what? The best is yet to come. Wait until my next book comes out in January—that is going to be huge. And you know what else? Even after that, my best days will still be ahead of me. Because when your best days are behind you, that is incomprehensible demoralization and death. That is sitting down at the VFW drinking at 11am, waiting to die.
This happens to Wall Street guys all the time. You see, Wall Street practices ageism to an extent unseen in any other industry in the world. You get to be about 47, you have all this knowledge and all these relationships, and they blow you out because you are too expensive and they can replace you with someone who is 22. Then what? Sitting down at the country club drinking at 11am. There aren’t too many traders and salespeople that have a second act that is better than the first. It’s like being a professional athlete. You’re performing at a high level for two-and-a-half decades, and next thing you know, you’re cold-calling your college roommate for Northwestern Mutual. It’s fucking depressing. If I had advice to anyone working on Wall Street, it would be this:
1. Save your money
2. Make a plan for what to do when the game of musical chairs stops.
And just for the record, the second act doesn’t have to be greed and glory or cash and prizes. The second act might be learning how to play guitar, and gigging at the local restaurant in town. It might be spending most of your time at your favorite charity. It might be going back to school, like I did. But you need something to get you out of bed in the morning. As I was getting to the end of my MFA program, my wife said to me, “You are going to need a new challenge.” I didn’t know what that challenge was going to be. As it turns out, I am writing a ton of short stories and trying to get them published. I am doing some other things, too. I am getting back in the gym after a 3-year hiatus—that gives me purpose, also. I did have an existential crisis, like my wife predicted, but it only lasted about three weeks.
If you don’t have something to look forward to, you might as well fucking die.
And you know what, you can see it when it happens. I’m sure you know someone who hit a professional dead end, who didn’t keep growing and finding new challenges, and they were drinking at the country club at 11am, and next thing you know, dirtnap. That happens to people after they retire, a lot. They’re at the top of their game until age 65, and then at age 66 they’re divorced, because their spouse didn’t realize what an a-hole they were until they were sitting on the couch all day. At 70, they’re dead. My wife’s grandfather—and I will write about him one day—is 101 years old, and just gave up playing golf last year. At age 100, he played 27 holes of golf and walked the course. He has a woodworking shop, and will make 300-odd toys for kids every Christmas. His wife died about five years ago. He still has a reason to get out of bed in the morning. That guy is going to live to be 130, and remember I said that when he does. The best days are ahead of you—even when you’re 101. More than anything, that is the key to longevity.
Arthur Brooks has written about this a lot—what do you do when you are in professional decline? Trading is a young man’s game. Sports are a young man’s game. But even after you age out of those careers, you have so much wisdom and experience to offer the world.
As Ellis Boyd Redding once said, “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”