I have always had a complicated relationship with age. My family left Korea when I was eight years old. And when I entered the U.S. school system, I was placed in the 1st grade instead of 2nd because I didn’t know the English language. That meant I was a year to year and a half older than my classmates… all the way through high school. When my birthday would come around, I’d tell my friends I was a year younger than I really was so it didn’t seem like I flunked a grade. Luckily, at the time, my peers believed me because I looked young.
Fast forward to my thirties when I had been working in corporate America for some time. Looking young was a blessing and curse. There were many instances when someone thought I was an intern or just straight out of college. With this misperception came biases about whether or not I had the experience to do the job well. My immediate managers never made me feel this way. The friction existed with the “internal” clients I had to win over. I learned ways to be effective. I became a good listener while establishing credibility, offering insights subtly.
Many years later, in work settings, when I disclosed how old I was, the most common reaction was, “I thought you were 30!” My response to them was, I’m a lot older than I look and have been around the block… in a good way.
This week, I crossed the threshold of a big birthday; one that ends in a zero. At this point, I can’t quite get myself to say what that number is. And as I reached this milestone of a birthday, I made a significant decision to leave corporate America and no longer be a full-time employee. I will be giving up a title, an office, stability and the perks that come with being salaried.
This has been bittersweet for me. In some ways, I grew up in corporate America. My identity has been shaped by working in many Fortune 100 companies and start-up environments. The experiences I gathered and the relationships I gained have been invaluable. I am genuinely grateful for my time as an employee. But there was something always missing. I recently read that 31 million people between the ages of 44 and 70 want a life comprised of personal meaning, continued income, and social impact.* And this life is often referred to as an “encore career.” This is the place where I am now; I want to create a life that’s different than the one I had been living. And I’m on the path to figuring it out.
Perhaps the number zero in my age doesn’t have to be negative. Maybe zero can be about life starting anew.
(*Book referenced above: William Burnett and Dave Evans, Designing Your Life: how to build a well-lived, joyful life.)