Life

What I Wish I Knew Before I Turned 40, According to 12 Men

Hitting middle age teaches us a lot about ourselves. Here are a few hard-won lessons men wish they knew before reaching the milestone.

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Man with beard in sunlit forest staring into the distance

There are many milestone birthdays in a man’s life. At 16, you can drive a car. At 18, you become responsible for your own choices. At 21, you can ditch your fake ID. And, at 25 (for some reason) you can rent a car. But few birthdays seem full of more mystique, uncertainty, and apprehension than the big 4-0.

But why? Sure, it’s helpful to have markers along the way and 40 is a mid-point many of us have drawn, a line of demarcation between our younger and older selves. And, yes, for some the date is just that, a date. But for many men, a sense of dread encroaches as they creep closer to 40.

However you feel about the age, it is a great place to reflect on what you’ve learned, and jettison some of the more insidious notions that may have taken root in your 20s and 30s. That’s why we asked a group of men, all older than 40 and from various backgrounds, to reflect on the age. What did you wish you knew before you hit the milestone? What do you wish you cared about less? Or cared about more?

It is human nature to highlight our regrets, but looking back also gives us opportunities to learn and prosper as we continue to grow. As the 12 men below can confirm, turning 40 reinforces both the “what if?” and the “what next?” of being a middle-aged human in humbling, enlightening, and unexpected ways. Whether they’d encourage their younger selves to think less or prioritize more, their responses cast a spotlight on certain important areas. Given the chance, here’s what they would’ve advised.

1. I Wish I Knew to Practice Living Authentically

“When you practice living authentically you are providing an example model for your kids. That means having the courage to be vulnerable and show emotion. You get to let yourself know that it is not a weakness to show emotion and share feelings. It is a way to connect and share authentic human experiences. This also means taking the time to learn about self-compassion and understand the importance of positive self-talk. I would let myself know that living from the heart will help me not to fear rejection because you accept yourself. And I would hope that doing so would help my kids live the same way.” – Kristin, 44, Ontario

2. I Wish I Knew to Go to Therapy

“Even if you think you have everything under control, there is no harm in finding a therapist and learning new coping strategies or discovering a trigger you didn’t know about that can explain your behavior. I didn’t go to a therapist until I was in my fifties and I wish more than anything that I could go back in time and seek that support earlier in life. The relationships I could have built, the connections I could have made, and the happiness I denied myself are immeasurable. If you’re in the financial position to be able to talk to someone, there is nothing better for your mental health or your family than getting yourself in order with a therapist.” – Jonathan, 52, Georgia

3. I Wish I Knew That the World Won’t Stop Without You

“We’re all the heroes in our own dramas and the central characters in our own lives. But the universe doesn’t see it that way. To the cosmic whole, we’re all just bit-part players, and the show will go on without us. That’s why it’s important to stop and smell the roses every now and then, to take the time to feel the raindrops on your face, and just luxuriate in the beauty of your surroundings. Life is all about the little things and then feeling moments that it’s all too easy to miss, so take the time to enjoy them while you can, as often as you can.” – Ross, 46, California

4. I Wish I Knew to Care Less About What Others Thought

“I don’t actively seek to be disliked. And certainly seek to be respected. But care less in general what others think of you. Most of the time, these concerns are superficial. If it’s not going to harm other people or yourself, do what you love. It’s your life. If you want to pursue a venture, take a crazy trip, or live in Asia for a while, then go for it. Friends and family, often out of their own fears and desires, will subtly – or sometimes not so subtly – push you to adhere to their agendas. If you’re careful not to fall into this trap, some people won’t like you. But it will help put your mind at ease as you continue to grow.” – Thomas, 41, Toronto

5. I Wish I Knew to Look After My Teeth More Seriously

I made the mistake of not doing that throughout my 30s, and by the time I hit my 40s my mouth was a disaster. It really made me feel like a gross human being and ended up costing quite a bit of money to gradually fix. I was a smoker. I didn’t brush regularly. Didn’t floss. And, man, I regret it all. I think it represents a greater lesson of taking care of your body, and for me the lesson was punctuated by my funky mouth. Looking back, I honestly wish I would’ve invested a few minutes each day instead of months and thousands of dollars years later.” – Tony, 48, New Jersey

6 I Wish I Knew to Prioritize My Hobbies

“As you grow older, focus shifts toward family and work. By the time I turned 40, I’d lost sight of how much passion I used to have for art and design. To me, painting and drawing were always hobbies. And I think I pursued them casually enough to enjoy, but without realizing that they are part of who I am. Just like my family and just like my career, my creativity is a part of me that I wish I knew how to nurture more as I neared 40. I lost a lot of my drive and, while I’ve tried to rekindle the fire a bit, it saddens me that I got too focused on everything else to let myself enjoy what was once really important to me.” – Steven, 43, California

7. I’d Wish I Knew That Burning Some Bridges Is Okay

“There’s no need to be resentful or hurtful toward people, but I wish I would’ve known that cutting off toxic people and situations is okay. In my 30s, I worried so much about establishing myself that I became a people-pleaser and a pushover. There were people in my life who shouldn’t have been there, but I was too scared to get rid of them. I guess I didn’t have the confidence or life experience to know how to navigate those scenarios. Now that I’m in my 40s, I realize that energy wasted can’t be gotten back, and I spent a lot of energy being concerned about people who weren’t as concerned about me.” – Thomas, 45, Iowa

8. I Wish I Knew to Live the Words “You’re Never too Old to Learn Something New.”

“I had to change my career when I was 38. I had to go back to school, get a new degree, and basically start from the bottom. And I was terrified. I felt like a failure, and like the past 15 years of my life had been a waste. But I didn’t have a choice. And once I re-established myself by graduating and getting a new job, I realized that I’d done what 30-something-year-old me would’ve thought was impossible. The lesson I learned was that the skill of adapting and the ability to do great things only get stronger with age. I think I could’ve used that combination of confidence and humility as a younger man.” – Neil, 44, Colorado

9. I Wish I’d Known to Be OK With The Fact That Not Everyone Will Like You.

“In my 20s and 30s, I tried my hardest to make people like me. I wasn’t fake, but I went out of my way to try and be everyone’s friend, favorite co-worker, and all that. And even with all of that effort, I learned that there were plenty of people who just didn’t like me. It was very upsetting and made me insecure. If I could, I would go back and reiterate to myself that my willingness to be a genuine, friendly person reflects more on me than anyone else. I’d tell myself to keep being kind, and empathetic, but to realize that there are just some times where it isn’t going to land. And that has nothing to do with me as a person. It’s just life.” – Dan, 45, New Zealand

10. I Wish I Knew to Truly Cherish my Parents

“I’m fortunate that both of my parents are still alive. But I remember going to a friend’s father’s funeral recently and realizing, ‘I’m only going to be attending more of these in the future.’ Turning 40 means that everyone you care about turns another year older, too. And I think seeing how devastating the death of a parent really is has made me wish I knew how to value time with my own more when I was younger. We had — and still do have — a great relationship, but I don’t think I ever understood the power of the word ‘cherish’ until I hit 40. It really means stopping and savoring every moment you spend with them, while you still can. The more cherished experiences you have, the more memories of them will comfort you when the time inevitably comes.” – Luis, 48, Ohio

11. I Wish I Knew That Pets Are Pure Love

“I was never a pet person. Neither was my wife. Then, shortly after we got married and she got pregnant, a stray cat started showing up outside of our house. We shooed it away, but it kept coming back. Eventually, we took it in, and it was like a whole other part of our souls were unlocked. In between his napping and running around, ‘Bucky’ has brought us together as a family. The unconditional love an animal is capable of showing is just beyond measure, and so unique. I’m glad I finally learned that I actually am a pet person, and I definitely wish I would’ve known it sooner.” – Jon, 43, North Carolina

12. I Wish I Knew That Turning 40 Is All Hype

“I think we all dread turning 40. As if the actual stroke of midnight on our birthdays is going to cause our joints to fail and our hair to fall out. I know I did. I think from the time I turned 35, I lived in a constant state of feeling like I was unfathomably old. Then I turned 40…and nothing happened. It was all anxiety. I’ve gotten gray hairs. I’ve had to watch what I eat. But, overall, my life after turning 40 has been pretty incredible. I feel like I know who I am. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far. My values and priorities are right where they need to be. And I spent so much time worrying that everything would be downhill. I wish I knew how wrong I was.” – Max, 45, New Hampshire

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