What do I have in common with Khloe Kardashian, movie director JJ Abrams, fashion designer Vera Wang, and Helen Keller? We all shared a birthday yesterday.
Moreover, what do I share with Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez, Peter Dinklage, Nancy Kerrigan, P Diddy Sean Combs, and Jay Z (and many more)? We all turned 50 this year!
Now, I am not fishing for “Happy birthday” wishes (please no). This is more of a reflective message about turning half a century old. Pretty cool. My daughter says I am “decaying.” My childhood friends tell me I am finally acting my age, since I supposedly acted like a 60-year-old when I was 16. One person told me I will now realize that my parents were right about nearly everything. But top of mind for me -- getting my AARP card.
Now that I am 50, I have been reflecting on some key life lessons I have learned along the way:
I love getting older (I do wish I had more gray hair). I feel satisfied. I love my work. I have a terrific family and people around me. I have learned a lot about myself, and a lot about the world. I have developed a strong set of beliefs and ideals. And I am happy! Not too shabby.
Beyond being my 50th birthday, this weekend is the 37th anniversary (Hebrew calendar) of my bar mitzvah. The Torah portion this week is Shelach Lecha, when Moses sends twelve spies to the land of Canaan. Forty days later they return and report on a lush and bountiful land. But ten of the spies warn that the inhabitants of the land are giants and warriors “more powerful than we.” Only Caleb and Joshua insist that the land can be conquered, as God has commanded.
Much of the Torah portion is about the meaning of leadership. Only Joshua and Caleb among the twelve spies showed leadership. They told the people that the conquest of the land was eminently achievable because God was with them. The people, however, did not listen. But the two leaders were rewarded for their faith. They were the only ones of their generation who entered the land.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “One of the fundamental tasks of any leader is to give people a sense of confidence: in themselves, in the group of which they are a part, and in the mission itself. A leader must have faith in the people he or she leads and inspire that faith in them. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the Harvard Business School wrote in her book Confidence, ‘Leadership is not about the leader, it is about how he or she builds the confidence of everyone else.” Confidence, by the way, is Latin for “having faith together.”
In no small measure a law of self-fulfilling prophecy applies in the human arena. Those who say, “We cannot do it” are probably right, as are those who say, “We can.” My son knows from ice hockey that if you lack confidence you will lose. If you have it – solid, justified confidence based on preparation and past performance – you will win. Not always, but often enough to triumph over setbacks and failures.
Rabbi Sacks continues, “I prefer the word ‘hope’ to ‘optimism.’ Optimism is the belief that things will get better; hope is the belief that together we can make things better. No Jew, knowing Jewish history, can be an optimist, but no Jew worthy of the name abandons hope. The most pessimistic of the prophets, from Amos to Jeremiah, were still voices of hope. By their defeatism, the spies failed as leaders and as Jews. To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope.”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (z”l), the Lubavitcher Rebbe, raised an obvious question about the spies. The Torah emphasizes that the spies were all leaders, heads of tribes. They knew that God was with them, and that with God’s help there was nothing they could not do. They knew that God would not have promised them a land they could not conquer. Why then did they come back with a negative report?
His unconventional answer is that they were not afraid of defeat. They were afraid of victory. They feared success.
We all want to succeed – at least that is what we tell ourselves and others. But often, subconsciously, we fear what success may bring: new responsibilities, expectations on the part of others that we may find hard to fulfill, and so on. Therefore, we fail to become what we might have become had someone given us faith in ourselves.
I am fortunate, and I realize this at the age of 50, I was blessed to have many "leaders" in my life who gave me the support and confidence to be the person I am today. I am grateful to them.
At my bar mitzvah in 1982, my then 87-year old great-grandmother said to me, “You have great potential, I know you will live up to it.”
We are never too old to keep trying.