Life at 55, I’m just getting started

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Happy birthday to me. Over the weekend, I turned 55. To quote country music star Toby Keith, “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.” Instead of complaining about the aches and pains of being old or ranting about how times have changed, I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a business leader at age 55. Although I had envisioned retirement at age 55 and congratulate my peers who’ve already retired, that’s not where life has taken me. My business career is not done yet. Before looking ahead, indulge me as I stroll down memory lane.

I’m a member of the much misunderstood Generation X, those born between the Baby Boomers and Millennials (roughly 1965-1980). Ours is a small demographic, much smaller than the massive Baby Boomer generation, which is mostly retired at this point, and the Millennial generation, which are busy raising families and growing careers. We were the first generation to grow up with personal computers, something that influenced my entire career. I have fond memories of my early computers – TRS-80, Commodore 64, and Osborne-I portable (suitcase) computer. We grew up with two-income families, portable music players, economic uncertainty in the 80’s, and the rise of the Internet in the 90’s. Our generation was originally called the “slacker” generation, something popularized in movies and pop culture. As a group, Generation X tends to place importance on work-life balance, self-reliance, diversity, and independence. We also like informality and championed “business casual” in the office. We remember life before cell phones, but quickly adopted them when the original “bag phones” came out in the 90’s.

The rise of the Internet made a very profound impact on my career. I got my first taste of the Internet in graduate school (GSU MBA ’93) using tools like Gopher (a text menu precursor to WWW) and ASCII-based email systems which were originally restricted to academic and government organizations. Indeed, I remember dial-up modems well and even ran a local computer BBS (Bulletin Board System) as a way to share information with other computer users. I was and still am fascinated by the ways people can find and share information across the globe using the Internet. When the Internet became commercialized, I learned HTML and shifted my career to focus on web project management – something I still enjoy doing today. My company Country Fried Creative was started in 2003 originally as a web design company.

When I was younger, my primary focus was on raising a family and growing my career. I was the type of guy who volunteered for new projects, like website projects which were new at the time. I worked hard and played hard, completing my first Ironman triathlon in 1998 (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run). The late 90’s were a boom time and lots of great things were going on at work and in the economy. Moving forward in all areas of my life was important to me. I was very competitive and regularly pushed myself onward and upward. I was generally promoted ahead of my peers and took on leadership positions at a young age. In one of my positions, I was the youngest department head by almost 15 years. In hindsight, I’m not sure that was right for me or my organization but it happened. Indeed, as I look back on my career, I was probably too intense and have moderated quite a bit as I have aged. There’s a balance and I’ve spent an entire lifetime trying to find it.

The so-called Y2K “Millennium bug” was not the major issue it was forecasted to be and the world did not end on 1/1/2000. On the other hand, a year and a half later on 9/11/2001 the world changed in a way that no one had seen coming and it hasn’t been the same since. Both of those events, the desire to be home more, and the need to do less business travel helped spur me to launch my new business in 2003. Despite having 10 years of progressively increased business leadership experience and an MBA, I was ill-prepared for the jump into entrepreneurship – but I took a leap of faith and did it anyway. Most of my nearly 35 years of working experience has been as a small business owner.

Starting the business was easy, but running it has been anything but. Yes, there’s the challenge of working on the business while working in the business, but there’s another challenge that I did not anticipate. Constantly selling the business vision to myself, to potential clients, and to team members is not something taught in business school. Frankly, it’s not something I learned in my prior jobs either as I was mostly charged with implementing the vision of others – not coming up with my own. In the nearly 20 years I’ve had the business, I’ve experienced many highs and lows. Belief in yourself and your vision is a key ingredient to success. Many people chase other peoples’ dreams. I recommend you chase your own dreams. In the movie “Wall Street” (1987) we learned that “Greed is Good.” For a time, I actually believed it too – but not anymore. Greed is bad and the root of much suffering in the world today.

I’m not sure when it first sunk in, but I’ve come to realize there is no finish line. It’s not a goal of mine to make a certain amount of money. Indeed, I made more money as a highly paid consultant 25 years ago than I do now. We’re all on different paths, so that’s not a slight on others who are chasing certain dollar figure incomes. I’d like to think what I’ve been doing the past 20 years has had a positive impact on my local community, our clients, and our team. Indeed, here are some truths about business life I’ve discovered along my journey to 55:

  • Everyone is on a different journey, so it’s best to follow your own path
  • Money makes the world go around, but it’s not the goal of life
  • Some people won’t like you no matter what you do
  • Some people do not have the capacity to be happy, avoid them
  • Some people are bundles of joy, keep them close and learn from them
  • Don’t meet people in the middle, be willing to go a little further just past halfway
  • Know when to hustle but try to have a steady pace
  • Comparison really is the thief of joy
  • Things are rarely as bad as they seem
  • Time does heal most wounds and neither good times or bad will last forever
  • When you have lots of money or prestige, people will flock to you
  • The opposite is true when you’re going through a hard time
  • Loyalty is priceless and the only way you can build a team
  • Helping others is the most noble profession, even if it’s not appreciated
  • Humans are rarely rational, despite what I learned in economics class
  • Begin with the end in mind and finish what you start
  • The Internet is not reality and real life is better than the digital life
  • Young people are our future, we need to support them
  • Do the right things consistently and the rewards will come
  • The journey is more important than the destination

So what’s ahead for this middle-aged, 55 year old guy? Doing whatever it takes to help others – clients, employees, and our community. I’m trying really hard to assist our next generation of leaders within the business. In some ways, that means starting over as I try to be effective through others instead of direct action taken myself. Sometimes I do need to step in and fix things. At other times I need to get out of the way so others can do their jobs. It’s all about trust. Lots of work remains and I’m prepared to meet the challenges ahead. Life at 55, I’m just getting started.

[Joe Domaleski, a Fayette County resident for 25 years, is the owner of Country Fried Creative – an award-winning digital marketing agency located in Peachtree City. His company was the Fayette Chamber’s 2021 Small Business of the Year.  Joe is a husband, father of three grown children, and proud Army veteran.  He has an MBA from Georgia State University and enjoys sharing his perspectives drawing from thirty years of business leadership experience. ]