The world shook this weekend for those who are 50 and older. Hell, you don’t even have to be 50 yet to have felt it. You just have to be old enough for the world to consider you past your prime. The things that the young can do are now beyond you. Welcome to middle age. A stage where your accomplishments are acknowledged, maybe even revered, but you are no longer valued the same way because the skills that made you what you are have now begun to fade with age.
If that’s you, you have a new hero today: Phil Mickelson. He shattered a barrier on Sunday that many considered unbreakable by becoming the oldest player to ever win one of golf’s major championships, one month shy of his 51st birthday.
Beyond being an amazing piece of golf history, to me it is a watershed moment that transcends the sport. It makes a statement about how we view all middle-aged professionals. Mickelson himself I think recognized this based on his comments afterwards. He said he never believed the notion that people his age couldn’t compete at the highest level. “I hope that this inspires some to just put in that little extra work, because there’s no reason why you can’t accomplish your goals at an older age. It just takes a little more work.”
This type of ageism that says a 50 year old golfer can’t win a major (or a 43 year old QB can’t win the Super Bowl) sadly plagues more than just the sports world. It’s common within marketing and media as well. A middle-aged marketer, someone who grew up without a cell phone, can’t possibly create a successful campaign targeting Gen Z. Raise your hand if you’ve heard that one.
I’ve written about the importance of building more diverse workplaces several times. The need to expand opportunities for people of color in our business is necessary and urgent. That can’t happen fast enough. But at the same time too many people 50 and older are being locked out because of misguided notions about their capabilities.
However, this is not just a moment about the need to change our workplace cultures. Inside Mickelson’s victory is a lesson for all of us who have reached middle age. Second, third and fourth acts are all possible. But only if you’re prepared to work harder to make them happen. Phil talked about how he significantly changed his diet (including fasting 36 hours each week) to change his body so he could practice longer. Also, he spoke at length about his efforts to improve his focus and concentration.
There’s no denying that ageism exists but that’s not an excuse to give up, to sit back and curse the world for being unfairly biased. Our bodies and minds do indeed change with age. We aren’t what we once were, but that doesn’t mean we can’t become what we want to be. It is within our power in middle age to continue to grow, to reinvent ourselves, to create a new and exciting future. But it takes a lot of work.
In many ways Mickelson is an unlikely source of inspiration. Blessed with massive talent, the knock on him for years was that he lacked the work ethic and focus to truly capitalize on his gifts. And while he built an amazing resume that justifiably landed him in the Hall of Fame and on any list of all-time greats, I don’t think anyone would have predicted 15 years ago that he would be the one to achieve this milestone.
To me that just makes the story more compelling. It shows how even the most talented among us can be humbled by age. And more importantly that at some point even the best of us have to accept that the routines that worked so well for years must give way to difficult, and at times painful, changes if we want to continue to be successful.
Three cheers to Phil, the unlikeliest of barrier breakers, for proving to the world what can be accomplished in middle age and what all of us can do if we put our minds to it.