Aging as a man: can you see the real me?

Finding My Authentic Self: Can You See the Real Me?

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Does my greying hair define me to the world?
How do I feel about aging?
How do I find my authentic self?

I am coming to terms with my grey hair recently. For the last seven years, I’ve been dying it back to my youthful brown. It’s been an interesting journey, exploring my vanity, my assumptions about how I look to the world, and more assumptions about how the world sees me when I’m grey as opposed to when I’m brown. (Even fake, too dark, brown.) Let me begin at the start of my vulnerable story of aging as a man.

I have a distinct recollection of a series of job interviews eight years ago. I was in need of a “big job” to support myself while making the substantial child support payments now required of me. I was pitching myself to the HP Cloud team here in Austin. The phone interviews with each of the young team members who would be working for me, went great. I was invited in for a half-day stream of 30-minute interviews with each of these same potential teammates. As each one of them walked in the room I noticed a moment of surprise as they took in my gray hair.

My inner dialogue imagined their exclamations, “Who’s this old guy? How can you know anything about social media? You’re old enough to be my dad, and my dad doesn’t even know how to use computers.” I didn’t get invited to the next round of interviews. I recall a conversation I had with my ex-wife, in the kitchen of my old house, “I’m pretty sure my grey hair tripped each of them out.” She nodded. “I am thinking of dying my hair,” I said, looking for some friendly guidance. “Yep,” she said, “Do it. I completely understand. It happens to me all the time. It’s why I do my hair too.”

My Youth Defying Hair Color Years

My ex-wife continued with her ideas, “Here’s a test I run on myself and my own perceptions. When you are walking around the grocery store notice how your attitude towards the grey-haired people is different.” She was right. When I saw a woman or man with white hair my instinct was to give them a bit of extra room, give them space, and not expect them to be up-to-speed with the rest of us. Is that what aging means to us? That we’re going to be less-than our previous, youthful, selves?

I was ashamed when I asked for the men’s flashback color at my local salon. The hairdresser could’ve cared less. It was another $25 bucks for him. On came the color. Up went my confidence. And the next business pitch meeting I had, with a room full of twenty-year-olds, went very different. I felt like a peer in the room, solving a marketing issue with them. I was on their level. I certainly was not wanting to put myself out there as an elder, but as an expert, with a lot of experience. And it worked. I got the contract and I marshaled a team of youthful leaders towards the successful execution of several years of online marketing.

I didn’t really give it much thought after that. I had brown hair. I had a simple and inexpensive process to put my young hair color back on. I mean, women have been doing this forever, why not us men? Why not me? Why not make myself as competitive as I could be in this age-driven digital and social marketing industry? I sailed on feeling that I looked younger than I really was. Of course, I have a youthful attitude and frenetic energy, and now I had the hair color to match.

And it didn’t really concern me, or even come up, until the summer my brother died. In the wake of his struggles with cancer and the supporting role I had in my family, I didn’t have too much time to concern myself with hair color. A friend took this picture of me with my family at the funeral reception.

single dad coaching

I saw my inner Bill Murray coming out loud and clear. I WAS Steve Zissou from The Life Aquatic. I liked my look. I liked the feeling of being authentic and distinguished. I liked everything. But I didn’t like looking my age. As the sadness around my brother’s exit lifted I resumed the fakeout.

Coming Back to Reality

At this point in my life, at this very moment on the morning of November 11, 2019, I am more interested in authenticity. I want to be 100% authentic in what I say and what I do. I am mindful of my impact on my family and others around me. And I take my responsibility as a father, partner, and friend seriously. And a few months ago, I really liked this selfie I popped off just before a “date night” adventure. I can see a swagger and confidence in my Murray-esque smirk.

doing my best bill murray


And then something else happened. As I got deeper into my own feelings about love, being loved, and getting real with myself and my current situation, I started asking myself about my grey hair again. I started asking my family and my team about my gray hair. I started letting the grey reemerge. I was not sure I liked what I was seeing, but I was determined to continue asking myself the questions about my own aging and my own authenticity as I allowed my aging hair to show through the Bill Murray Brown that I liked so much, in the above picture.

As I contemplated my look I also picked up my self-observation exercise as well. How did I approach the grey-haired people in a grocery store? How did I see myself as I milled about in the crowd of people, putting on their best colors, and getting their lives done? How was my hair color a reflection of my authentic self, or just a cosmetic decision to go grey or brown?

As I listened to my own inner dialogue each time I looked in the mirror and saw a 57 (58 near Thanksgiving) year-old man. I wasn’t sure I knew who this old guy was. I wasn’t sure I liked him. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be 57. What an odd conversation I was having with myself. I wanted to be the Bill Murray from Stripes, but suddenly I was the Bill Murray from Lost in Translation. How is Bill Murray dealing with his aging? How am I going to come to terms with my hair color? It seems so superficial. And yet, it was a pretty serious argument I was having with myself about “my brand” and “how I want to appear to the world.” All wrapped up with my old insecurities about my weight, my aging, and how my Bill-Murray-esque attitudes wrestled with being stuck in this older appearance.

A number of wonderful things have happened in my life as I’ve been having this conversation with myself. I’ve fallen in love. I’ve published several new books. And I’m heading into a series of pitch meetings next week that could launch a tv show we’ve been working on for a year-and-a-half. Oh, and my partner LOVES my grey hair.

Yes, this is all fine, but what about me? Do I love my grey hair? Can I love my older self as I love my brown-haired self? Is my brown hair a lie? Or is my brown hair a marketing mask? And what about the emotional mask I am trying to fit back on my 57-58 year-old face? I look my age. My hair does age me a bit. And for seven years I’ve been putting on my Bill Murray Brown trying to fool the youthful teams I have been attempting to lead in my career. But here’s the real truth: I am at a new point in my life and I want to be the most authentic me I can be.

Finding My Authentic Color

Backing up to the beginning of the Summer. I took a part-time contract at The Apple Store. I entered Apple as a retail employee, not as I had imagined when I was seeking Apple employment on the Global Marketing team. At once, I was seen as the “older guy” regardless of what color my hair was. I kept up the facade. I tried to relate to the younger employees as a peer, but of course, I was more like their dad. I tried to engage the store management and leadership team. I set up 1-on-1 meetings with the store owner. I worked hard to earn my role as part of the permanent Apple team. And I didn’t make the cut. I wasn’t the demographic Apple was looking for. After my contract expired, even though my NetPromoter scores were all 100%, I was not offered a real role at the Apple Store.

I learned a lot in my 6-months with Apple, however. I learned a lot about how the team of 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s approached me and either engaged with me or defended against me. And there were some roadblocks and speed bumps along the way. (I imagine a book about my Apple experience will be written in the near future, but at the moment, I’ve got my hands full with this single-dad stuff.) And as I talked to the “store owner” I could see he was blowing me off. He was very nice. He was empathetic and accommodating. He had no desire to engage with me in a leadership discussion, or a “what else I can contribute to your team” discussion. He referred me to my direct manager. Who postponed meeting with me about my “review” until the last possible day.

In the last six months, I have struggled with my own identity. As a digital marketing executive. As an Apple Retail worker bee. As a writer, speaker, coach. As an authentic man. And today, as I was telling the story about my HP Cloud job interview experience, I coined a phrase that I’m going to end with. An idea that I’m going to aspire to as I walk forward in my Moonrise Kingdom Bill Murray: We were coming from two different planets. They were all young and excited, from the planet of youth. I was from the planet of wisdom. I wasn’t sure at that time that it served me to be “from a different planet.” Today I have a clearer picture of myself.

The Planet of Wisdom

In Lost in Translation, Bill Murray plays a famous actor who is no longer seeing the juicy roles as he gets older. He is in Japan doing a commercial for a liquor company. He’s not into it, but hey, it’s his job, it’s what he does. In his hotel he keeps crossing paths with a fellow insomniac and beautiful young woman, Scarlett Johansson. She invigorates his self-esteem and gives his “old dog face” a bit more of a glow. Basking in her beauty and youth, Bill Murray wakes up again to his authentic life.  In the conversation, the young woman wakes up as well, to what is good and not so good in her life in this luxury hotel in Japan.

I am waking up. My wisdom may not be what the leadership at Apple Retail was looking for today. But my path is not about the “big job” anymore. My path is about broadcasting the good news and hope to all who will listen. I’ve got a story to tell. I’d rather not tell it in a retail or corporate environment. I’m evolving my engagement with the world. I don’t want another corporate cubical. I don’t need any more prestigious job titles to enhance my LinkedIn profile. What I need is to learn to embrace the Lost in Translation Bill Murray that I been blessed enough to become.

I am blessed in so many ways. And today I stand before you, clearer about my authentic identity. I don’t want to be Bill fucking Murray. He’s already done that. I don’t want to be an HP Cloud badass.  I’ve already led teams for Dell, Amazon, and Microsoft. I want to be a single dad learning to be a better man badass. I am emerging into a better man each day, with each article I write and each truth I uncover. Today’s lesson: aging is part of our journey. Embrace it. Or struggle for years fighting to look younger than you are, thinner than you are, in hopes that you will become (or feel) more loveable.

I Am Loved

I am lovable just as I am. I am lovable with brown hair or grey hair. I am loved at my current weight and even when I’m heavier. I am loved just as I am. I am not sure I believe all of what I just wrote, but I’m on my own journey to get there. Won’t you join me?

How do we age with grace and courage? You tell me.

Always Love,

An earlier run at my aging and self-love ideas: My 50-year-old Body: A Love-Hate Relationship

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. MLove

    Great read and insight into the challenges we face as we age! I’m going through accepting these changes myself and I enjoy learning of the perspectives and experiences of those who face it and somehow find words to express it.

    1. John McElhenney

      Thank you, MLove for your insite. I always appreciate people reaching out and giving their own perspective.

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