Look at Life: Birthday Challenges

9th November 2018

The Fifty Fifty Challenge

By Heather Harris

Crispy roast potatoes, mobile banking, swimming front-crawl… A comprehensive trio of challenges, I thought, as I hurtled towards my 50th birthday and was contemplating what I had yet to achieve in my life. They all proved doable with, respectively, a degree of research (goose fat is the key), training (by a patronising 19-year-old who has never entered an actual bank) and the correct equipment (prescription googles, in my case).

Feeling suitably smug, I rashly shared my achievements… only to discover that, as is so often the case, I am way behind the trend. ’50 before 50’ is apparently now a well-established ‘thing’ – everyone is giving themselves this number of challenges before their half century.

Over50s insurance company, SunLife recently asked 2,000 men and women about to hit their milestone birthday what they saw as the most important boxes to tick, and the results made interesting reading. As well as obvious ones such as owning a house and falling in love, their marketing director, Ian Atkinson revealed that donating blood, reading 100 books, attending a music festival, travelling somewhere alone, sleeping out underneath the stars and swimming with dolphins all scored highly. ‘There is also a rebellious streak in many Brits, with taking part in a protest and getting a tattoo both in the top 50.’ 

Oddly, crispy roasts didn’t make the cut. But why is it that we have become such a competitive lot? According to psychologists, goal setting is all about measuring our success and providing a feeling of achievement or, to put it in professional speak, ‘Setting goals in the seven areas of life (spiritual, physical, financial, relational, social, professional and mental) empowers you to live your vision with power.’

There’s the small matter of mortality to throw in the mix, too, as Jo Milton explains: ‘I’ve already lived more of my life than I have left to live, and I want to make the most of it!’ Her 50th happens to coincide with the 20th anniversary of her Mum dying aged 57, so Jo has signed up with her brother and sister to complete The Race to the Stones (a 100km ultra marathon over 48 hours).

Extreme physical challenges are a popular middle-aged goal. One friend marked her birthday (and divorce) by heading off to Everest Base Camp; another, Tish Joyce, laced up her trainers and set up the self-explanatory blog GrannyRunsTheWorld to chronicle an exhausting milestone year.

A dad on the football sideline also took an international approach, telling me, ‘In my 50th year, I did an Ironman in May; cycled across the Pyrenees in less than 100 hours in June; and swam the Channel (in a 4-person relay team) in July. I then gave up and relaxed!’

Bet he can’t do mobile banking, though.

Others have adopted a more cerebral goal. Sensing it was now or never, when Jean Anderson hit 50 she decided to go back to college and retrain as a teacher. ‘I was by far the oldest on my course but all my fellow students and the lecturers were incredibly encouraging. This was something I’d always wanted to do… I needed this milestone to force me…”

Tanja Spittal asked party guests to help her step out of her comfort zone. Each of us was invited to arrive with ‘a scented candle or an experience you have to do with me…’. It was a clever caveat. ‘It automatically reduced the risk of having to skydive or bull fight,’ she says; instead she’s had a great year reading classic novels, learning to mix cocktails, cycling in the Olympic Velodrome, canoeing down The Thames and running a 10k (okay, so that was mine).

Writer Claire Potter turned the idea on its head and gave her husband 50 mini-challenges for his birthday. ‘Each one would be nothing much in itself, but together they would be designed to help him to try new things, seize more pleasure, connect with people, appreciate the little things, get round do doing things he’d always wanted to do, go out of his comfort zone – or just do something playful and random for the sake of it.’

The list included: make a loaf of bread, pay for someone’s tea or coffee anonymously, register with the police as a line-up person, take a dance class, eat a whole lobster, invite a bunch of blokes round for afternoon tea, send a message in a bottle and go skinny-dipping.

Two-thirds through, she reports that it has generated ‘more pleasure, positivity, long-term effects, unexpected outcomes and spin-offs than we ever imagined!’

Because that’s the thing with personal challenges – achieving them gives us a physical ‘high’ that can actually be scientifically measured. And at a time of our lives when most of our hormonal surges are on the negative side, to have some happy hormones raging around our body is frankly fantastic… Especially if they can be generated by a simple tray of perfectly golden King Edwards.

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