Pale, male, and pissed off at being called stale

Today is my birthday and so, according to tradition, a higher number is now my age.

I am now unequivocally middle-aged, almost certainly closer to the grave than the cradle, but I don’t mind too much. I like being middle-aged, it suits my personality: being young was fun, for sure, but it was a chore compared to the don’t-mess-with-me-I’m-over-50 vibe that comes with the middle-age gig.

This is not just me making the best of the unavoidable march of time.

I have come to appreciate that the best things in life: good conversation, good wine, good books, are not so available in the noisy discotheques of my youth where I anxiously tried to fit in and appear attractive to women. Now I can relax and enjoy the conversation, the wine and the books and not get all antsy about looking idiotic dancing to Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” at the Chocolate Factory.

This, according to the phrase coined by NASA administrator Daniel Goldin in 1992, makes me “pale, male, and stale”: a self-deprecating description cooked up by a middle-aged white man to make the point that filling your top jobs with middle-aged white men, year after year, is a myopic leadership strategy.

Goldin didn’t describe the individuals as “stale”, just the organisation’s leadership as a whole, but the “stale” tag has become a synonym for “middle-aged” when used in conjunction with “pale” (meaning white) and “male” (meaning man).

This is a bit annoying.

It is reasonable to challenge an organisation’s leadership if it is jam-packed with the same types of people, and it is reasonable to describe it as “stale” if that leadership keeps leading the organisation around the same old circles, but like all generalisations, whatever truths they may contain when looking at the whole, they are useless when looking at the individual.

Yes, I am a middle-aged white man, but I would balk at the description “pale, male and stale”

Well, I am pale. I was born with white skin to white parents in a middle-class white suburb of a northern English city, and have since spent too much time inside the house reading books, and so yes … OK, I am pale … and yes, OK, I am also male and generally happy with that. On the whole it feels like the correct gender identity; but I don’t think I am stale, despite the vast number of years I have now accumulated.

In fact, I think the opposite is true.

I think I am more effective now than ever. As the grey hairs advance, so do my wisdom and humility. As the hairline recedes, so go my anxiety and ego.

I have learnt that my personality, whilst not the most easy-going and social of types, isn’t an example of faulty programming, it’s just another personality type and that’s OK. I have learnt that although my over-thinking analytical brain that loves a good argument is not wrong exactly, it can be wearing and intense, and so I have acquired the ability to turn the volume down and just let things slide with a smile.

This doesn’t feel like me being less myself, it feels like me being myself with skill.

This is partly because I am no longer driven by a neurotic need to prove myself. Us middle-aged types don’t need to win every argument, have all the best ideas, be the cleverest or the funniest in the room, we’ve worked out that none of that matters much. Of course I care about being liked and respected, about being thought of as someone who is a kind and thoughtful friend, a competent and capable employee, and an interesting and creative thinker, but I now know the secret is not to get bent out of shape about what other people do or say or think about me, but instead focus on what I can control: my own actions, and just try to live up to who I hope to be.

This is the foundation of stoicism, the Serenity Prayer, Stephen Covey’s Circle of Influence … and probably the best bit of advice I ever got my head around.

Some people embrace the “pale, male and stale” tag, such as this barbershop in Orlando, Florida, although they also have the divisive message “Trump is King!” in the centre of their homepage, and describe themselves on their About page as …

Edit this text and tell your site visitors who you are. To edit, simply click directly on the text and add your own words. Use this text to go into more detail about your company. Make sure to include information about how your company came to be

Pale, Male and Stale barbershop website

.. suggesting an attention to detail inconsistent with the role of holding a razor at someone’s throat. Ergo they are perhaps not the best role models for those of us looking to rock middle-age.

There is one drawback to being older and that is the likelihood that there are fewer years ahead than behind.

This is a fly in the middle-aged ointment and there’s no way to tart that up, but my recent experience with cancer taught me that death isn’t anything to fear. I have no desire to die, I’m certainly not ready to die, but nor do I fear it.

That’s easy to say now, sitting at my desk on my birthday (did I mention it was my birthday?) awaiting cake and presents, and perhaps I’ll change my tune when in the final foxhole, but from where I sit at the time of writing, death – whilst hopefully a long way off – is nothing to stress about.

So … as enthusiastically as I embrace my empowered middle-age, I reject the lazy “pale, male and stale” label. Yes, I am a white cisgender man who is also basically heterosexual, middle-class, and even a football fan, but don’t call me stale!

My life’s mission is as alive as ever, fizzing with non-stale energy … Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it best:

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a little better … This is the meaning of success

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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