This conversation started on March 5th, 2018. Amen.
Mark, how young are you?
I’m 50-years, 2 months and 17 days-old. So I just made the cut.
You just crossed the 50-year line, how did you feel about that?
I don’t feel terrified, panicked or mid-life-crisis-y.
But 50, it’s a little bittersweet: “bitter” considering the average white American male’s life expectancy is 76.4 years. Meaning, if I don’t smoke, I only drink socially, I’m not a F.B.I. bomb technician, and I live in a place (Boulder, CO) where exercise and general happiness is a legal mandate, I might stretch that to 80. So, roughly 30 years left. That I might only have 30 years left with my wife, kids, family and friends? That I might only see my daughter live to 41 and my son to 38, and maybe not meet my grandkids?
That’s the bitter part.
But the “sweet” part, I suppose, is that passing 50 makes me a little more eager and hell-bent on no longer waiting for things to happen vs. making them happen.
What does “making them” happen look like?
No longer writing off what I can’t control as—shrug—“Welp, that’s just fate, I guess.” And on actively changing what I want/need to in order to be happy, take care of my family, be with my wife and kids as much as possible, and (I hope) positively influence other people’s lives.
What has the 50-year, 2-month, 17 day journey taught you?
Basically, having now lived 62.5% of my life, I’ve learned some lessons about how, ideally, to enhance, maximize and turbo-charge these remaining years. Or at least not waste them entirely. Turbo charge doesn’t mean I’m not necessarily going to start free-climbing with Alex Honnold or anything. But I think I am going to “Start living,” as the saying goes, “like I’m dying” a little bit more. And I don’t mean that flippantly. I have friends who’ve battled/are battling cancer, for example. Many have thankfully defeated it, some still fight it every day. So I’ve tried to look at them, understand their mindset, and understand that life is, indeed, short—especially with “only” 30-ish years left.
How do you envision the next 30 years playing out in your mind?
I don’t really have a bucket list, per se. We’ve already lived abroad (Florence, Italy; pre-kids). So while I would like to travel more with our kids before they leave for college, I mostly want to enjoy where we are now, literally and figuratively. We always remind each other that many people dream of retiring in a place like Boulder . . . and we already live here! So we’d be fools to leave. Makes me happy to think our kids, no matter where their paths take them, will always know this wonderful place as Home.
I could see us ultimately being like Don and Bea, the nice, older couple who sold us our house: empty-nester downsizing; moving to a little bungalow around the corner; kids and grandkids visit all the time; just enjoy retirement here. After I stop working, I assume I’ll always be writing something, so that’ll be part of my last 30 years. I can see us just doing what we love to do now: do stuff as a family, go places without the kids (a must for parents!), read, hike, drink great coffee and cocktails, walk the dog, have friends & family visit and vice-versa, maybe get back to our other favorite place on earth—Italy—a few more times. Stuff that sounds boring, but I just can’t wait to do more.
If that’s basically my last 30 years, I could happily leave this world the way everyone hopes to: quietly, peacefully, in a fiery hot air balloon crash.
What does “Start livin’ like I’m dyin’” mean to you?
Cliché as it sounds, why should it take a terrifying, potentially terminal disease or even an arbitrary age number to make us finally re-prioritize, re-shuffle the deck a little and realize that it’s time to “start livin’?” That’s where, honestly, we humans are pretty dumb. But even though it took me 50 years to realize this, at least it happened eventually.
Did you start thinking differently about your life after turning 50?
Post-50, I’ve also realized my goal is not just to stay “relevant,” “valued” or “successful” by other people’s arbitrary standards; it’s to re-define what those words mean to me personally and those I love. At work, I now define relevance as-being more of a leader. A mentor. Passing on lessons and experiences I’ve learned from my (gulp) 27 years in this business to help the younger creatives who want to be helped, all without being the crazy old loon complaining about the hippity-hop music and starting every sentence with, “Back in MY day . . .”
So, I guess that’s how I’ve also started thinking differently: at work I’m focused on actively writing, creating, contributing, leading and making myself as reliable as possible until they yank my MacBook Air from my cold, dead hands. And even when—not if, when—that happens, I’ve worked my ass off the last several years to create a “side” writing career that, knock wood, can kinda sorta maybe support my family until I’m too senile or incontinent to write at all. Which has also staved off some desperation and pressure that I might’ve felt in my younger days.
Not saying I want to quit advertising or don’t like my current job; quite the opposite. But turning 50, I’m now just less worried about not working than when I was younger. Which is weird because you’d think just the opposite: when you’re older with a family/kids/more people depending on you, you want to cling to a steady paycheck and health benefits, versus when you’re young/single and presumably have zero responsibilities other than to yourself. But maybe I’m just more confident in myself after “surviving,” and dare I say thriving, 27 years in this business…and less worried about what I can and can’t control, and what people think of me. And that confidence, I feel, has made me a better, more content father and husband. Or maybe being a better, more content father and husband has made me more confident at work?
You used the word desperation. What does your new relationship with it look like?
I’ve eliminated desperation from my vocabulary. I appreciate my job and career. But it doesn’t define me, and never will again. That, I suppose, is one way I’m thinking differently: a lightbulb flickered and crackled above my head and spouted this cliché—“I am not what I do.” Or was it the Successories “Hang in there!” kitten poster? Either way, I guess I’m just more comfortable in my own skin now and not so desperate to keep clawing up the corporate ladder.
I just do my job, be nice to people and hope it all shakes out okay.
Work vs life balance after turning 50? How has it changed?
Before 50, there were times I put work before family. Sometimes you just had to. While it’s not ditch-digging or working an offshore oil rig, advertising is a demanding industry. Late nights. Weekends. Sudden calls and meetings. But you can’t imagine how many times I saw colleagues witnessing their child’s first word or steps over FaceTime. No complaining here; that’s what we all signed up for. But now, my family comes first. Period. Occasionally leaving work early doesn’t mean I’m complacent, lazy or uncaring about my job or clients. If anything, I feel my work ethic and productivity has grown with age because I know the drill a bit better. But unlike pre-50, my balance is now just shifting very heavily and obviously toward more real, lasting things. Because if someone doesn’t have that life balance, he or she will ultimately end up poisoning the well because it’ll seed bitterness and resentment toward the work.
In layman’s terms, I guess I just give less of a damn how people who aren’t close to me, feel about me. Post-50, I’ve realized that, probably like many of you reading this right now, I’ve been trying to please people my whole life—no shame, we all do it—and perpetual pleasing is exhausting. So, I feel I’m now getting better at narrowing down whom I want to/have to please.
Did turning 5O create any immediacy or shift in perspective?
While my colleagues and family might beg to differ, I’m still not the best at “picking my battles.” That is, NOT treating every little problem, annoyance or perceived slight like it’s overt nuclear war. I have a long way to go, but I think I’m slowly improving. And maybe that comes with age and experience. Guess I just realized that I did need and want to “shift,” as you say. Listen more. Be more patient—which is ironic considering, yes, there is immediacy in trying to live my remaining years as fully as possible.
So, now I’m trying not to make everything a battle on principle. There will always be minor annoyances in life. And embracing all this “bad stuff” as calmly and rationally as possible is just the toll we have to pay for the privilege of enjoying all the good stuff— the people, places and things that make your life, your life. And, luckily for me, there’s infinitely more good than bad. My kids, especially. They’re my sole reason for getting up every day, for working, exercising, writing, making pancakes, whatever I do.
My main goal is to be the best dad I can, for as long as I can, and ideally set them up to be as happy and secure as possible. Come to think of it, maybe you should call this “Over 50 Dadasses”?
Being the best dad possible is indeed a noble cause. What one thing do you want to give your children that they will carry with them after you leave this planet?
I was tempted to say character and integrity but that might sound a little too lofty, as if I have such HUGE spare amounts of both that I can just snap them off, like rectangular chunks of a Hershey bar, and toss them out to my kids. So. . . sense of humor. I want them to laugh and smile when they think of me. I want them to always make each other, their mom, and their friends laugh. If you can’t laugh at yourself, at the utterly insane state of the world around us, especially during tougher times, then you may as well just pack it in. This doesn’t mean you have to be the class clown—no one likes the guy standing on his desk making fart noises with his armpit (although, let’s face it, farts are always funny)—but just trust in your own observations. Your wit. Your unique perspective on life and all its lunacy. And seek out friends and loved ones who all but demand that from you. Ideally, marry someone like that. The strong possibility that I could very well literally die laughing someday makes aging so much less daunting.
Back to “picking your battles”…you live in beautiful Colorado, doesn’t that help cool the flames?
Yes. For sure. Despite living in Boulder—literally voted the Happiest City in America https://tinyurl.com/yb46yb2k— I’m admittedly not a touchy-feely, self-help kinda guy despite, thankfully, now living in a kinder, gentler place where people smile at you on the street for no reason and the weather doesn’t make you want to guzzle a bottle of Clorox. But I am working hard to not take EVERYTHING so seriously. Being outdoors so much helps. Hiking. Running. Disappearing into the trails here on the Front Range and sometimes getting lost on purpose. The glorious weather here alone—300 days of sunshine per year—has done wonders to my psyche. Having coffee at sunrise (by a fire in winter) and then walking out into thick rays of light most mornings can’t help but instill instant optimism. From there, well, you gotta try to keep that sunshine burning all day. Not easy, believe me. But you gotta try.
How are you battling “Seriously?”
I’m trying to embrace the fact that life is full of human error, faults, fears, and failures, versus gritting my teeth about it. That there are things you can control and those you can’t. Period. But when it comes to battling “Seriously,” I think it’s about now trying harder to see the good in people first and foremost, and assume their intentions are pure. Here’s the prime example I’ve used lately (which happens a lot in a town where there just might be more dogs than people): if I walk out my front gate and see that someone hasn’t picked up after his dog, my knee jerk reaction used to be, “Wow, that selfish jerk is figuratively shitting on me AND MUST BE DESTROYED!” But now, I’m trying to think, “Okay, sure—but maybe, just as he was busting out the plastic bag, he got a text saying his kid was in the emergency room?” Sure, he may very well have intentionally let his dog soil my grass. But maybe not.
And it’s that “maybe not,” glass-half-full part of other people who I’m now trying to look for more often.
Have you read anything that has informed your new path?
Most recently, I read Mark Manson’s great bestseller The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. I’m paraphrasing, but he says we only have so many fucks to give in life, so we have to weigh and parse them out carefully. Everything in your life simply CANNOT have the same weight as everything else. So, I’m learning to not explode or eye-roll at work (as much) when a client doesn’t agree with us. Or a colleague does or says something I don’t like. Or some dude jumps his turn at a 4-way intersection and we almost crash. Or some dopey kid says something mean to my daughter. Whatever. In the scheme of things, that stuff is temporarily irritating, sure. But it’s just not as “giving-a-fuck-worthy” as bigger things.
Speaking of writers, could you tell us about the books you have written?
Aw, you’re the best, letting me shamelessly plug my books: https://tinyurl.com/y86gtywr If I sell a few copies, the St. Amants are finally eatin’ meat tonight! I’ve written two narrative non-fiction books. My first, Committed: Confessions of a Fantasy Football Junkie was about my deep-dive into what was then the still-nascent game/hobby/obsession of Fantasy Football, which has since exploded into a multi-billion-dollar business; and my second Just Kick It: Tales of an Underdog, Over-Age, Out-of-Place Semi-Pro Football Player was an even more personal story about the year I joined a semi-pro football team as the placekicker and punter (I’d played soccer through college). The latter is my favorite, because it was sort of an homage to one of my heroes, the brilliant Paper Lion author George Plimpton. The amazing teammates and human beings I met while playing for the Boston Panthers still inspire me. And it was the result of something I still want to do post-50, and something I always encourage my kids to do: take risks and step out of your comfort zone. (In Just Kick It’s case, I was the admittedly white bread, prep-school, suburban-raised white boy playing on a predominantly African-American and Latino team based in inner-city Boston.)
Let’s plug some more, could you please share your favorite paragraph from Just Kick It?
Wow, tough one. Probably a section where I explain how if you become too comfortable with your geographical (and mental) boundaries you end up feeling trapped, like I was until I joined this unforgettable team in June, 2004.
“Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain. Until June of 2004, these were neighborhoods I’d never really visited before. Just names on a newscast, places we were told to avoid ‘if you were smart.’ But like my teammates themselves, while sometimes conflicted, damaged and imperfect, these places were also alive—so lively, honest, authentic, and energetic that it was ultimately always a letdown whenever I returned from practice or a game to my relatively subdued Beacon Hill home. Was it quieter there? Safer? Absolutely.
But, if anything, my unlikely foray into playing football taught me that, in life, oftentimes the safe route isn’t always the best route.
What was your best and worst moment during your time as a placekicker?
BEST: It was after one long, tiring practice early in the season. I’d hit an extra point in our season-opening 22-7 loss, but could I kick under pressure? My teammates doubted me. And our coach knew it. So he blows the whistle, gathers everyone at midfield and announces, “Alright gentlemen, ‘kicker’ here’s gonna try five field goals. If he doesn’t make at least four? I’m running your asses ragged for another hour…and it’ll be HIS fault” Groans. Heads turn, glaring, side-eyes, all implying, “White boy—do NOT fuck this up.”
Nauseous, I set the tripod-ball-holder for a 30-yard FG and… boom, easy, 1-for-1. A weak golf clap from the guys. Now for a 35-yarder, it’s up and…hooked, CLANK, off the left upright! 1-for-2. Groans. Hisses. Time for a 40-yarder now. I take a deep breath and let loose…and it’s good. 2-for-3. 45-yarder now. The guys now cheering me on. I line up, center hash, boom, dead center. 3-4! The guys go batty! OH, IT’S ON! ONE MORE! Coach points to the 40-yard-line but then grins like Satan himself…and chin-nods to the LEFT hash mark! The guys groan and protest, the game’s rigged if I don’t get a straight-on shot, this is bullshit, etc! But then they circle the wagons around me, cheering, picking up turf and tossing it to gauge the wind direction, slapping my helmet and shoulder pads. YOU GOT THIS, MARK! I line up, breathe deeply, try to get all Zen (which doesn’t work). As I launch forward, Coach waves his clipboard and blows his whistle in my face to distract me, but I crush it and . . . IT’S GOOD! The guys go berserk! Doing snow angels on the dry turf, shrieking that I’m a “stone cold killa!” They pick me up and carry me like I’ve just Adam Vinatieri’d a Super Bowl win. Just a regular Tuesday night, maybe. But everything changed after that. From then on they had my back, and vice-versa.
WORST: Learning before one game that the brother of a teammate was shot and killed the night before. Amazingly, he still played. We won. But it was still a terrible reminder that the reality in which I’d grown up and lived could not be more different from a lot of my teammates’.
Why did you write these books?
Not for the money (he said, laughing and sobbing simultaneously). Sure, I’d love for one of these to become Harry Potter-esque franchise, but do you know how rare that is? Anyone who has financial motivation to write a book—a long, lonely, self-doubt-filled slog that will test every human limit you, and your loved ones, possess—is going to fail.
No, for me, while not downplaying the effort and talent it takes for us advertising folks to create what we do, personally (and perhaps selfishly), I wanted to write something that was mine. Not a client’s. Not an agency’s. Not a boss’s. ALL MINE. Something whose creative elements no one (besides maybe my agent and editor) can influence or change. Because if it were all mine, it would contain my heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears. It would be something real and tangible that would prove I’d been alive on Earth for a millisecond. Something that—and here’s the biggest reason I wrote, and still want to write books—someday, my kids might find in a bookstore’s dusty discount bin, or holding up the short end of a couch somewhere, and will bring them a bittersweet smile and happy memories even after I’m gone, maybe as they tell my grandkids, “See? I told you Bapa was an author.”
Picturing this literally bringing tears to my eyes as I write this. And I’ve never, ever cried at work before.
Could you please talk about facing fear? Writing a book or facing the blank page?
To the above point about the lonely slog, it’s daunting to sit down and actually try to write the first line of a book, knowing the arduous journey you have in front of you. Especially because there are so many additional hurdles to selling a book project besides the actual, physical writing: Do you have a built-in audience of guaranteed buyers? How is your book different or better than literally every other book that’s ever been written in this genre? Etc.
But in a masochistic way, it’s also thrilling to see that blank page and blinking cursor. It’s a challenge, i.e. What can I literally pull out of the ether that wasn’t there before, and won’t be unless I do it? Now, the fearful, self-doubting part of your brain will answer, Ugh, don’t write anything because it’ll suck and the world will be better off if you just close your laptop and binge-watch ‘Shameless’ instead.” But now, having done it twice, and grown up and matured even since writing the first two, the stronger, proven, more confident part of my brain will tell that other annoying part, Uh, yeah, shut up, we’ve done this before—we got this. So, I’ve learned to see the blank page like how I imagine a runner sees herself at the start of a marathon: it ain’t gonna be easy, but it’s sure as hell going to be fun.
What did you learn about yourself through the arduous journey of blank page to published author?
Perseverance. That I could create my own opportunities. That I could leap into an unknown, daunting, creative abyss that souls far braver and more talented than I rarely jump into. And . . . that I could actually finish something. For years I’d had orphaned novel ideas and half-baked manuscript false-starts piling up to my eyeballs. There’s sheer terror in thinking that you can have an AMAZING idea, and even make some headway, but it’ll inevitably crash and burn. Filling you with nagging “What if’s?” and “If only’s.”
And that’s one of my biggest fears: wasted talent and potential. Opportunity frittered due to lack of effort or belief. But I learned that if I made the stories as personal as possible, I couldn’t abandon them or chicken out. And soon, some days in Starbucks (at the corner or Beacon & Charles Streets, in Boston, where I wrote both books), I’d write non-stop from like 7 am until 4 pm and, suddenly, feel a sharp pain in my crotch or gut and realize I hadn’t so much as gone to the bathroom or eaten all day. As if I were on auto-pilot. There was no stopping me once I got going because it was MY project(s). Well, that and I’d gotten advances for each book and I’d have to pay them back if I choked and didn’t deliver the manuscripts. But I learned—and believe me this was weird for a guy who’d always kinda sorta tried, was a C+/B- student, a good player but never the BEST player, etc.— that I truly savored the feeling of a job well done. Of just plain earning it. And that I had far more perseverance than I knew. That’s something I always tell my kids: we don’t care what grade you get or how many goals you score, as long as you try your hardest. We’ll be upset if you give up or mail it in. Just try. Cliche but true.
Are you writing a new book or have an idea for a new one?
Have a couple new thoughts brewing. I’m always sending my agent half-baked ideas. (ME: I know!—a teenage girl is transported through time and space with her younger brother and friend to rescue her father, a gifted scientist? HIM: I love it! We should call it “A Wrinkle in Time”!) Truth be told, I’m super hard on myself because I haven’t released a book since 2006. I sometimes fear I’m a one-hit wonder—okay, maybe two-hit; “hit” being relative—which is another way to say, a failure.
But back to defining success: now, at 50, I’m comfortable and happy with the fact that I did it at all. That, and whenever I moan about wanting (needing!) to write something new and having gone “dormant, publishing-wise” for the last eleven years, my infinitely smarter wife always reminds me, “Uh, how did our life change in 2006?” We had our daughter. “And in 2009?” We had our son. “So, you don’t have loads of time to just hunker down in a coffee shop and write…right?” No. No I don’t.
So she eradicates the pressure that I’d otherwise let weigh me down like a lead radiation blanket.
What is your goal as an author?
Sounds trite, but telling stories. I just want to tell the most compelling stories I can, that I enjoy and believe in as much as possible, for as long as I still have left. And hopefully, do so in a way that will make my family proud of me.
You seem to have a real concern about your legacy and I say that with respect and admiration. How does that inform your day-to-day decisions?
Despite clearly beating the “maybe 30 years left” horse to death here, I ironically don’t think about my legacy on a day-to-day basis. So this is unique in that it’s refreshingly forced me to sit down, consider your very thoughtful questions, and put actual thought into things like life, death, legacy, fears, life, whether or not I actually qualify as a “badass,” work, career, etc…
What would be the opening paragraph to the Mark St. Amant story?
“1967. The Summer of Love. Love that may or may not have led to the procreation of yours truly, a breach baby born in Evanston, Illinois five days before Christmas. That’s right—I entered this world feet-first. Which, being honest, probably isn’t surprising to those who know me. The fact that my little towhead remained wedged inside my poor mom, depriving my grain-of-rice-sized brain of precious oxygen for even a few moments longer than your average baby? That might explain a few things about how my brain now works in its allegedly mature, adult form.”
Can you explain in words how you felt the day your children were born?
Well, I can tell you how I didn’t feel: I didn’t break down sobbing, like I hear a lot of dads do. I was just content, and not a little bit curious. Nothing head-explodingly, gut-bustingly joyous—just warm, proud (of my wife for enduring, and my child for arriving) and just . . . happy. Peaceful and sort of numbly calm, as if this were just the next perfectly normal development in life. I didn’t feel overwhelmed or terrified (that I recall). Just felt…astonished and not a tiny bit amused that I was now being trusted with this little life. But because of this, both times I worried that I was somehow unworthy of being a dad. That I wasn’t ready. No one’s ready.
You wing it and then discover that there’s nothing you want to do more in life than be the dad to two hilarious little monkeys.
I apologize in advance, this is a tough one, can you write the opening paragraph to your eulogy?
I’m tempted to write that my eulogy will be delivered by a 114-year-old Keith Richards and start with, “I never thought I’d know anyone cooler than Mick . . . but then I met Mark.” But I don’t think I can do this. Not because thinking about my own death is too troubling or sad and, therefore, I have to use humor to deflect—no, it’s because I truly believe that my life after 50 just might be more “eulogy-worthy” than anything to-date.
And I can’t wait.
Mark St. Amant Dad, Writer, Mostly-Retired Semi-Pro Field Goal Kicker
Advertising / writing http://markstamant.com/
Author page: https://www.amazon.com/Mark-St.-Amant/e/B001JS5PL6
NY Times, Good Men Project & other articles: http://markstamant.com/SPORTS-NERD
Follow him @ www.instagram.com/pronouncedsaintamont/
Proof I can kick: http://markstamant.com/CAN-I-REALLY-KICK