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Traveling and living in many countries around the world allows you understand the local culture at a very deep and profound level. And one of the key differences between America (and other Western countries) and non-Western countries (e.g., Eastern Europe, Latin America, Middle East, etc) is that in the latter, people seem to mature and grow up much, much quicker. For example, I have many Russian and Ukrainian friends who are already married with several kids, and they’re only in their early-mid 30s (a few are even in their late 20s).
But, most importantly, in Eastern Europe (and this includes Middle East and Latin America), there’s a very different relationship between younger and older men. In those parts of the world, it’s common for a younger guy to have respect and admiration for an older man. Older men serve as mentors with invaluable life experience, experience than younger guys in their 20s simply do not (and cannot) have. The older man knows this and feels perfectly comfortable with this status. This is especially important where a young kid was raised by his single mother and grew up without a male role model.
When I lived in Latin America, I noticed a healthy display of family values and mentorship. It was common for a young guy to solicit an older man for important advice and help on a wide range issues. In many Russian (and other Eastern European) movies, it’s very common to see a male protagonist who’s in his late 30s, 40s, or even 50s. Naturally, he’s a very wise and interesting man. There’s even a common Russian saying that can be roughly translated that “a man truly becomes a man when he turns 40.”
The Western exception
But in the West, things aren’t merely different—they’re the complete opposite. Older men aren’t appreciated for their wisdom and intelligence. In fact, it’s very common for an older, more experienced guy to mimic and act like a younger guy instead of acting comfortable—especially from a position of strength and confidence—with his age and stage in his life.
Long ago, I remember watching a popular American dating show where they had two contestants: a 36-year-old guy and a 58-year-old guy. Both were wealthy multi-millionaires, but the younger guy seemed more confident and put together than the older guy; the older guy was dressed like a college kid and acted like one too.
It was a shame because if only the older guy dressed and acted more like a more experienced and sophisticated man (which he was), he would easily been much more desirable of the two. He was completely sabotaging himself by trying to act like someone thirty years his junior.
Another reason for such different dynamics between cultures is the kind of women the man can attract. In the West, women are taught to value youth over anything else. Popular shows like Sex And The City routinely show older women (cougars) spending time with younger men. Thus, in order to attract women it helps to be young or at least act or look young. In Eastern Europe and Latin America, however, older men are the ones who are sought after because of their increased status, experience and wealth.
That partly explains why the vast majority of Western men are either adolescents in their 20s or older men who still act like they’re in their 20s/30s. I often notice guys saying things like this: “Although I’m [insert any age between 40 and 55], I still look and feel like someone in his mid-30s.” Other times, when he might not explicitly say it, an older guy may still act like a guy in his mid-20s/mid-30s, perhaps as a way to fit in with men who’re younger than him.
As always, all roads lead to culture. Western culture is less about wisdom and experience and more about being young and living in the moment (i.e., “30s/40s are the new 30s/20s.”) Being a strong and independent man who’s comfortable in his own skin—regardless of his age—is all but completely discouraged.
As a guy who was born elsewhere but mostly grew up in the West, I can certainly relate. I was always afraid of becoming older, and, in the process, very, very scared of growing up. And I’m not referring to turning 50 or 60, even the mere thought of reaching my late 30s felt like reaching the end of life.
When I was 28, I remember a friend complaining that when he tried to go to a nice club, he stopped and turned around after seeing a bunch of men in their late 30s waiting in the line to get in. That meant we were young guys, but apparently late 30s was too old.
That also meant I had a good ten years or so to go that club before some 28 year old would start making fun of me. From then on, my biggest fear became to one day turn 38. I mean, what was the point of continuing living past your late thirties if you could no longer go to that club without some younger kid making fun of you?
This phenomenon can explain why I still reminisce about my Brazilian life so much. I was a young(er) guy who was going out and having fun. I didn’t have a single care in the world. I also considered it to be the best times of my life. After all, how can life ever get any better than that?
Role model conundrum
While a man instinctively knows what to do in his teens and twenties, that changes as he reaches his 30s; the things that he has been doing now bring him increasingly less fulfillment and joy. He wants to do (or at least try) something new, but he doesn’t know what.
Worse of all, he doesn’t even know where to look; he’s surrounded by other men who’re in the exact same boat as him. He has climbed a peak of a mountain, but has no knowledge or tools to keep going and possibly reach even a higher peak. He just needs to know that what awaits him is at least as fulfilling as what he’s been experiencing up to this point.
In a way, what you have is a conundrum, a catch-22. Young people don’t have masculine role models because the older generation that’s supposed to be mentoring them didn’t have role models growing up. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps repeating itself.
The richer life
Fortunately, it’s possible to break the cycle. Instead of being stuck in some past, the man must learn to embrace life with renewed vigor and energy as he enters a new stage in his life. Life should become richer and more fulfilling as you spent more time on this planet and accumulate more knowledge and experience.
On my last week in Serbia last year, I met a French-Congolese black belt. He traveled all over the world and spoke six languages. Like me, he also lived in Brazil. As he was getting ready to leave, I asked him a question that I ask everyone who used to live in Brazil: “Do you ever plan on going back?”
He took a deep breath, paused, let out a big smile, and exclaimed before heading off, “Those were fun times, but I’m too old for it now!”
While he wasn’t that old (34), that was his way of saying that he had moved on and entered a new phase in his life. It made sense. These days he’s busy trying to build his own export/import business and even start his own BJJ academy one day.
Another example is a good friend whom I’ve known since we were both 16. While we had a lot of fun back in our teenage years and early 20s, I can’t help to notice that his life is much richer and more interesting now (he’s 35). He’s running several businesses. He’s traveling from country to country while trying to clinch new deals. He goes to nice lounges and private networking parties. He has a nice house in America and an apartment in Europe.
Even though he had great times in his younger years, I really doubt he’s spending his time reminiscing about some distant path.
In my own case, I realized that my worries were about complete nonsense. The problem were my priorities and values—or rather lack of them. After all, who says that I would even want to go to that club when I would be 38? Why the heck would you? Shouldn’t you have better things now that you’re ten years older—like, perhaps, owning that club?
The way I now see it is that life is a series of chapters. A new chapter can only begin once the previous chapter ends. There are things that I was doing when I was 15 that I was no longer doing when I was 20. There are things that I was doing when I was 20 that I stopped doing when I turned 25. And there many things I did when I was 25 that I don’t do at 35.
For example, throughout my twenties, I stayed in hostels, but now I like the comfort (and privacy) of a private accommodation. Even if I could always justify it—which isn’t hard as I’ve seen plenty of older guys staying in hostels—I just don’t want to stay at hostels. It doesn’t feel right anymore. I grew out of hostels.
And not just hostels: I grew out of many of the things that I used to do.
Positive and inspiring force
Most importantly, men that have made the all important leap and crossed the chasm represent something greater than themselves: they’re a positive and inspiring force in a world devoid of any purpose or meaning because their wisdom and experience could be utilized for a very noble cause. They could mentor younger guys on various things, especially if the younger guys never had a strong masculine role model while growing up.
They represent an idea that it’s actually possible to build something meaningful and fulfilling in the present and future and not live a shadow of a life that consists of constant reminders of how great things were in the past.
This way, when younger guys are having trouble crossing the chasm and entering a new stage in their lives, they can always be assured of having a strong masculine role model that will help guide them making this crucial transition.
Unfortunately, these older and experienced men will never become such a positive force in the society until it’s no longer commonly accepted that being older, wiser and more sophisticated is somehow negative and undesirable. And that will do wonders of transforming our culture of boys into a culture of men.