Chris Donnelly, 58: Focus on the Things You Love

After a successful career, Chris Donnelly is now filling his days with the things he loves most: family, volunteering, and learning new things. He discusses his approach to health and why it is so important to him in this phase of life, following his curiosity, and learning about himself.

Chris Donnelly is in the midst of trying to understand where he is headed — muddling is the word he uses to describe where he is at. It is not a place he is used to being and, having patience with himself, taking time for all the dust to settle, has been an adjustment. He is, as our good friend Chip Conley would say, in a liminal state, a chrysalis, awaiting the butterfly to emerge. A huge part of this process has been his attention to his physicality and his health, which was not always the case in his ‘go go’ years.

He has learned that fundamental to his physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing is getting good sleep. This would not have been on the table 30 years ago, but then he is no longer that person either. 

Chris Donnelly
Image by David Harry Stewart.

How old are you?
I’m 58 years. 

Tell me about your family; do you have children?
We have three. My wife of years, Linsly, and I started a little bit late. So we have a 17-year-old, 15-year-old, and 13-year-old.  

Let’s go to your physicality. You hurt your back?
My health is a top priority and I try to stay with a rigorous health routine, from the effort that I put into my sleep, what I eat, to my exercise program. Everything I do in life, all of it from how I can be with my family to helping others to whatever I may do in the future, rests on my ability to be healthy. I have a herniated disc in my lower lumbar; I do a lot of work to try and protect it. To stay healthy, it requires every day a bit of boring exercises, stretches and core movements. They’re what enable me then to do the things that I love, whether that’s being out on the early, fresh tracks on the mountain, or it’s golfing, or it’s mountain biking, or it’s just doing things with my kids. I need to be rested, too, or my back will act up.

My kids are 15 years and I’m 58 years. When I look at the future, I want to be healthy, I want to be able to do the things I love with my kids. If you set the vision out there that says, ‘Those are the things that make me happy,’ those are the things that you show more care about — how you’re going to treat your body and where you’re going to go with it. 

“Filling up the day and doing things and being exhausted from having had a day I loved then creates a better sleep”

How does sleep come into this?
I track my sleep. My body requires good rest and sleep. I try to be in bed at somewhat the same hour between 09:45 and 10:45. 

The metrics that I track are the pulse when I’m sleeping, my breath rates, and my HRV when I wake up. I know pretty clearly what is impacting my sleep both positively and negatively. There are days, yes, when I have big nights out, and there’ll be, maybe it’s two or three drinks of alcohol, and heavier food, and immediately I can see it reflected in the metrics of the quality of sleep. 

When I go to bed exhausted, I sleep really well. So, filling up the day and doing things and being exhausted from having had a day I loved then creates a better sleep. Looking back, if  I compared my diet, my sleep, my mental approach to what I did when I was 25 years old, it would be night and day. It’s just totally different. 

To aid in the sleep department, I have been taking SRW’s Nrv2 supplement. It has been a nice addition to my sleep routine to help me get continuity and more consistency in my sleep. The routine is still the main thing, but SRW’s Nrv2 is something that I’ve noticed a positive benefit from since adding it into my healthy sleep routine. Every little bit helps. If we look at a 10-year horizon, getting just 15 minutes more good sleep a night becomes hugely beneficial. 

I also do have a sauna and I use it four or five times a week, and do a cold plunge two to three times a week. But they aren’t the core aspects of the things I expect to highly impact health, as much as my sleep is. If I am not sleeping well, nothing else I do will have much impact.

“If I am not sleeping well, nothing else I do will have much impact”

And how long have you lived in Park City?
We’ve had a house up here for probably 25 years, but we’ve lived here full time for the last 6 years. We really thought it would just be for a year or two. But then the kids outvoted us and, all of a sudden, we were here full time. 

Where did you grow up?
I started out in Boston. My pop was an officer in the Navy, and so we moved with him as his different commands and different postings changed, and that included East Coast to West Coast, some time in Europe, some time in the Philippines, and all of that. I just got lucky in that finally his last posting was in Seattle, and I got a chance to do five years of consecutive school in the same place which, up until that point, my siblings and I probably had never had more than two years. 

What did you go to college for?
I was okay in the tech and sciences area, so I applied to a lot of different schools. And the one I ended up choosing was second best to MIT, Harvey Mudd. I’m a hands-on engineer. I like product. I like being able to touch and design it and feel it. And so, as I went through, my mechanical engineering and thermal engineering became the emphasis and that’s what I ended up graduating with.

Did you ever practice engineering?
I did for two years. And in a really hardcore way, because it was in the aerospace industry. And that’s the ultimate test. It’s the one end of the spectrum where the projects are big, they’re long. I was working on something called the NASP, AeroSpace, which is the next shuttle. I had a tiny part of it. 

Chris Donnelly
Image by David Harry Stewart.

I had applied as an undergrad to a company called Bain. Bain was an incredible place to learn to network, not just from clients, but from people that were in the organization. I’ve definitely benefited from it throughout the rest of the 30-year career I’ve had in business. 

“Throughout life, I definitely have the hands-on approach that I want to build it myself”

Then where’d you go after Bain?
Throughout life, I definitely have the hands-on approach that I want to build it myself. So, I did three startups. I saw object failure where I burned through every nickel and penny that my investors gave me. And then I saw some fairly good success in selling businesses. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.

Then, I married Linsly, my wife, who was also an entrepreneur, and she was in the midst of a pretty largescale startup for joann.com. So, she chose to stay there; I chose to move into more traditional corporate, but in an industry that I loved. I ended up spending six years with Nike and 11 years with Oakley, and rode through a different path with each one. 

We all have different degrees of success. We can measure it in a title, we can measure it in our happiness, we can measure it in, yes, our financial rewards. Between Linsly and I, we’ve had a nice partnership, we would say, recognizing the things that made us happy in the work that we did. What we value now, both for our family and then as our individual careers but also in the businesses that we run ourselves as a partnership between us, is not everything has to be weighted as heavily in the priorities of, “God, we want to make money and be able to buy and make our family comfortable and feel confident and safe in the future.” 

And some things have come very easily; some things are more muddled. That is a word I am using a lot lately: muddling through, feeling it out for the next chapter. It’s a necessary process. I’ve done three or four things where I’m learning a little about myself. I’ve become a fairly good sushi chef. I’m now a pretty good golfer. All things that I picked up in the last, probably three or four years. I’m just starting. Next week is my first class in clay pottery on a wheel. And so, those things reflect long-time-ago ideals, which are, I like to touch what I’m doing, and then they also reflect what brings me happiness. 

Chris Donnelly
Image by David Harry Stewart.

Thinking about this muddling thing I am in, it is essential that I be of sound mind and, going back to what I was saying earlier, sleep is so essential in this process for me. If I am foggy all day, I will just be mentally flailing, and not have the emotional capacity I need for my family. 

“Thinking about this muddling thing I am in, it is essential that I be of sound mind, and sleep is so essential in this process”

You are doing some volunteering; what is that like?
We’ve definitely, as a family, we’ve chosen a place where each of us is starting to feel their need to give back and do a little bit of volunteer work. The one I’ve done the most work with up to date is the NAC, the National Ability Center. And here in Park City, it’s probably the largest in the world. But it’s a place that helps handicapped, autism, paraplegic people with disabilities do things that maybe they thought they never could do.   

I have yet to consider doing something to manage a larger entity and bring the business skills to it; that’s one of those things where I think I’m muddling: do I want to have at that sort of thing again? In the meantime, I’m figuring it out as I go, with the great reward right now of having hands-on being part of the volunteer process; that’s been best for me. 

Chris - SuperAge Quiz

What do you feel doing volunteering for NAC?
One of the greatest days I think I had was a guy my age, he married later, he had his family later, just like me. He had an illness that was slowly debilitating to his extremities, particularly right side. And so, he had shown up and he wanted to be able to do skiing. He was still excited to do it. He’d done it, of course, he’d been a great skier in his prior life, and now he needed to figure out an alternative. And so, he was on the ski bike. And both of his daughters and his wife and the coach and I skied together. And his elation at being back on the snow had him whooping and hollering. It had him wanting to try more aggressive slopes; he got from a well-groomed blue to a light black, and his daughters were behind him screaming, “Go, Dad!”

It was incredible to see them so excited for what they had seen in him, which he had lost this huge portion of his life. 

What are the three non-negotiables in your life?
Dedicated time with my wife and my family. And dedicated means it’s uninterrupted shared time with them. If the last 10 years of living were done in a very debilitated, either mentally or physically, state, life isn’t going to be as happy or as easy. I try to keep that top of mind.

The second would be my personal time to make sure that I’m in a good place about who I am.

And then the last is plans for the future. I need the things that are out there that I’m looking forward to. I need to have put on the calendar the travel and trips.  

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Images by David Harry Stewart.

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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.


David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.


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