in Deep Thoughts, Psychology

Never Too Late to Be Great

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about folks who get late starts in life. Some people, like my ex-wife, have a clear vision of their future from a young age. That’s great. I’m glad they’re able to steer a course (and stick to it) from the time they get out college until they retire.

But there are other people who are more like me. We’re lost when we enter the real world, and we only discover our direction later in life. That feeling of aimlessness can be agonizing, especially when it feels like your life isn’t going to amount to much.

It’s tough to be patient and to wait for purpose and direction to appear in your life, but for many of us, that’s the best option. I feel like my own life is a good example.

  • For two decades, I lacked direction. I thought I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know what I would write. When I was young, I thought I’d write poetry or science fiction. (Or maybe science-fiction poetry?) I wrote a lot for myself. I edited school literary magazines. And so on.
  • I earned a psychology degree, but I didn’t do anything with it. I graduated and became a box salesman instead.
  • Because I’d always been interested in computers and computer programming, I was quick to set up camp on the World Wide Web. But I didn’t do much besides share my thoughts on cats, computers, and comic books.
  • Meanwhile, I was drowning in debt. I couldn’t get a handle on money.

Though I had no way to know it, each of these attributes was to become an important part of my eventual “career”. I thought my life sucked. Actually, my experiences were quietly preparing me to become a personal-finance blogger. I was 37 years old when I started down the path that would lead me to personal and professional fulfillment. But how could I have known this would happen even at age 36?

And you know what? It’s very possible that all of the things that have occurred over the past decade are simply prelude to some sort of greater work.

My point is that you can’t know where life is taking you. If it feels like you have no purpose or passion right now, be patient. Try new things. Meet new people. Do whatever it is you love and/or are good at. Don’t force it. Allow time for things to develop.

Even if you do know what your passion and purpose are when you’re young, age can bring wisdom and maturity that allow you to develop your ideas and skills more fully. In a recent New York Times Magazine article about “Old Masters“, Lewis Lapham writes that “after 80, some people don’t retire; they reign”. This is a great essay, and I strongly recommend you take the time to read it. It’s short. The package includes profiles of fifteen men and women over the age of eighty who are still vibrant and creative and alive.

Also last week, I discovered this infographic about late bloomers from a site called “Funders and Founders”:

Late Bloomers
Late Bloomers” by Anna Vital and Anastasia Borko

Over the past few years, I’ve read a lot about happiness. One interesting book on the subject is Aging Well by George Vaillant. Aging Well documents the 75-year Grant Study of adult development from Harvard Medical School. From the book, here’s a quick overview of the results:

Among the many significant findings to emerge from the Study of Adult Development thus far are the following:

  • It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age.
  • Healing relationships are facilitated by a capacity for gratitude, forgiveness, and for taking people inside. (By this metaphor I mean becoming eternally enriched by loving a particular person.)
  • A good marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at age 80. But surprisingly, low cholesterol levels at age 50 did not.
  • Alcohol abuse — unrelated to unhappy childhood — consistently predicted unsuccessful aging, in part because alcoholism damaged future social supports.
  • Learning to play and create after retirement and learning to gain younger friends as we lose older ones add more to to life’s enjoyment than retirement income.
  • Objective good health was less important to successful aging than subjective good health. By this I mean that it is all right to be ill as long as you do not feel sick.

Vaillant observes that old people “grow more understanding and perhaps more aware of who they are”. Also, “wisdom involves the toleration of ambiguity and paradox”. When we’re young, we think we know how the world works (or should work); as we age, we become less sure. We see shades of grey where once we saw black and white. Plus, we recognize that while we prefer blue, it’s not wrong for others to prefer red. Aging well often means being adaptable and resilient. (Vaillant admits that some people become more rigid in their beliefs as they age, but I’m not sure he thinks these folks are “aging well”.)

Another interesting book about aging — and one more relevant to this conversation — is Never Too Late to Be Great by Tom Butler-Bowdon. I’ve written before about this author, who has produced a series of books called 50 XXX Classics (where XXX might be Psychology, Success, Prosperity, and so on). [Here’s my review of 50 Prosperity Classics.]

After reading scores of books about personal development, Butler-Bowdon became fixated on Tony Robbins’ notion that most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year but underestimate what they can achieve in a lifetime.

In the preface to Never Too Late to Be Great, he writes:

[I] noticed that many of the great achievers I had read and written about had not even discovered their great project or passion until having done other things, lived other lives, had other careers. They nearly all took time to get into their stride. At many points they may have felt like they were getting nowhere, but when looked at from the vantage point of history, they were just getting ready to make their mark.

Butler-Bowdon spends the entire book exploring how certain people are able to take the sum of their previous life experiences and synthesize them into something greater. “The remarkable and somewhat shocking truth,” he says, “is that we can build uniquely powerful lives, but only if we take a long-term view which can accommodate the inevitable reversals, obstacles or changes of direction that come along.”

I’m reminded of “Ulysses” by Tennyson, which relates the mindset and emotions of an aging king and adventurer. A quote:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

No, two quotes!

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

It’s never too late to be great, my friends. It’s never too late to sail beyond the sunset. It’s never too late to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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  1. Thanks for this J.D., I so need to hear it. I feel like I can do anything, I just have no idea what that anything is… It is funny, I’ve never wanted to be the star but rather the back up dancer. So on I search for that place where I can do great things but not as the solo act as I head into my 40th year.

  2. “…that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”


  3. I just ran across Funders and Founders a few weeks ago when this similar infographic piqued my interest:

    It’s inspirational to think that someone like Ray Kroc was selling paper cups and milkshake mixers until he was 52, and THEN built McDonald’s.

    But, as an outsider looking in, there’s probably a bit of an iceberg effect: Kroc wasn’t just an overnight success, he spent 30 years hustling, learning, and growing his skill-set so he could do what he did.

  4. Hey

    Great post JD. I’d add to that list one of the most inspirational book I read by Orison Swett Marden: “Pushing to the front.”


  5. I fully believe that you can be a success at any age. I thought wasted most of my twenties but in actuality I learned a lot about life and what I didn’t want to do. I take those lessons with me everyday.