At some point, everyone worries if it’s too late. Time comes for us all. Our lives drip away at a constant rate of one second per second. This is – to put it mildly – slightly worrying.
Worse, we can’t escape the realization that every choice we make forces us to leave all other paths untaken. Decisions made in childhood can prevent us from entering whole professions decades later.
Then there’s the media, “helpfully” presenting constant images of youth, subtly reinforcing the idea that if we haven’t achieved enough by the time we’re twenty thirty forty whatever age, we have failed.
And so our brains put a ticking clock on every dream, and we wonder… “Is this it for me now? Am I stuck? Is it too late?!”
It’s amazing how young we are when these thoughts begin. I remember worrying in my early twenties that my life was over, that I was stuck with my decisions and condemned to the track I was on forever. This seems ridiculous to me now.
It’s not just me. Since I started to write about anxiety, I’ve regularly heard from college students who are anxious about having “missed their chance,” terrified that their decisions have trapped them irrevocably. From outside, it’s obvious that they still have the whole world to choose from, but it doesn’t seem that way to them.
I’ve also met people in their fifties and sixties who are making huge, inspiring life changes. No doubt they see me – merely in my early thirties – as having the potential for even huger changes, just as I see those younger than me as having practically infinite freedom compared to me.
As usual, we humans are terrible judges of our own situations.
It’s Never Too Late, Right?
Luckily, there’s plenty of pushback against this depressing narrative. We’re told “it’s never too late,” at least in theory.
The universe does not impose such rules; we create them in our heads and act accordingly. As such, I firmly intend to be doing new, interesting, and surprising things until I physically no longer can.
Still, there’s that nagging voice in the back of my head saying, “suuuuure… it’s never too late, but…”
It’s a Little More Complex than That
While in one sense we’re limited only by our dreams, we shouldn’t ignore that we’re also limited by – you know – actual limitations.
It’s not too late for me in general, but it’s definitely too late for me to be a professional footballer, dancer, or astronaut. (This is a mercy for anyone who likes football or dancing. Or space, for that matter.) In fact, I freely admit that these dreams are impossible at this stage of my life.
But many other dreams are certainly not impossible, though they may be harder than they used to be to achieve. If I wanted, I could retrain as a lawyer, or a doctor, or get a degree, or take up pottery…
At every stage of life, there remains a tremendous number of possibilities open to us.
The Death of One Dream is Not the Death of All Dreams
But if it’s true that we always have many options, why is it so common to believe “it’s too late,” even when we’re young?
Apart from the (huge factors) of media pressure and the nature of time itself, I think it’s because we are naturally short-sighted when we desire something.
When a dream is unrealized – via failure, rejection, circumstance, or even our own choice – it can feel as if the whole world has ended. We have zoomed in so much on only one possibility that we forgot all others existed. But these other options didn’t stop existing just because we failed to notice them for a while.
Now I like to think of it like this:
It’s never “too late.” Until our lives are actually over, it can only ever be “too late for these things in particular.”
This is a useless idea unless we know how to apply it.
If we’ve truly missed the window for a dream, there’s no sense in battling the universe. We have to accept that this particular idea will remain a dream.
This doesn’t necessitate letting go entirely. Even if we missed being an astronaut, we could channel that passion somehow. Maybe we’d be happy simply reading books about space. Or working at a space centre supporting astronauts, or whatever.
Letting go of impossible dreams, or finding a healthy outlet for them, frees up our energy for the many goals that remain achievable.
Our cognitive biases come into play here. It’s easy to convince ourselves that difficulty is the same as impossibility.
“I’m too old to get into law… to start my own business… to become a writer… to open a cafe…”
We must figure out if that’s actually true, or if we’re just making excuses for any of the normal reasons. Perhaps these thoughts will help:
- It might not actually be too late for this dream. Have you really thought about it, or have you just assumed you’re too old?
- What would you say to someone younger than you thinking about doing this?
- If you heard that someone ten years older than you did this thing, would you find the story utterly unbelievable? If not, maybe you can do it too.
- Would someone older than you believe you could do it at your age?
- Others have had success at every age. And we get to choose what success means for us!
- You have to put your time into something. If you don’t put it into what you want, you’re putting it into something you don’t want.
Very often, it’s not too late. We’re just scared. Of success. Of failure. Of our own lack of motivation.
If you’re worried it’s too late for you, you have a choice: accept it and let go, or chase the dream. Anything else is not worth your time.
Have you ever believed it’s too late for you? Do you still believe it? What would you say to someone struggling with the idea that they’ve missed out?
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at www.walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.