It’s been sobering start to 2016 for the bulletproof believers amongst us. You know, we flag bearers of the centennial club, confident that at 100 we’ll still be kicking on most cylinders and fully engaged, and then softly, painlessly fail to wake up one sunny morning.
It’s a comforting fable for Big Idea procrastinators like me. Why do today what we have 40 more years to achieve? Zen, relax. And then we hear that certain ageless celebrities of our youth – David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Dale Griffin, and Alan Rickman, just this month alone – are dying from the frightening unmentionables like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and colitis before the age of 70. It’s a deflating jab to our comfort bubble.
The centennial club thrives on 2 fundamental deceits: when and how we’ll die. In reality we shouldn’t expect to tick past 83, which remains the average lifespan for the much of the western world. And we won’t likely expire peacefully in our sleep. We’ll probably succumb to the kinds of disorders and diseases that snatched the headline names mentioned above. It won’t be pretty and it will rob us of a few final years of fun and frolic. We won’t be supernovas, expanding in unbound potential until a final blinding flash leaves us scattered to the ashes. Damn.
So let’s get real. Let’s assume that our productive years wind down at 80, after which we’ll drool over endless rounds of bridge, shuffleboard, and acceptable wine on decks of the Carnival Cruise Lines. How many months are left then to do something grand, to pursue a legacy ambition that leaves us feeling accomplished and complete, that our unique purpose for being on this beautiful planet at this amazing time has been served? At 50 we can expect 360 more months and at 60 just 240 months. Sounds like a lot, sounds like so little.
Anxiety over our lack of effective runway can also be debilitating. Why try to take on something ambitious if there is insufficient time to implement it? Bowie and Frey were wasting time in rock bands in their teens, a time when we were planning responsible careers. They had decades to experiment, fail, perfect, and establish their genius. What hope is there to start at midlife, regardless of our ambitions, music or otherwise?
The fact is we’re never better positioned to pursue quixotic adventures than at midlife. You probably have more disposable income at 50 then 20, are less impulsive and smarter about the world, have established a helpful network of support (even if 1-2 degrees removed), are no longer distracted by childrearing (although child-funding never ends!), and are driven less by considerations that are purely financial (that corrupt your vision), more by self realization (which distills your vision).
For a lot of reasons we can’t expect to launch a stellar career at 50 like Bowie’s, but we can still find success, recognition and respect, and establish a more authentic self, whether it’s as a musician, writer, artist, restaurateur, winemaker, nonprofit director, extreme athlete, teacher, yoga instructor, life coach, or whatever represents that grand ambition of deep personal meaning to you.
The point is this: there is no better time than now to get to it. The real prize is the journey and self-discovery as much as the final creation of our endeavors. In a few years someone will be writing your obit; perhaps the same person who summarized the lives of those above. Give her something to smile about.