How often have we heard it:
“It’s only too late if you don’t start now“
“A year from now you will wish you had started today.” Karen Lamb
Or my personal favorite:
“Start what you can with what you have right now.” Unknown
But while all these sayings ring true and they may prompt us to start now, how do we actually sustain that motivation long term?
As someone who thrives on instant gratification (but working on it), I start relatively easily, but I don’t always keep going long term. Although I am getting better at it.
Now, in midlife, I begin to realize that more than just wanting something, we must truly love it. We are more aware of our time and we no longer want to fritter it away.
I still struggle to justify doing what I love (especially if it is not paid) vs. doing something ‘useful’, something that is traditionally the meaning of success.
But what we have now, in midlife, that we have not had before, is the luxury of hindsight. We now know what we would do if we could go back in time.
What if everything up until now has been a learning experience and we can finally set ourselves on a path to live with authenticity?
There is a Book for That
Since this is something of a hot topic for me personally and I am still in the process of starting in midlife, I am going to reflect on one of my midlife favorite books, It’s Only Too Late If You Don’t Start Now by Barbara Sher. The book’s subtitle is How to Create Your Second Life at Any Age, but I first read the book in my thirties and it didn’t resonate with me as much as it does in my forties.
Now I think it was simply because, in my thirties, I still thought I had so much time in front of me, it was still my ‘first’ life, as she calls it.
While the book, or any other book, will not offer a definitive answer to our individual situation, it is a useful book for all of us who are struggling to come to terms with midlife and the realization that, perhaps, we haven’t done all we always thought we would. It will certainly nudge us in the right direction.
Thanks to my, now organized, Kindle Highlights, below I am going to summarize some exercises and advice from the book.
Note: I think it is important to actually do the exercises, write them down, not just think about them, in order to gain some clarity for your next steps.
Where am I going?
Some of Sher’s first prompts in the book are these:
- Did I do the right thing with my time so far?
- What’s ahead?
- What are my greatest fears?
- What do I really want in my future?
- What do I definitely not want any more of?
- What regrets would I hate to have when I look back on my life in later years?
- Why am I on this planet?
For me, “What do I really want in my future?” was always the most difficult one to answer truthfully to myself, especially in my twenties or thirties. We are usually influenced by so many other voices telling us what we should or shouldn’t do, that sometimes we lose (or never find) our authentic voice.
I am still not sure that I am truly going in my soul’s direction, but I try and answer questions like these in writing, which helps me take a step towards clarity.
We may have had great, exciting goals and bucket lists in our “first” life.
But should we now, in midlife, settle for smaller goals, asks Sher?
Not at all, she answers.
It just means you go for dreams you truly love, not ones that are supposed to prove you’re special. It means you begin trying to be everything you can be and stop trying to be something else.
For those of us who “thrived” on external validation for most of our life, now in midlife, Sher says:
“When you feel incomplete, you are obviously driven to do something to become complete. Like most addictions, you don’t really want to give it up; you just want your emptiness filled. But like drugs, applause doesn’t satisfy for long, and the need has to be filled over and over. After a while, you can’t help wishing you didn’t need to struggle so hard. It wears you out to get the price together day after day—to win another race, to charm, to please, to manipulate for more attention.”
Fantasize your life without any narcissistic desperation at all…imagine that you don’t have the slightest interest in being anybody’s favorite or any kind of star. See if you can catch a glimpse of how that would feel.
And while it can be hard for many of us to admit how much we wanted this external validation, the road to true self-actualization was never through others.
“As a matter of fact, the only time you can possibly attain true greatness is when you’ve given up your dreams of glory. Your midlife crisis has happened precisely because your narcissism is crumbling like an unsafe old structure, and what that structure was hiding is a self so original you can no longer ignore it.”
Then ask yourself these questions and write down the answers:
- What do you think you’d have done differently in your life if you’d always felt that way?
- What would you do differently now?
- What would you stop doing?
Can you see how different your life would be?
I can. With some clarity.
Memento mori (remember you must die), becomes somewhat more relevant as we enter our forties. We no longer see the endless stretch of time in front of us. And we certainly don’t want to waste it.
If I’d only known then what I know now, we may say.
- What do you know now that could have changed your life if you’d known it earlier?
It is another great prompt to write about. It certainly helped me gain some clarity about why I harbor certain regrets and what I can do about it now.
The Highlights of Your Life
Next, Sher advises us to list the highlights of our lives. But in two different ways.
- The highlights of my life according to me.
- The highlights of my life according to others.
Which list is the one that makes more sense to you?
The Issue of Age
And of course, we have to touch on the issue of aging. What do we do about it?
Sher’s wise advice is to forget it. Yes, that’s right, stop thinking about it.
When it comes to others or to yourself, pay attention to experience, intelligence, imagination, talent, energy, decency, kindness—the things that really matter in any human being—and ignore age entirely. It’s irrelevant, and anyway, it’s incomprehensible.
Worst of all, it leads to costly errors you don’t want to make, the kinds of errors Sher hopes, these four rules will help to prevent:
Rule Number One: Don’t decide you’re too old to do something before you really are.
Don’t let yourself forget that you’re never too old to do anything your body will allow.
And in our forties, for many of that is as possible as it was in our twenties.
Rule Number Two: Those things you always wanted to do but felt you couldn’t? Just start doing them.
Take a small step towards it, just one. And then another and so on.
Rule Number Three: If you’ve got a big dream, go for it. But never believe it’s your last.
You’re entering your age of great undertakings, and your dreams are only now beginning to line up. Have as many dreams as you want.
Rule Number Four: Watch out for premature regrets.
If you find yourself wondering where the years went and questioning whether you put your life to good use or not, understand that it’s a good question, but you’ve asked it at the wrong time.
What have you done with your life?
Who can say? There’s a good chance it hasn’t started yet, says Sher.
If anything, this one right here, makes me feel better about the nagging feeling that I have, in fact, wasted much of my ‘first life’ on trivial pursuits and fleeting, easy, instant gratification endeavors. Or worse, that I did what I thought was expected of me when it was neither expected nor had to be done.
Our first life belongs to others, says Sher. Our second one belongs to us.
Without competition, comparison, and keeping up with anyone, the rules are simple. Find what you love. Do it only because you love it, not for any other reward.
Stick with it, because that’s the only way to learn your craft. Don’t be overwhelmed, be steady.
It’s only too late if you don’t start now.
“The day I buried my youth, I grew twenty years younger,” said George Sand.
And then she answers those questions from the beginning of the book for those of us who are still struggling.
We may not fully agree with every one of her enthusiastic, first-world answers, but we certainly get the gist:
Wherever your energy, originality, and love of life want to take you.
Of course. That’s how you got so smart.
A fresh adventure, a new life built on who you really are.
Work you love, people you love, creativity, and laughter.
A meaningless grind, a lack of courage, a new diet.
To live a rich and exciting life by using your loving heart and your big brain and your amazing gifts to the fullest extent possible.
And there we are, going back in time, analyzing our life, shedding off that last layer of “narcissistic desperation” and moving on with our life with authenticity and hopefully in harmony with ourselves.
To round up my Barbara Sher “trilogy”, I highly recommend her book: I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It
The book reveals how you can recapture “long lost” goals, overcome the blocks that inhibit your success, decide what you want to do.
In the meanwhile, here it is to our second life!