How to Get Old

We only get to be each age once. How many will we waste trying to be something that we’re not?

Let me photograph you in this light in case it is the last time
That we might be exactly like we were before we realized
We were scared of getting old it made us restless

When We Were Young by Adele

We only get to be each age once

Every year it gets harder to avoid the fact that I’m likely in the second half of my life.

I saw a headline recently in which a young person was describing their “quarter life crisis” and my immediate reaction was “oh just fuck off!” So I’m that old.

There was a time when it felt like every weekend was filled with 21st birthday parties. Then weddings. More recently for me, sadly, it’s been funerals.

I’m also noticing a cohort of people who are about my age slip into midlife crisis. Typically these are people who forgot to be young when they were actually young.

It’s tragic to watch somebody who built a career or started a business finally achieve escape velocity only to immediately try and stop time, or even rewind - a young person’s car, a young person’s relationship (often at the expense of the relationships that have supported them on the ascent), a young person’s lifestyle etc.

It’s equally awkward to watch somebody who extended their youth way longer than it actually lasted by continuing to live without responsibilities suddenly realise that all of their friends are now ten years (or more!) younger than them. Meanwhile the people they used to know have moved on and have very different interests.

Meanwhile, the important question that often goes unasked is:

What are the things we can only do, have and be right now?

Midlife is when you reach the top of the ladder
and find that it was against the wrong wall.

— Joseph Campbell

Be sad about the future not the past

One of the things we all have to accept as we get older is that our body starts to fail.

It could be our eyes (fonts need to be bigger), our ears (music needs to be louder) or our liver (nights out take much longer to recover from).1 Or, in my case recently, joints and tendons.2

Confronting knee surgery, I was forced to face the possiblity that I might not be able to run again. I enjoy running so that was a dark thought for me, but slightly less so than it might have been because (just in time as it turned out) I’d run a lot while I still could. If I couldn’t run anymore at least I could look back fondly rather than with regrets. I’d miss what I no longer had rather than what I never had. I’d be sad about the future rather than sad about the past.

This is a great pattern to understand. But even once we know, it’s surprising how hard we have to work at putting it to practice.

As someone prolific once explained to me:

The secret to having an amazing project to talk about today is to be also working on five other projects that won’t come to fruition themselves for weeks or months or years.

Not many people can multi-task like that. And it’s contradictory advice-because the key to making any one of those projects successful is dedicated focus. The folks who solve that riddle are the ones we read about in biographies.

All of us mere mortals can just ask two questions each day:

  1. What do we need to finish today, because the opportunity might soon pass; and
  2. What do we need to start today, because the time has finally come.

The depressing bit, and the reason these questions are so often so hard, is a double whammy: the things we need to finish often needed to be started a long time ago (the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago etc) and the things we need to start won’t pay off for a long time (if ever) so they are easily deferred.

I’m moving to the country…

I wonder if advice like this is even harder to understand if you happen to live in a city or in a place with a temperate climate.

Maybe it’s easier in the countryside or closer to the poles, where the change of seasons are more explicit.

The biblical advice about there being a time to plant seeds and a time to harvest (and a time to rest) is more obvious where failing to do those things in the right season means missing the window for another whole year.

Make hay while the sun shines. Pick fruit when it falls.

We can only be each age once.

I hope I don’t waste too many years trying to be something I’m not.

  1. One of the things you can do these days is measure what is called “biogenic age” - this is an estimate of your body’s age based on measurements of various aspects of your body itself, rather than just counting how long you’ve been alive. The interesting thing about this is, unlike with choronological age, it’s possible to reduce the number over time, with attention to the inputs. If you can do that it’s a double win - literally getting time back! ↩︎

  2. As they say, be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they are gone.  ↩︎

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