No, It’s Probably Not Too Late

…to do that thing you’re seeking permission for

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

If you’ve ever spent any time on the question-and-answer website Quora, you would have seen the ‘is it too late to do X’ questions for every type of field, be it computer programming, singing, or ventriloquy. These tend to be some of the most popular questions on the site. Which makes you wonder- what is it that the asker is searching for? Do they think that there is some sort of authority out there on the internet that can determine whether or not it is possible (or permissible) for them to do what they clearly want to do?

Congratulations, Janet. You have been authorized by the Digital Design Council of Youngers to pursue your dream of becoming a graphic designer, even though you’re over 35, which is, frankly, disgusting.

I believe we all instinctively understand that the qualities of creativity and originality get rewarded in this world. However, we are oddly desperate for proof that what we are trying to do has been done before.

Being in motion vs. taking action

I get that we don’t want to make stupid decisions. With the world’s information at our fingertips, we feel it would be inexcusable to make a decision without doing our research first. Fair enough. But at what point does research become another form of procrastination?

In his book ‘Atomic Habits’, author James Clear talks about what he calls the ‘difference between being in motion and taking action’:

The two ideas sound similar, but they’re not the same. When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don’t produce a result. Action, on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will deliver an outcome. If I outline twenty ideas for articles I want to write, that’s motion. If I actually sit down and write an article, that’s action. If I search for a better diet plan and read a few books on the topic, that’s motion. If I actually eat a healthy meal, that’s action.

James Clear- Atomic Habits

In other words, you can Google whether it’s too late for you to learn how to code at the age of 45, or you could sign up for a free Code Academy course and start building things with Javascript. And then a few months later, you’ll be a 45-year-old who has built a bunch of things with Javascript and can contribute to an open-source project, collaborating with other developers from around the world. And then a few months after that, you could offer to build things for low fees on Upwork or Fiverr and build up your portfolio. And soon, you’re a 46–47-year-old who can make real money building Javascript applications.

Searching for proof that it’s possible and ‘doing your research’ is motion. It can be useful as a starting point. But actually doing it is called action, and that’s all that matters.

But how do I know what’s possible?

There was a first time for everything. And when it was being done for the first time, the person doing it wasn’t sure that it could be done. But they believed that it was possible. So how can one be unsure yet still believe that something is possible?

In the scientific world, there is a concept known as the ‘adjacent possible’. This concept attempts to explain how multiple people can arrive at the same scientific discovery at the same time, even if they’ve never ever met before. And that’s because their work is built on the work that came before. And their discoveries are the next natural step in human progress.

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself…The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible.

Steven Johnson- Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

Even if you can’t find an example of someone who has done exactly what you want to do at your exact age, you can find plenty of examples of humans pushing the boundaries of performance in other fields at more advanced stages in life. Athletes are competing at the highest level for much longer past previously accepted ‘peaks’ in their careers. This is due to a number of technological improvements as well as progress in sports science and nutrition. E.g. Quarterback Tom Brady, who just won his 7th Super Bowl, uses brain training to keep his brain sharp and make lightning-quick decisions under pressure at the highest level, at the age of 43, which only a few years ago would have been considered well past an athlete’s peak performance age.

Being late can be an advantage

In her book Successful Late Bloomers: The Story of Late-in-life achievement — The People, Strategies And Research’, author J.M.Orend outlines the three key side-effects of aging that successful ‘late bloomers’ use to their advantage:

  1. The Experience Advantage: Late bloomers have a greater range and depth in experiences that they can use to create novel connections between disparate ideas, often fueling innovation in their field.
  2. The Perspective Advantage: One of the side-effects of experience is perspective. As you are punched in the face repeatedly by life, as much as you fight back, you also learn when it’s time to put your ego aside and roll with the punches. And you get out of your own head and view things from other people’s perspectives. And that opens you up to creating more compelling, empathetic work that resonates with a wider audience.
  3. The Mindful Advantage: Experience provides perspective, which in turn allows late bloomers to be more mindful of their emotions and be more resilient than their younger counterparts in the face of life’s inevitable ups and downs.

“The capacity to ride out emotional storms more flexibly and resiliently is one of the great fruits of aging.” — Gene D. Cohen

Closing thoughts

Stop seeking permission to do that thing you’ve always wanted to do. There’s no supreme council out there that’s going to approve of your life plans and guarantee success. You must find out for yourself.

Even if you don’t find examples of others who have done something you want to do at your current age, be the first one. Find the ‘adjacent possible’ in your own life. And maybe the next time someone goes onto Google or Quora and types in ‘is it too late to do X’, they’ll find you saying “hell no, here’s what I did!”.

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