How many times do we have those conversations with people and say things like “Wow, was that REALLY fifteen years ago?”
Then you laugh about how much you’ve changed (you have), how simpler life was (it wasn’t) and move on. Some of us, perhaps all of us to some degree, continue to muse on that statement though. 15 years. Fifteen years.
The inevitable path this takes you down is thinking about just how many times you’ll be able to say this in your lifetime. If you’re lucky, you might get five times, which will take you close to the UK life expectancy figure of approximately 80 years. And you used one of them up in casual conversation this morning. Wow.
I’m already well over halfway through which means, technically, I should already have had my mid-life crisis, although there’s no Harley Davidson or sports car sitting on my drive. Well, not yet, anyway.
Then, the more you think about it, the more it seems impossible that it’s happened, or more precisely, happen to you. Surely, 30th, 40th and 50th birthdays are things that happen to other people. Or your parents. But not you.
At what point did that young person full of potential for any path become an older person full of missed opportunities? Was it a particular day that can only be viewed from the distance of time? Or a series of closing doors closing so softly over a long period it was impossible to perceive them?
It’s probably different for all of us and, if you’re a certain disposition then you could even get quite down about it. I know I have at certain points in my life.
But that doesn’t yield any good results and, in any case, it’s based on a false premise. You see, although you had every possibility open to you when you were young, you were not going to take them all anyway.
You were never going to be an astronaut, train driver, singer, writer AND world-class cricketer in one lifetime. And even if you somehow managed to do something quite that spectacular, you’d still miss out on being President, a racing car driver, billionaire entrepreneur or even a dad.
Some of those doors will always be closing. Some are closing even as you’re reading this. In that context, it all seems terrifying.
But us adults know that it isn’t really. Our lives are full of mistakes, regrets and ‘what ifs’ — no different from the generation before, our peers, and the generation that will follow — but we learn, we grow and we find ways to contribute, develop and, for the very best of us, inspire others to find their way.
There’s no rule book that says you have to do anything in any particular order or any particular way, and when we realize this (often late in life) it really can open more doors than we ever had closed to us.
But would life be like if we could all realize this much younger? What if we could teach our younger selves this point in a way that our younger selves would actually listen? To them, it’s not real. Time is irrelevant, there’s so much of it, there’s so much to spare.
“So what if a few doors close”, we think, “there’s millions of ‘em!”
And this, in my view, is the cunning thief of opportunity — the idea that when you’re young that you have all the time in the world. I certainly thought so and, in fact, everyone kept telling me that, usually using those exact words.
But it wasn’t true.
Yes, you have some time and you should definitely not rush into any career, opportunity, relationship or any other life-changing commitment just because you feel pressured into it by other parties or your heart is not fully into it. You should also go out with your friends, experiment, push the envelope, drink too much, get your heartbroken and just, well, hang out in that unique way that only young people can. Yes, there’s time for that. That stuff is just as important as anything else.
But understand that those days that seem to last for a hundred years right now are just an illusion. They are, in fact, just a day. And they’re the most precious commodity on earth.
Over many of those days, often silently in the background, opportunities and adventures can slip away if you let them. And usually only because we think there will be others or put another way, there will be time.
No, that thinking is dangerous. The time is now. The reality is, it’s always ‘now.’
I would have loved someone to teach me this, especially as a young teenager.
I often wondered what I would say if my current self met my younger self in his teenage years. In my mind I had great speeches prepared, sage guidance to issue and clear pointers to lay down just in case the opportunity ever came round in some bizarre parallel universe event, but later it occurred to me all of this would be a complete waste of time.
I know I wouldn’t listen to ANY of it.
In fact, I have no doubt that my older self — as calm, thoughtful and logical as I am now — would just lose it and end up wanting to give him a ‘clip round the ear’ ole’ to use an expression from the time.
So how do you deal with something so important with our own kids if we know damn well we would have struggled to get the message if it had been written in huge neon letters on our favorite magazine/video game/pub — or even explained from our future selves. If my own experience says there was no telling me, it has, therefore, got to be a realization from within. A realization that we can help along in a small way.
A few years ago, I introduced something to my kids when they were quite young, around six or seven, which, in turn, I’d read about or heard about from somewhere some years prior to that. Although I can’t be sure where or when exactly, I DO know it stuck in my mind and I have been doing it ever since.
It’s a simple act that serves as a constant reminder of time — just enough to serve as a reminder and give a moment of reflection and context, but not too much to force panicky reactive actions in directions where they’re not needed.
It’s something you can do too, either for yourself or with (and for) your loved ones.
For many years now, on the actual date of my birthday, I have taken a quiet moment to myself and stepped outside to look up at the sky. I’m a little self-conscious and I usually find an area away from anyone else so I can fully relax, even if it means slipping out and taking a short walk.
I’ll take a few minutes, and only a few, just to think about the year that has passed, the people I may have lost, the opportunities that have been grasped or missed, and those around me who I am thankful for.
I think about the things that went wrong, those that went right and what I’d take as my single biggest learning.
Time is important here because too much reflection can take you down a rabbit hole, the idea is here to mentally summarize the previous twelve months, as if you were submitting a quick book resume and your opinion of its conclusion to a particularly stern teacher.
Then, once I have completed my contemplation, I deliberately and obviously raise my right hand whilst looking at it, and loudly click my fingers to complete the process.
A year gone. In a click of the fingers. Literally.
What a reminder of time. What a reminder of what has been accomplished and what remains to be so. Was it really a whole year since I stood, alone, and clicked my fingers? Yes, it really was.
Now those same fingers have clicked the passing of a whole human generation, through twenty deliberate and separate clicks, something you or I could so in the same number of seconds if we so wished. But that time adds that value, in the same way, time adds value to even the most worthless of objects if you keep them long enough.
With my kids, this has become a routine we still share together as a family on their birthdays, all four of us, together.
When they were little, they sat on my lap as we looked at the stars, chatting and contemplating entirely at their level. We laughed together as they tried to snap their fingers like daddy since their tiny fingers would simply not make any noise.
Years later, we still share this time, sometimes all snuggled together if it’s cold, even as their interests and outlook have changed. As they approach the end of their childhood, there may well come a time when I’ll bow out and pass the torch, finally, to them.
But until that day, and as long as they want me to, we talk about their year and the one to come. I’ll let them lead the conversation, sometimes providing a little gentle steering if we go off track, but always in a positive way, (though there have been some tears as we remember people we lost) always with optimism, and always with love and encouragement.
Bubbling under is the subtle, but unspoken, understanding that an entire year of their life has passed, a year full of opportunity both grasped and missed, a message that was acknowledged by my son, now in his thirteenth year on his last outing.
“Daddy,” he said after we headed back indoors after our annual ritual “I can’t believe that’s a whole year since we last did that. We’ve done loads of stuff, but it seemed to go really quick didn’t it?”
I smiled and hugged him.
“Yes, son, it sure did”