Friday, May 25, 2012

Late Achievers and Second Lifers

 So, here I am staring down the barrel of 40. Yes, I used a gun metaphor to describe turning 40 years old. I have a couple of years left in me but that number is already taunting me. I look back, like people often do and think about what I have accomplished and what I failed to. I am not a congressman or an actor. I am not an ivory tower intellectual or world traveler. I am not a model or engineer. I am most certainly not a picket fence family man and I have failed to become a farmer. What have I accomplished in my "productive years"?  Not a damn thing.

I went to school for way too long, taking classes which interested me, not classes which advanced any grand life plan. I learned Game Theory, Statistics, Derridean Deconstructionism, American Political Theory, Neuropsychology, Geography, Geology, Anthropological Perspectives of War and of Gender, and more European History than I can shake a stick at. What did it get me? I sit at a desk and read medical reports in preparation for arguing arbitrations.

The question I ask today is "is this it?" Should I resign myself to this for the rest of my days? I have a wonderful woman and she has a wonderful daughter. We are buying a home together. Should I resign to my personal life and forget about the rest of the world? Give up on professional dreams, public accolade and fame and fortune? Maybe not. Lets look at those who lived a life and come their thirties or forties created a second life.

First, I want to tell you about my mother. She went to school for a decade looking for wisdom and missing money. She was raising two children and had, perhaps, resigned herself to single motherhood and domestic life. Then, at 12, my sister died and my mother was, understandably crushed. She was 38 years old and her life was a wreck. What did she do? She went to Law School. My mother was a 40 year old law student. She graduated with Honors and began a second life practicing law. This was a career she loved. She loved the fight. She loved court and she loved doing something good and productive with her brain. She is not alone.

Julia Child, TV cooking superstar was, into her thirties, a spy. During WWII she was enlisted in the wartime OSS (WWIIs version of the CIA) and continued to work as a spy. In 1944 she was posted to what is now Sri Lanka and met her husband to be (also a spy). Following the war the two were married and assigned by the State Department to Paris where she began to cook. Soon she was teaching cooking, publishing books on cooking and cooking on TV.

At the age of 30 two heroic men gave up carpentry and moved into another field altogether. One was Jesus of Nazareth and the other Harrison Ford. Both had rocky beginnings but both were eventually very successful. Though one had a somewhat abbreviated career.

Frank McCourt was a teacher into his 60s when he published "Angela's Ashes", Phyllis Diller was a housewife and advertising copywriter until she began comedy at 37, and steamboat pilot and insurance salesman Harlan Sanders opened up a chicken restaurant in Kentucky at the age of 40.

It is not just actors and celebrities though. Taikichiro Mori founded Mori Building, a Japanese property management firm, which made him the richest man in the world. He founded it in his mid fifties.  There is Eugene Ehrhart, the french mathematician, who began publishing in mathematics in his mid 40s and introduced Ehrhart Polynomials. He got his High School diploma at the age of 22 and did not finish his PhD thesis until the age of 60.

Lets also remember Ronald Reagan, star of Bedtime for Bonzo, gave up acting and ran for public office for the first time at the age of 55. Harry Truman went bankrupt after starting a store which sold silk shirts and other clothing before venturing into politics and eventually winning World War Two as President of The United States.

Charles Bukowski published his first novel at the age of 49 and Joseph Conrad (who learned to speak English at 21) was not published until the age of 37. Conrad went on to write Heart of Darkness.

No list like this would be complete without mentioning Charles Darwin. Darwin went to school for Medicine and Theology. At 22 he went on the five year voyage of the HMS Beagle. Darwin began publishing journal articles around the age of thirty but did not publish "On The Origin of Species" until he was 50.

So, the next time I feel old or that I have not accomplished enough in my life I will think back to the late achievers and second lifers and remember that we live longer and longer and this may just be the beginning of my journey.  I suggest you do the same.



  1. It's these fast-paced years that keep us feeling like we need to catch up on things so we won't be seeing things in regret when we suddenly arrive in a most melancholic age of our life. We don't really realize how fragile and short this life is that suddenly it could be gone in an instant but despite knowing that, we keep on wasting our time on the unnecessary things and that's just sad.

  2. Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.

  3. Just as important are the people who inspired, mentored or just encouraged these famous people to make a difference. No one ever gives credit to that one person who said that one thing that inspired a person to go on and change the world. Our contribution to the world may not be evident to people or may not be logged into the historical record for all future generations to see and yet, we may have already made a huge contribution to someone we may never know through what we said or how we lived to inspire them to greatness.

    Living a life fully right now, with integrity and honor, is my preference. I am fully aware that in a 100 years the odds are there will be no one on this planet who will even know I existed but maybe, just maybe, I will have said something or lived in such a way as to have made a difference that is still being passed down along the line.