I recently came across this article in the New York Times which described a recent breakthrough.
In 1946, a 23-year-old Army veteran named John Goodenough headed to the University of Chicago with a dream of studying physics. When he arrived, a professor warned him that he was already too old to succeed in the field.
Recently, Dr. Goodenough recounted that story for me and then laughed uproariously. He ignored the professor’s advice and today, at 94, has just set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity. He and his team at the University of Texas at Austin filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles. His announcement has caused a stir, in part, because Dr. Goodenough has done it before. In 1980, at age 57, he coinvented the lithium-ion battery that shrank power into a tiny package.
Had Dr Goodenough (the irony of his name is not lost on me!) seen himself as too old, you may never have had the smartphone in your pocket or on which you are reading this article right now. At least not as quickly.
All too often we, or others, like to put expiration labels on things which most importantly stop us from getting started.
To take an example from my own life, I started ballet at the tender age of 25. But that’s still so young you may think! And it is, but had I deemed “success” in the field of ballet as being a member of the Royal Ballet Company then I most certainly am too late.
Thankfully I don’t. I started ballet because I enjoy it. Sure, there are classes where I feel inept, like I’ll never get it or what’s the point but ultimately I do it for me. And who knows what may come of it or where it may take me? Maybe I could become a member of the Royal Ballet at age 40. No, not as a principal dancer but as a character role who doesn’t need the same level or skill and experience. Maybe I could become proficient enough to teach ballet at a beginner and intermediate level; which could in future provide an extra revenue income. Maybe I could be the first octogenarian to perform a one man ballet show? Maybe I could…
Who knows! But if you let a predefined definition of success deter you from getting started you rob yourself of the opportunity to find out.
My grandma is another example. She learnt to drive and started running marathons at age 50! Sure, she wasn’t curing cancer but it’s undeniable that these endeavours made a tangible difference to her health, her life and that of others.
I find this kind of thinking endemic among 20 year olds. As we compare and despair we write our lives off in the face or child prodigies, those whose had more opportunities or those who are simply just plain lucky. We can easily convince ourselves it’s “too late”.
To further quote the article:
“Some of us are turtles; we crawl and struggle along, and we haven’t maybe figured it out by the time we’re 30. But the turtles have to keep on walking.” This crawl through life can be advantageous, he pointed out, particularly if you meander around through different fields, picking up clues as you go along.
Don’t think you’re too old to make a difference to your own life or someone else’s. You can make a difference even beyond your deathbed. It’s called a legacy.