Is it impossible to teach an old dog new tricks? I researched this question a little too literally. It led me to a quote from an actual dog trainer, an obedience training director at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA.) "Any dog can be trained. With some, you just have to work a little longer." Isn't that the truth? It is never too late—to learn, to change a bad habit, to play, or to just do what you've meant to do. It may take you a little longer, and you may have to work harder. But, at the end of the day, any dog can be trained.
Methuselah, a biblical patriarch, is credited in the Book of Genesis with the longest human lifespan—969 years. Not surprisingly, his name is synonymous with longevity.
In the late 60s, the University of California at Santa Cruz organized a six-week pilot program referred to as Methuselah 1. The program was aimed at educating mature individuals. The prerequisites to apply were: intelligence, openness to ideas, and a willingness to explore root problems.
The program accepted about fifty individuals of varied ages—from 28 to 80. Rosalie Taylor, one of the program's participants, was then a recent divorcee. In a story published in 2016, she fondly reminiscences how the program was that much more interesting due to the varied life transitions many were going through. She remembers a married mother of six who was away from her family for the first time, "quite high on the freedom."
Taylor wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Methuselah 1 program with a reunion. Rosalie Taylor knows a thing or two about reunions. At 91, she'd recently attended her 70th reunion at Smith College, where, in her words:
"All twenty of us, WWII class of 1946, and twenty-one daughters and granddaughters ("companions" required by the college because of our age and possible heart attacks?) gathered for a special three days."
She now wished for another taste of the "shared learning experience" that was Methuselah 1.
Never too late
The shared learning experience Taylor was referring to was a tribute to how Methuselah 1 was designed. Participants listened to eminent guest lecturers on varied subjects, followed by reading assignments and wide-ranging discussions. The program had no exams or grading.
Clearly, the program wasn't only about learning. It was about creating that zest for life in participants, a way to ignite the spark of possibilities. Its central tenet was simple—it's never too late to learn and expand one's horizons.
The takeaway from Methuselah is this:
Regardless of what has transpired in your life until now or what your current circumstances are, it's never too late to steer your life in the direction you want it to go.
That sounds almost counter-intuitive to everything else we hear, right? Take the case of kids in competitive sports, for instance.
You've probably heard a variation of this joke:
When someone says, "Doesn't matter whether you win or lose, it's participation that counts," it's a sure sign they lost.
This "winners take all philosophy" has created tremendous pressure on the section of our population that's least equipped to deal with such a burden—our kids. A burden worsened by the fact that these kids tend to have natural prodigies as their role models.
The Tiger Woods conundrum
Tiger woods was a poster child for early mastery. He was just two years old when he appeared with a putter on the Mike Douglas show. Unfortunately, prodigies like him and the Williams sisters (Tennis) have generated a kind of no-win situation for thousands of kids with average talent.
As a parent, I've seen and heard some of the horror stories. Does your child want to be on the swim team? Is she ready to commit to a five-day-a-week schedule and meets on weekends? Never mind that she's barely six years old.
Then there are those parents, who enroll their pre-school-aged children in private fencing or ice-skating lessons, so the kids could get a leg up when they try out for the little leagues.
Pigeonholing kids into sports, activities, and even formal learning at young ages has consequences. A Stanford study found a direct correlation between sending kids to kindergarten later and increased self-control.
There are unfortunate repercussions as we accelerate the pace and timeline of formal education and organized sports.
Repercussions of starting too soon
This culture of starting the rat race way too early has another unintended consequence. It turns us off and makes us wary of attempting anything new as we get older. Wanting to try a new sport, even as early as in high school, can be nerve-wracking. That's such a pity, really.
Our fear of sucking at something stops us from uncovering all our hidden talents. But it doesn't have to be.
In a glass-half-full view of life, late starts can be a blessing. We may not make the National Olympics team or win the (L)PGA. But that takes the pressure off considerably, doesn't it? While it may take longer to learn something, the process may just be more enjoyable.
The success of the Methuselah project could also be attributed to the fact that the program's objective was to foster learning for the sake of learning. There were no exams and no grading as part of the program. In such judgment-free zones, it is effortless to cultivate a love for the subject without being crushed by the need to memorize and regurgitate half-understood facts.
Late starts or pivots do work.
Pivoting later in life
There are plenty of real-life examples of people who've pivoted later in life, proving that it's never too late to start doing what you love to do.
Carrie, a self-described white-haired, 56-year-old grandmother, raised her children as a single mother, went back to school at 50, got her accounting degree, and passed her CPA Exam at 56. Carrie was a biology major at college. It took her just forty years to realize she had been in the wrong field.
Noel ran his first marathon at the age of 72. At 92, he was still training for marathons by climbing into a trampoline and running in place for an hour. "Up and down. In the nude," according to him. I won't judge.
In a 1987 edition, the NY Times featured the story of Kay Cowan, who graduated from the NY Medical College. Kay was 44 and a mother of three children. Kay had first married when she was 17, went through a divorce shortly after, remarried, and raised three kids. In her words, she chose to attend medical school since she "didn't want to let fear of failure" dictate her life. Her advice to others:
Take a chance—it's never too late.
Yes, it becomes hard to pivot later in life. There are added burdens—family responsibilities, kids, work, bills to pay, and time pressure. So, it may take harder and longer to achieve something.
But you are never too late, never too old, never too sick, never too wrong to do what you love.
Rich Karlgaard, author of Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, is, himself, a classic late bloomer. He went to Stanford but later realized he had squandered the opportunity by getting "Gentleman Cs." Barely holding on to jobs, he then chanced upon the opportunity to create a magazine that eventually got him noticed. Then, there was no stopping.
In addition to being the publisher of Forbes magazine since 1998, Karlgaard is a successful author, businessman, and private pilot.
Creativity is not the sole province of the young…some of us simply need more time, experience, and experimentation to develop a path and realize our talents – Rich Karlgaard.
Adopting a never too late mindset isn't simply about esoteric fulfillment of one's potential. It's almost a necessity of the times we live in.
The need to reinvent ourselves
With our growing life expectancies, we cannot afford to simply run out the clock on our jobs and careers, hoping to sun it out in retirement. It is almost necessary to reinvent ourselves not just from an economic perspective but to remain engaged in the world we live in simply. Without it, we are at risk of going the way of the dinosaurs, except instead of an apocalypse, our ignorance will drive us to extinction.
Five tips to develop the "never too late" mindset
Here are five simple ways to cultivate the never too late mindset.
1. Stay curious
I have no special talents. I'm just passionately curious. Albert Einstein
Curiosity did not kill the cat. The cat died because it was its turn to die. Just sayin'.
Being curious and wanting to learn for the sake of learning is probably the most critical skill we can cultivate. It can prevent us from becoming obsolete.
2. Expect failures
Admittedly it is a little harder to learn something new as we get older.
My first half marathon, at 40, was a disaster. I trained for the race with a watch I had incorrectly calibrated for distance (when GPS watches were a rarity). The result? My training was woefully inadequate. I paid for it on race day. But I wobbled and willed myself to the finish line. It helped that I wasn't expecting to set any records .
3. Relish the low expectations
The poor, first half-marathon performance did not dissuade me from running. I'm still at it, many half and full marathons later, because I have limited (read no) expectations of how I'd perform.
There is something to be said about not having the pressure of performance hanging over your head. Compared to the competitive athletes, as a leisure runner of a "certain" age, the only expectation I have of myself these days is to finish. This lack of pressure is quite liberating. Not to mention, the back of the pack is where all the fun (and better dressed) runners are.
4. Commit. But feel free to pivot
Yes, it is never too late to do what you've wanted to do. But continuing to pursue something for the 65th time, when it failed the 64 prior times, isn't commitment. It's irrational stupidity.
Yes, you need to commit yourself at least initially to the experience of trying something new. But if your result continues to be a disaster time after time, then feel free to pivot. No one cares about the failure but you. It's going to be just as easy then to find something else to care about.
5. Celebrate often
This one is self-explanatory. Rewards are great incentives. They motivate you to keep going. Finding ways to celebrate the little wins along the path of trying something new is significant.
In 1897, the Atlanta local news media reported the elopement of a couple in Georgia. The bride was 80; the groom was 90. Both had property to their names. Many grandchildren were eager to inherit the property and so expressed opposition to the couple getting hitched. The love birds, though, believed it was never too late to start over. So they eloped.
What a cute story with a simple lesson. The prerequisite to trying something new is ridiculously simple: If you are conscious and can breathe, it is never too late.
And remember that good things take time. Corporate project managers like to use the example of how you cannot simply throw resources at a problem beyond a point to compress the timeline.
You cannot grow a baby in 3 months instead of 9, no matter how many technological advancements you throw into the gestational process.
According to the Department of Education, over a million people enroll annually in adult learning programs in the US. It's not just about formal learning, either. Local community groups and churches hold the "XYZ" (eXtra Years of Zest) programs to get mature adults reengaged in life.
Allow yourself the freedom to explore opportunities you could not pursue in the past. The ship has not sailed.
It is never too late. You are not too sick, not too busy, not too tired to work on your dreams.
Never too late to be what you might have been - George Eliot