in Musings

You Are Not Too Old

A common question I see frequently asked online is: “Am I too old to learn or do X?” where X is anything from programming to painting to starting a business. The weird thing is I’ve seen kids as young as 14 ask this.

It’s an odd question, because it implies that past a certain age, we’re unable to adequately learn new things, as if our brain becomes static and who we are is who we’ll be forever. This notion is supported by proverbs like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and the idea that it’s impossible to learn a new language past a certain age.

Modern neuroscience has made it clear, however, that these assumptions are false. The brain is not a fixed structure, but a highly dynamic structure that is always adapting and changing itself in response to new experiences, regardless of age. You also can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks (I’ve seen it happen!).

So the literal answer to the question is, no, you aren’t too old to learn X.

What I really think people are asking from the question, though, is, “Will I achieve success in this field, given my late start?”

The short answer is, yes, of course it’s possible.

Take Raymond Chandler, considered one of the greatest novelists of our time. He spent his whole career as an accountant until he was fired. Financially burdened by the Great Depression, he decided to teach himself how to write pulp fiction to earn a living. He didn’t begin writing seriously until age 45, and only published his first novel at the age of 52.

Look at Judy Joo, an American chef and television personality on shows such as Iron Chef. She graduated from Columbia with a degree in Industrial Engineering, worked in investment banking for five years, then decided to completely switch careers and enter culinary school. She began her new career as a chef at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants, became executive chef of Playboy Club, and soon began making TV appearances while opening her own restaurants.

There are millions of other stories like these, where people started late but learned new skills or overcame failures to eventually achieve success. Vera Wang started out as a figure skater who failed to make the US-Olympic team and only began designing wedding gowns at age 40. Alan Rickman started out as a graphic designer and enrolled in drama school in his 30’s, landing his first role at age 36. Colonel Sanders entered the restaurant business at age 40 and KFC only took off when he was 66.

These stories are, in a way, meant to be inspirational, but moreso to show that there is no age limit to success. The feeling of being “stuck” is really just that – a feeling. Reinvention can and should occur at any given age.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll write the next best American novel or start the next fast-food franchise, but it does guarantee you’ll get somewhere, which is much farther than where you’d be if you never took the plunge, believing you were too old.

If you’re afraid to pursue something in fear of not being good enough, or not achieving success immediately, or starting over in a new field, know that you still have your chance. You always will, in fact, as long as you don’t count yourself out before you’ve even tried.

The saddest words in the English language, according to poet John Whittier, are “it might have been.” I don’t want my life to be described this way, and you probably don’t either. So let’s not use age as an excuse when deciding to pursue something.

You’re not someone who has wasted however many number of years, you’re someone who has X years ahead of you. What will you do with them?

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