That thought has been in my mind as the year winds down with its milestones slipping past and as I start inching ever closer to my upcoming mid-life crisis.
We just took family pictures and I realized I’m getting older. My stray gray hairs have finally really taken over above my ears, giving me a lot more serious and aged look than I realized I had. I don’t wear facial hair anymore, which used to make me look a little younger and less serious. But even if I grew my van dyke back out, it would probably be salt and pepper now and not do much to make me look any younger anyway.
But even though I’m looking older, I have to say that I still feel incredibly young and hopeful. I’m wondering if I have to have a mid-life crisis at all. Maybe instead I can have some other kind of mid-life experience. Something with a more positive outcome and requiring fewer fake tans or sports cars along the way.
Part of the challenge of age seems to be both that we mistake what success means in the first place and then we assume that success—however we define it—has to be achieved early on or not at all. If you’re 38 and you’re not Einstein or DiMaggio yet, it’s too late now. Better just give up and drudge through the rest of your meaningless life.
I don’t want to dive into what success means. There’s a lot to be said about that, and much of it is already said better than I can do it justice.
But I do think it’s worth noting that success—even outward, worldly success—doesn’t just come before age 40.
Malcom Gladwell wrote about the odd assumption we all seem to share that success is necessarily a youthful accomplishment: “Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.”
There are countless examples of geniuses who achieved smashing success in their fields in their 20s or 30s: Orson Welles, Herman Melville, Mozart, T. S. Eliot, Picasso, etc. But there are also plenty of late bloomers who didn’t succeed or accomplish anything original or significant until later in life. Alfred Hitchcock peaked in his mid-50s. Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn when he was 49. Ronald Reagan entered politics in his mid-50’s to serve three terms as senator and two as president. Robert Frost’s best poems came in his late 40s.
My favorite example of a late bloomer is Abraham Lincoln, who retired from his failures in politics to work the rural legal circuit and refine himself through study, introspection, and hard work. Shelby Foote wrote of Lincoln in his 40s, “Disheartened, he paused now to restore his soul through work and meditation…It was a time for study, a time for self-improvement….he talked less and listened more….this brought him profounder faith in people, including those who had rejected him and repudiated what he had to offer as a leader. Here to, he was learning.”
Like the others, Lincoln didn’t bloom late just because he started late or was discovered late. Instead, he was actually not very good at something and then withdrew into a long and arduous process of working to get better at it. He wasn’t a born genius like Mozart. He had to work his whole life, and most intensely for a half decade of his mid-life, to emerge as a success.
So while I’m creeping up on 40 and starting to look older, I still believe the best art of my life is ahead of me. The most creative years of my career. My best years of marriage. My best years as a father. As a friend. As a disciple. I have yet to be my best. And I’m certain of my future success.
I’m sure it won’t all go as planned. And I’m sure my definition of success will mature and evolve along the way. But I’m grateful to be able to look forward with hope and confidence to the next few years and to a mid-life spent retooling and improving myself rather than meandering through an embarrassing and unproductive crisis.
This confidence, of course, comes only from my faith in God and my earnest belief that God wants me to progress eternally toward success without any regard or excuse about my past mistakes, my delays, or my circumstances. The Apostle Jeffery Holland recently reminded us:
However late you think you are, however many chances you think you have missed, however many mistakes you feel you have made or talents you think you don’t have, or distance from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines….there is no problem you cannot overcome. There is no dream that in the unfolding of time and eternity cannot yet be realized. Even if you feel you are the lost and last laborer of the 11th hour, the Lord of the vineyard still stands beckoning.