Soon I’ll be turning 36.
I know, I know…
Depending on where you are in your life, you might be thinking: “Holy shit, that is old! I hope to die long before an age when I start dispensing unsolicited advice to young people. Also, I wonder what it feels like to wake up with crippling arthritis and no boner.”
At which point you’ll probably click off the page and go chase Pokemons for the rest of the afternoon (or whatever young people do these days).
On the other hand, you also might be think thinking, “You young whippersnappers! When I was your age, I was chopping wood from sunup to sundown for a nickel… and I was happy to have it! That was before the war, of course. Yadda yadda, blah blah, blerghity bluggh…”
At which point you stop chomping your toothpick for a moment, spit disdainfully on the dusty ground, mumble something under your breath, and promptly forget what the dad-gum in high tarnation it was you were so angry about a second before.
So, I get it, geezer.
“Old” is relative.
However, as someone who spent at least half his life thinking he’d die young (meaning age 20 to 27 or so) I cant help feel that 36 is a ripe old age.
Closing in on 40. If I haven’t had my fun and sowed my wild oats by now, I guess it’s too late.
Life is pretty much over. Or so it seems.
Anyway, I’d like to take this occasion to dispense some unsolicited wisdom.
Wanna read it?
If so, without further ado…
4 things I’ve learned from getting old
These are mostly things I didn’t realize were going to happen when I was younger.
Stuff nobody bothers to tell you when you’re growing up.
Your dad might tell you to go to college and not use drugs, for example.
What he probably won’t tell you is what to do when your super hot date announces, during foreplay, that (s)he “doesn’t really like condoms that much”.
He might not explain exactly how to figure out how many beers are “just enough”, and how many are “too many”.
He also might not tell you what it feels like when you notice that first grey hair, and realize you’re not going to be young… ever again.
Of course, as kids, we think adults actually have good answers to these types of questions, problems and moments of existential dread.
But as adults, we realize that there are all kinds of situations in which we just have to improvise – and we usually do it badly.
Anyway, no further ado (and I really mean it this time)…
The world keeps filling up with young people
I started teaching English when I was 22.
In those days, I was the youngest person in the room, a lot of the time. My students were anywhere from 16 to 70 – but mostly in their late 20s to early 30s.
When I taught professionals in business classes, my students were in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
As I kept teaching, though, I noticed a disturbing trend. Younger people just kept appearing in class – it even got to the point where I was sometimes (gasp!) the oldest person in the room.
Where do they come from?
I have no way of knowing – although I suspect it involves going on several dates with people who “don’t really like condoms that much”.
In any case, they’re everywhere.
First it was people born in the late 80s. Then the early 90s. Now, I have it under good authority that a lot of teenagers were actually born – get this – after the year 2000!
So today, someone born in 2002 could, for example, be bagging your groceries, running over your dog, or even hoping to date your daughter.
Shocking but true.
Anyway, we all get older.
Even those girls I had a crush on in kindergarten are barreling down on the big four-oh these days – just like I am.
I guess this has happened to people throughout history: Socrates, in first grade, thought third graders were the epitome of worldly wisdom and knowledge.
But by fourth grade, Socrates had realized how dumb third graders actually were. Only much later did he discover that true wisdom consists in understanding that one knows nothing.
It happened to Socrates, and it happened to your humble narrator.
Which neatly brings us to point #2…
Younger me was wrong about a lot
Sorry, younger me.
But when you thought you’d never have hair on your back, or a retirement account, or a frequent flyer card…
You were wrong.
Younger me, if I recall, spent a lot of time fantasizing about the collapse of capitalist society and living in the anarcho-tribal world that would surely follow.
(I’ve never seen The Walking Dead, but I assume it’s something similar. Lots of fresh air, no boring jobs or daily commute, and all set against a background of a no-holds-barred struggle for survival.)
Anyway, younger me also thought that studying English Lit was a good idea, that eating protein didn’t matter as long as you got enough carbs, and that dating Spanish girls was a lot of fun.
In other words: fuck you, younger me.
I’m just sayin… It’s not only other young people who were full of shit.
It was me, too.
That’s one thing my dad was right about: “One day, you’ll look back on this and realize how dumb you are now.”
Of course, I didn’t believe him.
Turns out, our brains haven’t even reached their full adult forms till about age 25.
But I didn’t know that then, and I wouldn’t have thought it was important if I had.
How would I even know what I was missing? Having a half-developed brain keeps you from understanding the limits of having a half-developed brain, I guess.
Time is short, so don’t waste it
As Marcus Aurelius said, a long-ass time ago:
“Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.”
Yup. Fate is at your elbow.
While I don’t know that many people my age and younger who’ve just keeled over in the middle of their drive to work – or woken up dead one morning – I guess I know a few.
Our time left on this planet is short, and always getting shorter. Or, as they say in Fight Club, This is your life, and it’s ending, one minute at a time.
So let’s make the most of it.
You’ve only got a few decades left to live. Maybe much less.
Don’t spend your time with idiots and assholes. And don’t spend it doing things you don’t like.
For me, this has meant eliminating a lot of bad relationships. When I was younger, I’d hang out with whoever was up for it.
Now, I’m more selective. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m an introvert, and that most people just aren’t that interesting.
So I spend more time alone, rather than forcing myself to socialize.
I’m happier this way.
On a similar note, I also don’t do much in the way of partying or night life. I’ve tried. And it’s just not fun for me.
Whatever you do, don’t waste years of your life on what other people consider to be “fun”.
Or what others consider to be meaningful, for that matter.
If your parents want you to be a doctor or a lawyer or (Buddha help us) a Catholic priest, that’s okay for them.
But in the end, you’ve gotta do your own thing. If your parents’ life plan – or society’s ideas of what’s right – are your top priority when making decisions, you just might spend most of your life being miserable.
As my dawg Jay-Z says, “No matter where you go, you are what you are, player.”
And he’s right. Just try fighting against who you are. It’s really hard. And (in my experience) has about a zero percent chance of success.
So, try instead: be the best version of yourself you can be. Improve on your natural strengths, and don’t worry too much about your weaknesses.
Because we’re all going to be bad at 99.9999% of everything, anyway.
Achieving your goals is largely meaningless
(And here’s the big but.)
Having goals is essential.
Listen: I’ve already gotten nearly everything I ever wanted out of life. All I’m missing is the million bucks in conservative investments and the perfect abs – and those are both coming soon.
In any case, I still have to get up every day and do something new and/or interesting. Otherwise, I might as well be dead.
Getting what you want isn’t an end in itself – it’s just a step on the way to something else. Hopefully, new knowledge and new happiness.
The real joy comes from the anticipation, and the process of achieving whatever it is you want.
James Clear explains it very well in his new book, Atomic Habits, and I’m paraphrasing: the space in our brain dedicated to wanting things is much larger than the space in our brain dedicated to liking things.
Explains a lot, doesn’t it?
Whatever you manage to get, achieve, attain, etc satisfies you for a day or so. You “like” it, as much as your caveman neurology allows you to.
And then it’s back to the wanting. The craving. The attachment to outcomes that Buddha warns about in his second noble truth.
So by all means, set goals. And then set bigger ones.
Just don’t assume you’ll want what you have once you have it.
Because apparently, Sapiens aren’t designed that way.
We’ve got this fucked-up dopamine system that rewards us any time we do something new.
It’s probably the reason for our success as a species, but in the microcosmic view it just makes us undervalue what we have, and always want more.
Final thoughts about getting old (or older)…
It’s tempting to extend these lists.
I coulda done “36 things I’ve learned in 36 years on this tiny blue orb.”
But if I did, I’d probably end up with some shockingly obvious wisdom like: “Read more books, watch less TV”. Or: “If some guy hands you a bunch of pills in da club, don’t take ’em.”
Anyway, if I had to add a number 5 to this list, it’d probably be something like “You can learn a lot from older people… just be careful which ones.”
Because, as Thoreau famously said, older people are mostly full of shit.
Most of what I got out of previous generations while growing up was along the lines of “Don’t apply for the Ivy League schools. It’s cold up there.” (My high school guidance counsellor.) “Don’t have sex, ever.” (My PE / Health teacher.) And finally, “Don’t become a writer. It’s hard, and you’ll probably fail.” (My mom.)
So, just as I said fuck you to younger me, I’m now, officially, saying fuck you to older people.
Everyone’s on their own path, and has to do the best they can with what they’ve got.
One life to live. Just do your thang.
That’s all I’ve got for today.
P.S. If you liked this article, you might also like Back on the Ranch, or maybe Sex, Booze and Phrasal Verbs. I guess, technically, I can’t guarantee that you’ll “like” them. Because brain chemistry. But you might. Also, how do you feel about getting old? Let me know, right here in the comments…
P.P.S. Update, 2023: I’ve finally hit 40 over here. Check out my thoughts on the virtuous life (and cheap dopamine) for more about that. Enjoy!