One of the common barriers to growth and fulfillment in the second half is the notion that "it's too late." This is false. As long as what we're striving for is personal mastery—as opposed to say, Olympic Team membership—it's never too late.
Dav8e remembers talking to his friend's mother when he was a mere lad of 16. He was telling her about how he had just begun learning to play the flute. "Oh," she said, with an implied reference to her own son, who began taking piano lessons at age 4, "you're sort of a Johnny-come-lately to music, aren't you?"
At 16 years old, a Johnny-come-lately? Hardly. Perhaps a 16-year-old who takes up a musical instrument may be too late to be a child prodigy, but he certainly is far from too late to develop a real expertise with the instrument and derive great satisfaction from playing it the rest of his life.
Same goes for someone at 50. Or 60. Or 70 or even 80. While it's true that, when we're younger, it tends to be easier to learn new things, especially things like language, there's no reason we can't take up new things much later in life. Tolstoy famously began learning Greek in his 70s so he could read Homer in the original. World-renowned cellist Pablo Casals was quoted as saying the reason he continued diligent daily practice into his 90s was that he thought he was getting better. Millions of lesser known individuals have taken up new skills far into their most advanced years.
Many others, though, refrain from doing so, claiming, "Oh, I'm just too old to learn." And while it is true that few over-50s will ever learn to shred some gnarly skateboard moves on a vertical pipe, any number of avenues of learning are open to people of any age.
The real challenge is to be able to look ahead and imagine that you will be able to learn what you set out to. At 16, this is pretty easy. We can forecast how good we'll be at the flute or guitar or French in ten years, at age 26. At 50, it seems harder to predict our success by age 60. But it shouldn't be. Ten years is still ten years; there's no particular reason (other than the difficulties of making time for new things in our later years) why we shouldn't be able to make as much progress at something from ages 50 to 60 as at ages 16 to 26. Moreover, by age 50, we should have two additional advantages. First, we will presumably have gained all sorts of perspectives that we didn't have as young people. We will understand our learning styles better; we'll have learned how to learn in new and more effective ways. Also, we'll have had loads more experience in what time means. At age 16, for example, ten years is an eternity. The very idea of sticking with something for a decade seems hardly conceivable. At age 50 or higher, ten years seems like a fairly small amount of time. The idea that we'll spend a decade practicing the guitar, or yoga, or learning Greek turns out to sound quite manageable. Like Woody Allen says, "I have ties older than that."
Dr. Alvin P. Shapiro
Dave says: From a professional standpoint, my dad, Dr. Alvin P.Shapiro, had done it all. A physician, a full professor on the medical faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, he had achieved the highest possible status in his profession and won the abiding respect of colleagues throughout academia and the scientific community. In his over 30-year association with the university, he had held a number of impressive positions, including Dean of Students for the Medical School and Chairman of the Department of Medicine. Now, at age 65, he was entering the period of his career at which many of his colleagues tended to sit back and let the accolades roll in. He could pursue his own "pet projects" and, being a highly respected tenured professor, no one would dare raise an eyebrow against him. Moreover, having had open-heart surgery just a few years earlier, who could possibly begrudge the good doctor if he slowed down a bit? Wouldn't it be only natural for him to gradually disengage himself from the day-to-day dramas of the medical school world?
Natural, perhaps, but not at all what my dad had chosen to do. Whereas many of his medical contemporaries were reducing their clinic hours and beginning to work on their memoirs, Al was diving headfirst into a new project, a new hospital, a whole new class of medical students who faced challenges quite a bit different than the fairly privileged young doctors he had worked with at the University of Pittsburgh.
At age 65, my dad had chosen to take on the task of directing the Medicine Training Program at Shadyside Hospital, a teaching hospital in Pittsburgh whose doctors and patients were far more diverse than those across town at his former job. A good portion of the young residents he would now be working with were immigrants to the United States. There were graduates from medical schools in India, Pakistan, Russia, and Grenada, along with those from many smaller schools throughout the United States. The patients at Shadyside Hospital, too, tended to represent a broad swath of social, cultural, and economic differences. A local hospital whose reputation, though solid, was not quite as impressive as the Presbyterian Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh, Shadyside Hospital served a community more representative of Pittsburgh's population than its crosstown medical center.
So why was Dad doing this? Why was he choosing to blaze a new career path when he could have easily been resting on his laurels?
The answer is given in a humorous quote that my dad shared with me at the time: "Illegitimi non carborundum." This made-up Latin phrase means "Don't let the bastards grind you down." Dad explained to me that the medical teaching profession, at least as it was being conducted at the university at that time, was quite a bit different than what had originally drawn him to it. His passion was in helping young medical students to become real doctors—healers—who were dedicated to combining the best science possible with the most authentically human response to patients. He said that he felt some schools overemphasized technological solutions that did little to train students in what they really needed to assist patients.
He told me a story about how one of his younger colleagues at his former school instructed some residents in diagnostic techniques using a computer-based artificial-intelligence expert system. While not at all a neo-Luddite (my dad was one of the first physicians he knew who owned a computer; in his 50s, he even taught himself some programming), he nevertheless found it odd that the students weren't being shown the simple method that allowed a physician like himself to successfully diagnose the patient's condition from a five-minute examination of his eye movements and skin tone.
Plus, he also wanted to work with more students who, like himself, had come to the medical profession from rather modest backgrounds. A son of a shopkeeper on Staten Island, NewYork, Dad had few financial or cultural advantages to help him succeed in his profession. Many students at the larger medical schools were sons or daughters of physicians—they had all the help they needed. At Shadyside, though, my dad felt he could give his students the sort of opportunities he had to make something of themselves.
The transitions my dad was facing weren't going to be easy; he faced a new setting, new colleagues, new responsibilities, even a new commute from home. But facing those transitions was, he believed, the very thing that gave his professional—and by extension, his personal—life meaning. As he explained to me, he was far too old to have to do any of this, but far too young not to.