Do humans have a sell-by date? Is there an age at we should give up?
At a certain point, we begin to shed expectations. We receive a few harsh life lessons, see our peers settling in, and receive critical feedback from friends and family. After feeling the squeeze of everyday pressures, we wonder if it’s time to start being realistic.
No more fun and games. No more daydreaming. We need to accept things as they are, like it or not.
If you’re thinking this way, there is an incredible essay that Oscar-winning director Ang Lee wrote in 2006 on his “never-ending dream”. Here is a translation of that essay:
“In 1978, as I applied to study film at the University of Illinois, my father vehemently objected. He quoted me a statistic: ‘Every year, 50,000 performers compete for 200 available roles on Broadway.’ Against his advice, I boarded a flight to the U.S. This strained our relationship. In the two decades following, we exchanged less than a hundred phrases in conversation.
Some years later, when I graduated film school, I came to comprehend my father’s concern. It was nearly unheard of for a Chinese newcomer to make it in the American film industry. Beginning in 1983, I struggled through six years of agonizing, hopeless uncertainty. Much of the time, I was helping film crews with their equipment or working as editor’s assistant, among other miscellaneous duties. My most painful experience involved shopping a screenplay at more than thirty different production companies, and being met with harsh rejection each time.
That year, I turned 30. There’s an old Chinese saying: ‘At 30, one stands firm.’ Yet, I couldn’t even support myself. What could I do? Keep waiting, or give up my movie-making dream? My wife gave me invaluable support.
My wife was my college classmate. She was a biology major, and after graduation, went to work for a small pharmaceutical research lab. Her income was terribly modest. At the time, we already had our elder son, Haan, to raise. To appease my own feelings of guilt, I took on all housework – cooking, cleaning, taking care of our son – in addition to reading, reviewing films and writing scripts. Every evening after preparing dinner, I would sit on the front steps with Haan, telling him stories as we waited for his mother – the heroic huntress – to come home with our sustenance (income).
This kind of life felt rather undignified for a man. At one point, my in-laws gave their daughter (my wife) a sum of money, intended as start-up capital for me to open a Chinese restaurant – hoping that a business would help support my family. But my wife refused the money. When I found out about this exchange, I stayed up several nights and finally decided: This dream of mine is not meant to be. I must face reality.”
“Don’t Forget Your Dream”
“Afterward (and with a heavy heart), I enrolled in a computer course at a nearby community college. At a time when employment trumped all other considerations, it seemed that only a knowledge of computers could quickly make me employable. For the days that followed, I descended into malaise. My wife, noticing my unusual demeanor, discovered a schedule of classes tucked in my bag. She made no comment that night.
The next morning, right before she got in her car to head off to work, my wife turned back and – standing there on our front steps – said, ‘Ang, don’t forget your dream.’
And that dream of mine – drowned by demands of reality – came back to life. As my wife drove off, I took the class schedule out of my bag and slowly, deliberately tore it to pieces. And tossed it in the trash.
Sometime after, I obtained funding for my screenplay, and began to shoot my own films. And after that, a few of my films started to win international awards. Recalling earlier times, my wife confessed, ‘I’ve always believed that you only need one gift. Your gift is making films. There are so many people studying computers already, they don’t need an Ang Lee to do that. If you want that golden statue, you have to commit to the dream.’
And today, I’ve finally won that golden statue. I think my own perseverance and my wife’s immeasurable sacrifice have finally met their reward. And I am now more assured than ever before: I must continue making films.
You see, I have this never-ending dream.”
The Universe Doesn’t Operate the Way You Wish It Would
When we put in the effort to get something we want, we usually expect proportional results. We believe that small efforts lead to small results and large efforts lead to large results. Unfortunately, the correlation between the two isn’t so crystal clear.
When we don’t see the desired results at a specific point in time, we tell ourselves it’s not going to happen. Like Ang Lee, we hit a certain age and question why we’re not where we wished we were. And in order to get a frame of reference on how things are supposed to be, we look to our peers as examples.
Just look at the headlines of success stories. Mega-successful startup founders in their 20s. A list of the top 40 under 40. People who reached success at remarkably fast rates. How did they achieve something so early, while you’re struggling to stay afloat?
Of course, the universe doesn’t operate the way you wish it would. Someone who put in less effort can leapfrog over someone who has toiled away endlessly. A person that keeps trying can fail repeatedly.
The media likes to focus on those who have reached extraordinary success at an early age precisely because it’s so uncommon. Our attention gravitates towards the outliers, the unusual stories that stick out. The mundane doesn’t generate eye-catching headlines.
There’s no denying the fact that age matters. As you get older, some doors close. Others become more difficult to squeeze into.
Olympic sports are a prime example. The average age of a male medalist in the Summer Olympics is 26.2, while the average age of a female medalist is 25.2.
But when you look more closely, the average age varies greatly amongst various disciplines. Horsing events are on the high end of the age range, where the average medalist in dressage is 37.5 years old. Since horsing events are not as dependent on physical strength, athletes can be successful at an older age.
Gymnastics have the lowest average age. The average medalist in rhythmic gymnastics is only 18.5 years old. In a sport that requires high flexibility, balance and strength, your chances of success decrease as you get further from a gymnast’s prime age.
Of course, most of us aren’t looking to become an Olympian or professional athlete. So let’s look at age and success from a general perspective.
Some Doors Close, Other Doors Open
Over time, you feel less motivated to try new things. Your energy levels tend to decrease. You feel more and more settled into things. To shake things up again would mean rattling your comfort levels.
Still, it doesn’t mean you can’t start new things at a later point in time.
A number of people at the top of their fields got started much later than you may think.
Stan Lee, legendary comic book writer and editor at Marvel Comics, wrote his first superhero comic at age 39.
Julia Child, known for bringing French cuisine to the American public, spent her early career working as a copywriter and researcher. She was 49 when her first cookbook, the 726-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published, opening the door to her culinary career.
Then there’s Colonel Sanders, who franchised the first KFC when he was 62 years old.
I know people who have created new businesses after retirement. Others take up creative pursuits well into their current career. I’ve met someone who started rock climbing in her sixties.
Success is not static. It is not a permanent trait. Someone can be successful in their 30s, but not in their 40s. Someone who has been struggling for the first half of their life can find a breakthrough and become successful later on.
Just as success can be temporary, it is not all-encompassing either. Someone can be incredibly successful financially, but not personally. Someone can feel content in their situation, even if they don’t fit someone else’s mold of success.
Success is not as structured as we believe it to be.
Attitude, Action, and Circumstance
Maybe you feel successful on the inside, but not the outside. Maybe you feel that you could be successful if things were different. Maybe you feel that you have more to offer than what your present situation allows you to.
Everyone, even the people you deem successful, feels like that at some point or another. The difference is what you do with it. Here are a couple points on getting towards success, no matter where you are right now:
1. Make the most of what’s in front of you.
Many, if not most people, spend their waking hours doing something they don’t enjoy. But even if you’re doing something you don’t like right now, what can you take away from your experiences?
Working in customer service can help you hone your communication skills. Spending time in an established business helps you see how an organization operates. Soaking in these skills and knowledge can prove useful down the road.
You may not be doing something you like right now, but you can still learn and prepare for the future.
2. Keep an eye open for good opportunities.
When two people look at the same situation, they can have incredibly different perspectives. Where one person sees problems, the other sees potential.
I always found it interesting how casting directors choose someone to play a character. Sometimes when I see an actor off-screen, the person doesn’t seem like the right person for the role. But when I see the movie, the actor manages to embody the character.
A good casting director is similar to a lucky person. A good casting director has an eye for potential that others might miss. A lucky person is lucky because the person keeps a positive approach and open attitude, rather than relying on circumstances.
Nothing is perfect. Good things come with bad things. Risk and reward are intertwined. The question is whether or not you can see through it all to recognize a good opportunity.
3. Practice successful habits every day.
Someone may not have the external markers of success, but they have the makings of someone who could be successful. Their situation doesn’t match up with who they are. It may take reality some time to catch up.
The people mentioned above weren’t sitting around waiting for something to happen. Before any opportunities came along, they were already preparing for that big moment years in advance. They were busy practicing, honing their skills, and learning.
It’s why people who devote their time to excelling in one area can often carry those same traits to excelling in another. After all, being at the top of any field requires hard work, drive and vision.
Everyone focuses on someone’s biggest moment. But don’t forget all the small, seemingly insignificant moments that led up to it.
Don’t Write Yourself Off Yet
Someone you know is doing better than you. They’re the same age, or worse, they’re even younger than you. You keep trying, and yet, you keep floundering.
It feels like the doors are closing. The list of “what could be” gets shorter and the list of “what could have been” gets longer. Time is passing by, and there’s nothing you can do.
But those things don’t matter now. The only thing left to worry about is what’s next.
Your next step is paramount. Are you going to sit and mourn the past? Or will you take the lessons you’ve accumulated and transform them into a better future?
As long as you have breath, you have the energy and will to do what’s necessary for yourself. You’re not a carton of milk. Don’t discount yourself after a specific date.
The Cinema of Ang Lee: The Other Side of the Screen by Whitney Crothers Dilley – A look behind the curtain on how Ang Lee’s films, including The Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon crossed boundaries and earned him worldwide acclaim.