The biggest regret in the latter lives of older people is the knowledge that if they had taken a different path, they could have become all that they dreamed of becoming, if only they tried.
When nursing home residents were asked what their greatest regret in life was, they all said that they wished they had taken more chances. They felt that they had held themselves back all their lives due to circumstance, fear, or duty and saw only a fraction of their potential self.
Only in latter years did they come to realize how fabulous they really were, and how much more of themselves they could have offered to the world if things had been different. But alas, regrets are now useless and only eat away at their souls. Their regrets serve only as instruction to the youth to go boldly in the direction of their dreams.
But fortunately, some people do break past this boundary. For no truer call-to-action has ever been uttered that equals Theodore Roosevelt’s “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,” and George Herbert’s addition that we should not wait but proceed at once, for “The time will never be ‘just right’,” he says. “Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.”
By the act of starting where they are, with what they have, some individuals are able to redeem themselves and finally do what they have put off for so long.
Like the old Swedish gentleman Oscar Swahn who solidified himself into the record books as the oldest Olympian to ever win the gold medal. He had put off his dream of shooting for decades until he finally decided to participate and refused to die with regret. Although competing against stronger, younger, fitter men, he pressed on and went on to win the gold 3 times.
“With life expectancy continually on the rise,” says Tom Butler-Bowdon, “You may well enjoy a productive life span of 60 years, say from age 20 to 80,” he says. “At 30 you still have 83% of your productive life ahead of you. At 40 you have 67%, and at 50, you still have 50% left to achieve your goals. Our longer, healthier lives mean we can start new careers later than we think, or fully live out the potential in the one we’re in.”
The first 30, 40 or 50 years of your life may simply have been the platform that provides the skills, experience and wisdom on which to build something important.
It’s worth remembering that after 25 years as a travelling paper-cup salesman, Ray Kroc was 52 when he started McDonald’s (what he had learned in the former role about the geography of American cities was crucial to finding the right locations for new franchises). So, whatever you have done so far, it may have just set you up for your real achievement.
Late bloomers in Sport
Philip Rabinowitz was one hundred when he entered the Record books in 2004. The 100-year-old ran the fastest 100 meters that had ever been run by a centenarian, clocking in at 30.86 seconds — shattering the previous world record of 36.19 seconds held by Austrian centenarian Erwin Jaskulski. He was 98 when he started training for the 100 meter dash, 80 years beyond his prime. Usain Bolt, in contrast, was 23 when set his 100 meter record of 9.58 seconds.
Heavyweight champions Ken Norton and Rocky Marciano had not stepped into a boxing ring until late into their twenties before competing in the sport, while Hoyt Wilhelm was in his thirties when he first played in the majors. By the time he retired at 49, he had set a record for most games ever pitched with 1,070 and had gained recognition as one of the greatest relief pitchers ever.
Late bloomers in Business
Suze Orman had been a waitress until 30, while Sheldon Adelson, Las Vegas sands founder sold shampoo and windshield defroster well into his thirties. Manoj Bhargava had been a monk and a taxi driver until 30 before founding 5-hour energy.
Ang Lee, the renowned director and producer was a jobless stay at home dad until 30 before his first big hit. JK Rowling was on welfare until 31 before she made it with her series. Between 40 and 45 we find Mark Puncus who started Zynga when he was 41, Robin Chase who founded ZipCar at 42 along with Craig Newmark of CraigList and Robert Noyce of Intel who were both 42.
In people in their 50s we find Ray Croc who was 52 when he founded McDonald’s, John Pemberton was 55 when he invented Coca-Cola, and Harland Sanders was 65 when he founded KFC.
Late bloomers in Music and Acting
In music, Susan Boyle was 48 when she made it onto the stage, and K. T. Oslin was 47, while Doug Seegers was 61. Andrea Bocelli played piano at small bars until age 33 before making it to the world stage. In Hollywood, Samuel L Jackson found his big break when he was 46, while Harrison Ford was a carpenter well into his thirties before making it big in Hollywood.
Rowan Atkinson was 35 when he made his big break. He had grown tired of being rejected in acting gigs, and decided to do his own thing, the franchise he started was called “Mr Bean” which has grossed billions worldwide.
He was born in a Middle-class family but suffered terribly as a child because of his stuttering. He was also teased and bullied at his school because of his looks and soon became a shy, withdrawn young boy with no friends. So he dived into science.
One of his teachers said nothing was outstanding about him and he did not expect him to become anything extraordinary. But Atkinson proved him wrong and got admitted to Oxford University. During his days there he fell in love with acting. But he could not perform in public due to his speaking Disorder. So he got his degree in electrical engineering before appearing in any movie or TV show.
So after getting his degree, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming an actor and enrolled in a local comedy group. But again his stammering got in the way. A lot of TV shows rejected him, leaving him devastated. But despite many rejections, he never stopped believing in himself. He had a great passion for making people laugh. He knew that he was very good at it. So he started focusing more and more on his original comedy sketches. And soon realized that he could speak fluently whenever he played some character.
“I found that when I played a character other than myself the stammering disappeared.” But even though he found a way to overcome his stuttering, he used it as an inspiration for his acting. While studying for his masters, Rowan Atkinson created the “Strange, surreal and non-speaking character which is known to everyone today as ‘Mr Bean’”.
Late bloomers in science
In the sciences, Marjorie Rice was 52 when she began writing her tessellating pentagons. Eugène Ehrhart, founder of Ehrhart polynomials wrote his PhD thesis at the age of 60.
William Herschel was almost 40 when he started on a new path in his life. Before he embarked on his newfound journey that would see him make groundbreaking discoveries in cosmology, he had no prior education in the science nor any mechanical skills — being a musician by trade for his entire adult life.
But his passion gripped him like a wrestler and would not let him rest until it was realized.
He undertook the endeavor at 36 having no scientific background or training. He picked up several books on the sciences and threw himself completely to it. He studied gravitation, the laws of motion, trigonometry, optics, astronomy and mechanical engineering. For practical skill he apprenticed himself to a mirror-builder who aided him in the crafting and cutting and refining of mirrors.
He did not wait until he had mastered the nuances of the trade before deciding to begin, but began right then and there. What he learned from his studies and apprenticeship, he used at home — often spending up to to 16 hours a day grinding and polishing his specula. He enlisted the help of his sister Caroline and his brother Alexander, the latter being an engineer by trade and a skilled craftsman. Alexander helped him with the molds and Caroline helped him with the mirrors. Over the course of 3 years they built over two hundred specula.
Finally, in the fourth year, they completed the construction of their first reflecting telescope. Herschel and his sister then began studying the cosmos and spent the next nine years carrying out sky surveys and studying celestial objects. On one such occasion while studying the constellation of Gemini, he took note of a new object which would, after several weeks of verification and consultation, be confirmed to be planet Uranus.
The discovery was met with adulation as it was the first planet discovered since antiquity — the classical period between 8th century BC and the 6th century AD. Herschel became famous overnight and received funding to construct longer and larger telescopes. His most famous was the 40-foot telescope, which was, at that time, the largest scientific instrument that had ever been built and was hailed as a triumph of human perseverance and zeal for the sciences.
What a marvel for a man who started with no knowledge of the trade. His discoveries have advanced our understanding of the universe immensely, and his most famous work — the discovery of infrared radiation — still holds today as one of the most important discoveries over the last 500 years, with its uses ranging from electrical heaters, cookers for cooking food, remote controls, optical fibers and much more. To teach oneself in an entirely new field, particularly in the sciences, is a remarkable feat. It shows us that we can all start with what we have and that there is no need to wait for providence.
Read more in my new book! The Trials And Triumphs of Hyperachievers