Life Is Not an Emergency

What older people know about ambition that young people don’t

Photo by Anneliese Phillips on Unsplash

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who do too little to accomplish their dreams and those who do too much.

Usually, self-help talks to the former. “Your dreams are urgent! Who knows how long you’ll have? Don’t wait! Start now! Go, go, go!”

I know because I have written many of those posts. I wrote these articles because “Go, go, go!” was the message I needed to hear to finally start on my own journey.

It took me 23 years to realize no one was coming to save me. That I had to build what I wanted with my own hands. That only I could give meaning to my life.

I know 23 is quite young, and I’m grateful to have “gotten the joke” this early, but it still feels like a long time, and so trying to get other people’s butt in gear is both my way of paying it forward and of making myself feel better about a period of time in which I didn’t do everything I could have to live my best life.

I think many self-help writers feel the same, and that’s why “take action” is the dominating slogan in the industry. At some point, someone helped them realize they had to take life into their own hands, and so the message they received is the one they are now spreading.

There are two great ironies to this:

  1. Self-help is not self-help at all. It’s just help. When someone inspires us to change, that’s one human being helping another. Whether we do it because we read about their story, observed them on video, or interacted with them in real life doesn’t matter. It’s still help, even if we accept it in quiet solitude in our living room.
  2. Self-help always comes with regret. The whole industry is built around it. Not everyone is trying to sell you some pill for yet another ill, but, in a way, we’re all trying to make up for lost time. There’s always a tad of regret, and it’s that regret we speak to when we tell people: “Go, go, go!”

The older I get, the older the people I admire. When I was 10, I thought 15-year-olds were cool. In my 20s, it was people in their 30s and 40s. As I’m approaching 30, I find myself looking more towards people in their 50s and 60s. My dad is pretty cool. He’s 55. So is my grandpa. He’ll be 80 this year.

One thing I’ve noticed about those older people, be it those in my own life or the ones in the books and on TV, is that they rarely seem to have this aura of regret around them, nor do they heavily push the “I did it myself” narrative.

With the exception of a few gurus chasing their 437th million — which makes me question if they ever got the joke in the first place — older people often strike me as if they’re just people, even if they’re wildly successful.

They know their stuff, but they’re humble and mellow. They don’t push into the spotlight, and they casually brush off mistakes. They know everyone makes them, and they just accept them as part of life. They also seem to have no problem with the fact that everyone needs a little help sometimes.

I’m only 29, and I’ve played the success game for just 7 years. If I let the 23 years “pre” self-improvement color my perspective, it’ll be heavily biased, biased towards regret, towards, “I did it myself,” and towards “Go, go, go!”

Observing older people makes me wonder: What if that’s not the point? What if the point is to let go of the regret? To accept help when you need it and be graceful about it? Maybe, it’s “Slow, slow, slow!” not “Go, go, go!”

What if you had enough time to achieve everything you’ve ever dreamed of?

If you live in relative safety and your basic needs are covered, you can expect to live well into your 70s. Why isn’t that the basis of our ambitions?

Maybe, older people know we have enough time. Maybe, they surprised themselves when they exceeded their own expectations far sooner than they imagined. Even if they’re just more relaxed when falling short of their goals, it seems they’ve turned the youngster’s notion of success on its head.

If I hadn’t spend my childhood without a care in the world, dabbling in all kinds of passions, if I hadn’t taken the safe, academic path, would I have started writing when I was 23? Who knows. Without 2012-Nik, 2020-Nik would be different. Maybe, that’s why we needn’t regret: We’ll never know.

As proud and surprised as I am of my own accomplishments in the past 7 years, I also realize I’ve had plenty of help along the way. A project with the right person at the right time, an older friend giving me advice — without them, I wouldn’t be here. Even writing is a way of building relationships. Just because they’re invisible doesn’t mean they’re not there.

What if your life wasn’t an emergency? What if you didn’t have to push so hard? Today is today. It’ll have ups. It’ll have downs. But for today? It’s always good enough. “Learn as if you’ll live forever,” Gandhi said. For a task that never ends, that seems like a good attitude.

It’s easy to buy into the “you’re too late” narrative. Hopping onto the regret train may move us closer to reaching our potential, but it’s a train that goes ever faster — and that makes it hard to get off.

Life is a single-player game, but you don’t have to do everything alone. You didn’t lose any time. Everything happened in the right order bring you to today.

I don’t know if, right now, you’re doing too little to accomplish your dreams or if you’re working too hard. All I know is your life is not an emergency. You don’t have to race through it. Tomorrow will be another day.

Sometimes, all we can muster is to not give up or finally ask for some help. On some days, the only thing we make is pancakes. That’s fine. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody needs help.

When you ask older people what they really regret, it’s rarely what they screwed up or that they didn’t go fast enough. Usually, they say: “I was so busy that I missed some of the best parts of the journey.”

Maybe, that’s why they’ve slowed down. It’s not just that we have time and that there’s no need to regret or do everything by yourself. It’s that, only in hindsight, we might realize making pancakes was the best part of it all.

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” — Søren Kierkegaard

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