The Trap of Thinking It’s Too Late for Big Things in Our Lives

May 03, 2023 11 Min Read
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Exploring the Pursuit of Dreams and the Good Life: Is It Ever Too Late?

Are we living a good life?

Have we been pursuing our dreams?

If we were to die tomorrow, would we be happy with our life, knowing we’ve lived well?

Or are we thinking it’s too late to live a good life and pursue the things we want in life—our goals, dreams, or adventures?

These questions may be uncomfortable, but they’re essential in informing our quality of life and whether we experience a sense of fulfilment.

The State of Our Dreams

Most of us have goals and dreams. Common examples include having a family, traveling around the world, building a dream home, running a marathon, writing a book, living abroad, learning a language, climbing a mountain, achieving financial security or independence, starting a new venture, and things like visiting every state (or continent) or every national park.

With 11.6% of the U.S. population (37.9 million people) living in poverty in 2021, about half the world population living on less than $6.85 (USD) per person per day, and about 9.2% of the world population (719 million people) living in extreme poverty, on less than $2.15 a day, even having these dreams is a privilege.

According to the 2016 Global Dreams Index Survey, polling 5,484 women aged 18 and older in 14 countries across six continents, about half the world’s female population isn’t satisfied with their current lives and has given up on their dreams. But of the women who did pursue their dreams, 82% were satisfied with life.

According to a 2021 Moneypenny survey, only 7% of Americans reported that they were working in their dream career, and 54% overall report that they’re happy in their job (with 19% unhappy and 27% neither happy nor unhappy).

According to a survey of more than 2,000 Americans, 22% reported that they pursued one of their childhood career aspirations, while 78% reported that they didn’t. Of those who ended up in a childhood dream job, 88% reported that they’re happy with their current job, versus 70% for those who didn’t (but 70% is still high).

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When it comes to our views of the good life, recent data shows that they’ve been changing recently. Today, more people focus on good health, a simple and balanced life, and meaningful connections with people. Meanwhile, insufficient income is the top obstacle to the good life, with 62% of respondents noting that as a top hindrance.

Changes in Life Expectancy and Retirement Patterns

As many people consider whether it’s too late to pursue goals and dreams, the context has changed significantly when it comes to life expectancy and retirement. For starters, people are now living longer on average. In 1960 (the first year the United Nations started tracking global data), average life expectancy was 52.5 years. Today, it’s up to 72 years. Average life expectancy for U.S. children born today is about 76 years.*

What’s more, the concept and practice of retirement are also changing rapidly. According to 2022 Gallup research, the average retirement age among U.S. workers is currently up to age 61 from age 57 in the 1990s. Today’s workers report that they expect to retire at age 66, on average. Meanwhile, the percentage of people aged 55 to 74 who are retired is declining, because people are working longer.

Think It’s Too Late? Not So Fast

Given that context, let’s revisit the question of whether we think it’s too late to pursue our goals and dreams. My friend Karin has been a teacher, real estate broker, stockbroker, sales manager, and vice president at a global financial services company. At age 60, she chose to pursue some new endeavours that called to her heart and spoke to her core values.

Karin earned a degree in spiritual psychology and became active with writing, photography, hospice, counselling prisoners, camps for children with cancer, coaching, and travel. The depth and joy she’s added to her life since making those changes are incalculable.

She’s not alone. Consider these examples of people who have proven that we have incredible potential to do things—sometimes big things—later in life:

  • At 61, Mahatma Gandhi led the Salt March to protest the British salt tax imposed on the people of India, walking about 200 miles (320 kilometers).
  • Colonel Sanders started Kentucky Fried Chicken when he was 65.
  • At age 65, Laura Ingalls Wilder published the first book in the Little House on the Prairie series.
  • Noah Webster published his first dictionary when he was 70.
  • Peter Roget published the very first thesaurus when he was 73.
  • At 75, Barbara Hillary, a cancer survivor, became one of the oldest people and the first black woman to reach the North Pole.
  • Grandma Moses, the American folk artist who was featured on the cover of TIME magazine, started painting when she was 78.
  • Japanese skier and alpinist Yuichiro Miura climbed to the top of Mount Everest at age 70 and then again at 80.
  • At age 85, German classical scholar Theodor Mommsen received a Nobel Prize in Literature.
  • At 92, Glady Burril ran a marathon.
  • Australian country and western artist Smoky Dawson composed, recorded, and released a new album at age 92.
  • At 100, Teiichi Igarashi climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan.

And remember: even Scrooge made some big changes later in life.

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We should be careful here. These may be fun and inspiring examples, but the point of life isn’t achievements and world records.

For some, those kinds of adventures and accomplishments are motivating and meaningful. Others are interested in savouring life and spending time with their loved ones, books, or hobbies—or giving back in ways that are meaningful to them. The point isn’t adopting someone else’s dream or trying to impress people. Rather, it’s to live our own good life—and be sure we don’t play small and abandon the things we want to do for lame reasons that won’t stand the test of time.

Read more: Carpe Diem: Don't Postpone Your Dreams

7 Reasons Why We Fall into the Trap of Thinking It’s Too Late

There are many reasons we can fall into the trap of thinking it’s too late for important things we want to do. For example:

(1.) We’ve been so busy living and managing our daily responsibilities that we haven’t carved out enough time and energy to work bigger things.

(2.) We feel trapped by financial commitments or constraints. According to a 2023 CNBC / Momentive survey, 58% of Americans report living paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes lack of financial resources is a major impediment, but for some, it can be a rationalisation.**

(3.) We feel like it’s not practical or even a bit crazy to pursue some big goals and dreams. They may appear out of reach. And we may not be in the habit of pursuing them.

(4.) We feel comfortable on our current path. It may feel like a heavy lift to resurrect some of those aspirations and get to work. We may be weighed down by inertia or complacency.

(5.) We may feel pressure from family, peers, or others to remain on our current path or to fit into a more traditional definition of success. It may be that we’re letting ourselves get boxed in by others and what they want for us (or what we think they want for us)—or by conventional views.

(6.) We fear going out of our comfort zone and failing in the attempt. Fear is indeed the great inhibitor, not just in this case but also with most hard things in life. But in many cases, our fears are phantoms conjured by the ancient part of our brain stem and no longer relevant for the modern world and our current circumstances.

(7.) We may lack confidence. It’s likely that doubts will creep in when we think about big things we’d like to do. So we may abdicate and retreat. Needlessly.

Most people don’t do what they love. It’s true…. And the older you get, and the more you look around, the easier it becomes to believe that you’ll end up the same. Don’t fall for the trap. -Nicolas Cole, writer and gamer

You may like this: Why Do We Stop Chasing Our Dreams?

The Problem with Thinking It’s Too Late

These beliefs and rationalisations have real consequences. Feeling that it’s too late to pursue our deeper ambitions or live the life we want has big downsides.

According to researchers, as we contemplate our lives, we typically regret the things we didn’t try or do the most (more than the things we tried that didn’t work out) in the long run. According to Dan Pink’s American Regret Project survey, “inaction regrets outnumbered action regrets by nearly two to one.”

I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. -Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO, Amazon

In their book, Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful AgingRichard Leider and David Shapiro note that it’s not uncommon as we age to look back on our lives and regret things we haven’t done. Many people are living what they call the “default life,” which can prompt some tough questions:

Where did all the time go? How did my life pass so quickly? Why did I squander my one precious opportunity for living?

When Richard asks older people about their biggest challenges, one of the common themes is “the fear of having missed out on life’s opportunities with no time left to catch up.” Enter the “late-life crisis.” In the book, Leider and Shapiro note that the “late-life crisis… really is a thing”—and that it affects both men and women. They cite recent research that about a third of people over age sixty experience it and that it’s “characterised by dissatisfaction; a loss of identity; an expectations gap and the feeling that life has peaked.”

How to Stop Thinking It’s Too Late: 12 Steps

How to interrupt these unhelpful thought patterns and the sense of futility that accompanies them? There are several things we can do to escape this wasteful trap:

(1.) Pay attention to whether we have limiting beliefs that are holding us back. Examples of such common beliefs: we’re not smart or talented enough; we lack the confidence or creative capacity to do what’s needed; we’re stuck; we’re not ready; we’re damaged goods.

(2.) Get clear on what we want in our next chapter. It helps to know our purposecore values, and vision of the good life. Talk to friends and loved ones about our goals and dreams. Brainstorm and journal about our future possibilities. Revisit those childhood aspirations and revel in the enchantment of dreaming again.

(3.) Recognise that our capacities and potential in many areas increase as we age. Although we were stronger and faster when we were younger, we gather more knowledge, experience, wisdom, and insight as we age—as well as more connections. These are powerful assets when it comes to doing big things. When we’re older, we’ve shed some naive habits and beliefs from our wide-eyed youth, and we’re better at discerning patterns and understanding what it takes to navigate complexity and overcome challenges.

(4.) Let go of outside expectations—of caring too much about what others think. Focus instead on who we really are, what we really want, and where we want to go in the coming years.

(5.) Map how we spend our time. Too often, we waste large swaths of our days on things that are either questionable, trivial, or even counterproductive. If we stopped those things (or even some of them) and swapped in planning, preparation, and action on our aspirations, we could make good progress on things that matter. Also, identify what we must stop doing to free up margin for the new endeavors.

(6.) Calendarise the most important things we must do. Take the things we really want to do, break them into preparatory actions and steps, and then place those actions onto our calendar and integrate them into our daily and weekly routines.

(7.) Start small and build from there. Too often, we let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We talk ourselves out of even trying. We’re intimidated by the unknowns and what may seem like an insurmountable climb. The problem is that we’re discounting the compound effect of daily, disciplined action and the motivation it provides.

(8.) Form new habits that support our big ambitions. When we develop new habits and repeat them often, we not only re-wire our brain but also change our identity—our conception of ourselves. Create systems and routines that support our progress toward the things we want to do and keep making improvements.

(9.) Be mindful of who we spend time with. The people we hang out with influence us deeply. There’s a big difference between being around people who encourage and inspire us versus people who criticise and belittle us. Some lift us up while others hold us back. Too often, we’re complicit in remaining oddly loyal to people who are only using or abusing us.

(10.) Revel in the excitement of doing something big and bold. Something that touches our heart. A rousing adventure. Bold endeavours, uncertain initiatives, and daring ventures stir our souls and bring us back to life.

(11.) Recall that we’re all mortal—and with an uncertain expiration date on this planet. Nobody knows when their time is up, so we should take full advantage of the time we have now.

Keep death daily before your eyes. -St. Benedict

(12.) Note that this business about pursuing goals and dreams doesn’t have to be a solitary or selfish endeavour. Far from it. We can team up with like-minded dreamers and seekers. And we can build service and impact into our plans and commitments. By pursuing our dreams, we may very well inspire others to do so as well.

Ultimately, if you give up on your dreams, you teach your children to give up on theirs. -Kate Owen

Conclusion

It’s a cliché to say it’s never too late and, of course, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes it is too late. Like when we’re dead and gone. But that doesn’t mean that the sentiment behind it is wrong. It isn’t.

The key is distinguishing between when it is truly too late and when it isn’t. And the point is that way too many people think it’s too late when in reality they’re deluding themselves or hiding. Here’s to snapping out of that delusion and honouring the gifts we’re given. Right now.

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Reflection Questions

  1. Have you fallen into the trap of thinking it’s too late to pursue your goals and dreams?
  2. If so, which ones? What aspirations are lying dormant within you?
  3. How has that thought prevented you from bringing more excitement, meaning, and fulfilment into your life?
  4. What will you do about it, starting today?

 

The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all. -Ted Hughes, Letters of Ted Hughes

 

This article was also published on Gregg Vanourek's LinkedIn.

Edited by: Kiran Tuljaram

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Gregg Vanourek is an executive, changemaker, and award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership, entrepreneurship, and life and work design. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on leading self, leading others, and leading change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion).

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