Wednesday 22 January 2020

Well-being: It's never too late

Why do we think age is a barrier to reinvention?

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali

'In most of us, by the age of 30, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again." So goes an oft-quoted line from William James's The Principles Of Psychology which rankles with me every time I read it.

It's not that I disagree with James's assessment. I've seen plenty of people become so set in their ways that they have almost become inert. What irks me is that it has become a textbook excuse for those who simply don't want to entertain the possibility of changing.

We live in a world that ostensibly encourages reinvention, with a self-development industry that is worth $10bn in the US alone. Yet in direct contrast, we have this pervading idea that lasting change is almost impossible once we reach a certain age.

James was right - most of us stop reinventing ourselves by the age of 30. However, it's important to note that this fortification isn't biologically hardwired; it's culturally programmed.

The thirties, we are told, is when we settle down into a different stage of our lives. Unfortunately most people confuse settling down with becoming set in their ways. They take fewer risks and become more introverted. They swap spontaneity for cynicism. Their habits become more entrenched and their opinions less flexible.

Eventually, they start to derive their identity from the shortcomings that they tried to overcome in their twenties. Marshall Goldsmith explains it best: "After living with their dysfunctional behaviour for so many years (a sunk cost if ever there was one), people become invested in defending their dysfunctions rather than changing them."

Those who don't become set in their ways have an entirely different outlook. They remain open to new ideas and experiences; they put personal milestones in front of societal milestones and, as eternal students, they know that it is never too late to start something new.

Those who are committed to constant reinvention know that they are never too old to change career, move country or learn an instrument. To quote the late Wayne Dyer, they know "it is never too late to change the direction your life is going in". To quote Berkeley Breathed, they know "it is never too late to have a happy childhood".

Muhammad Ali famously opined: "A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life", yet the vast majority of people stop evolving because they buy into the fallacy that they ought to know who they are and what they're about by the time they get to 30.

In the twenties, reinvention is celebrated; in the fifties, it's reduced to a 'mid-life crisis'. This is yet another reason why people avoid making big changes after the age of 30: better to be discontent than to be thought of as fickle or flighty.

We all know that humans, as pattern-seeking animals, tend to resist change. Yet there is a darker side to this behaviour: just as people resist initiating change in their own lives; they can refuse to enable it in the lives of those around them.

We are dubious of change for various reasons. When someone we love chooses to address their shortcomings, we may feel like the spotlight has been shone on our own. And when the prevailing dynamic is disturbed, we may feel like we are losing control.

This behaviour is especially pronounced in family units. There is often strong resistance when somebody stops playing their designated role in what family psychiatrist John Byng-Hall calls the "family script".

An essay that was recently published on the School of Life website delves into this phenomenon. "Families may say that they want us to succeed, but would be highly threatened if we did so.

"A choice we make might remind someone of one of their failed ambitions. Our success might make them feel like a failure. We might try to sabotage our chances of winning so as not to leave a loved one feeling crushed."

It's easy to spout off truisms like a leopard never changes his spots and a zebra never changes his stripes, yet it's worth examining our deepest fears around change. Do we collude in perpetuating these ideas because we're fundamentally frightened?

It's also worth examining the inherent ageism of the idea that a person's character "sets like plaster" by the age of 30. The subtext is that we become stiff and stubborn.

Remember, we are culturally programmed to believe that reinvention has an age limit, hence we have to reexamine our belief systems around ageing when we decide to take a new direction.

It's no coincidence that the people who believe it's never too late are less inclined to bemoan the sore knees, the two-day hangovers and the dwindling energy reserves that can come with age.

They also tend to have a spiritual dimension. Author Marianne Williamson, who ran for US Congress as an independent at the age of 61, says her 'never too late' ethos was strengthened by a limitless outlook, "because spiritually, you know, enlightenment is a shift in self-identification from body identification to spirit identification".

"If you're only a body and it's only about you and your drama and your circumstances, then you look at limitation and you look at ageing and you look at all that, and of course you feel your opportunities are diminished because you feel that you're diminished."

In other words, it's a simple matter of choice. You can either subscribe to the belief that we are meant to settle down and stagnate at a certain age, or you can subscribe to the belief that the human body is built for constant reinvention.

Advances in neuroplasticity prove that the brain can rewire itself; the cells in certain organs regenerate themselves constantly. Characters may become set in plaster, but they have the potential to soften too.

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