Am I Too Old To Be Successful?

By Erik Brown

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

I’ve read through a lot of articles on Medium and Quora. I’ve noticed a recurring question. The question essentially asks, “Am I too old at X age to be successful at Y.”

They may not exactly say the word successful explicitly, but it’s implied. By the nature of their question, the person asking is indicating they think they’re too old to pursue another path in life. They’re too old to do something they think will make them successful.

On its face, it’s a very logical question to ask. When you’re picking up a skill or career at an older age, you’re starting at a deficit. Others have been at it for longer than you. It’s logical to think that the crowd will be far ahead of you. It’s also logical to think that you might never catch up.

Now before I go any further, I’ll exclude the ridiculous. If you’re pushing 50 and have never fought in your life, starting an MMA career is most likely out of the question. The same might go for being an Olympic sprinter at that age.

However, most careers won’t be that unattainable if you’re older and start late. Being a lawyer doesn’t require a specially honed physical body in its prime. The same goes for being a real estate agent or engineer. Even the realm of music and entertainment can be doable for a late adopter.

Will it be difficult? Yes. Will it be impossible? No.

History has some prime examples of great and well known individuals who experienced self-doubt in pursuit of their goals. In particular, their age was working against them for their desired pursuit; they started much later than their peers. Success was not achieved until much later in life than they planned.

The word ‘success’ is also translated into the mind of every individual differently. What success means for me is not what success means for you. Success is an ever changing language for all who speak it. It also changes over time.

Bust Of Julius Caesar — Musei Vaticani (Stato Città del Vaticano) [Public domain]
“His friends were surprised, and asked him the reason of it. ‘Do you think,’ said he, ‘I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?’” — comment from Julius Caesar in Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives”

A man stands in front of a statue and cries. He cries because his life hasn’t matched someone he idolized. The man who was immortalized in stone had done so much by the crying man’s age. This unknown man sheds tears because he feels like a failure for being too late to achieve his version of success.

This unknown man I mentioned was Julius Caesar.

You may be able to say many things about Caesar. However, he was by no means a failure. The man Caesar was comparing himself to was Alexander The Great. Wonder boy Alex had managed to conquer the known world by the time he was in his early 30’s. Yup, those are some big shoes to fill — a high five might be in order too.

Knowing what we now know about the life of Caesar, it’s laughable to see the man crying that he was inadequate. He thought he was washed up when he was about 32, because he didn’t live up to his favorite Macedonian’s exploits.

Our sobbing Roman friend may have forgotten that Alexander was born into his position. He was also handed the most devastating army of the age as well by his father.

Caesar was self-made by his own bravado and wit. He may not have conquered the world by 32, but he had a pretty good run nonetheless. Achieving the highest political office of Consul of Rome, conquering Gaul, and eventually declaring himself emperor are notable feats.

Caesar may not have been Alexander, but he didn’t have to be to achieve his form of success. His ‘dusty’ old age of 32 didn’t hold him back either. I think it’s safe to say he eventually did something memorable, unlike his quote above would lead us to believe.

Colonel Sanders 1974 in character — picture taken by Edgy01/Dan Lindsay — Wikipedia Commons
“I was sixty-six years old. I still had to make a living. I looked at my social security check of 105 dollars and decided to use that to try to franchise my chicken recipe. Folks had always liked my chicken.” — Colonel Sanders

You may recognize KFC as a global brand. You see their signs everywhere you go. Whenever you turn on your TV, a comical KFC commercial isn’t far behind. But how many people know the story of their founder Colonel Sanders?

Sanders had a myriad of different jobs over the course of his life and could never find success at anything. He was a railroad worker, in the army, a tire salesman, lawyer, and a midwife. I’m dead serious, he did a stint as a midwife.
He also had a job as the secretary for the Chamber of Commerce in Columbus Indiana, which ended in failure.

Sanders also took many gambles on being an entrepreneur. He ran service stations, restaurants, and a boat charter company. All of these enterprises failed. By retirement age he had no money, but still had a desire to achieve something. He took a $105 social security check and hit the road licensing his pressure cooking chicken recipe.

So, Sanders didn’t find the success he was searching for until he was close to 70. I’m sure if you asked Colonel Sanders if you were too old to be successful in your career or a new career, he’d laugh at the question. Sanders’ goal wasn’t to wait until he was in his late 60’s to achieve business success. He kept trying different formulas until something worked.

Everything he touched failed, but he was damn good at cooking chicken. So, he licensed his recipe and let the buyers run the businesses. It took him a lifetime to figure that out and it took him till retirement age to achieve what he was looking to do.

Confucius — By Wu Daozi, 685–758, Tang Dynasty. [Public domain] Wikipedia Commons

The name Confucius is widely known around the world. It would be hard to imagine this man as a failure, but in a way he did. In Confucius’ age, the ultimate goal of most educated people was a government job. The time period he lived in was also a turbulent age of war and turmoil.

Michael Schuman, author of “Confucius And The World He Created” in an interview with National Geographic tells of Confucius’s struggles. Confucius had made himself a scholar on early Chinese literature, history, and poetry. He created a form of teaching based on this input.

Confucius planned to use this teaching in his government position to bring peace to China. The lords and kings had other ideas.

The various rulers wouldn’t listen to Confucius’s teachings. He eventually changed course and focused on teaching. So, he had a midlife career shift of sorts. This is where he achieved his success and spread his ideas to the masses.

Unfortunately, he would not have the widespread name recognition until far after his death. The book most attributed to Confucius and his teachings “Analects of Confucius” was compiled and written by his followers. Confucius’ students eventually made their way into various governments and those governments began eventually espousing his ideas.

So, even the great Confucius had to make a course correction and seek a new career of sorts. He also achieved fame later in life; some might say not until after his life.

Film Clip From The Princess Bride
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
— Inigo Montoya (loosely translated quote) — “The Princess Pride”

I’ve used this word success repeatedly in this article. As our sword-fighting friend Mr. Montoya mentions, we may not have a firm grasp on this word. It has a dictionary definition, but in spirit means something different to everyone.

Success for one may be:

  • Having enough money to buy their own private island
  • Owning their own business
  • Being the top known person in their profession
  • Raising two kids who don’t do drugs, can earn a living, and love their parents
  • Being able to get out of bed unassisted and walk to the kitchen
  • Being happy

The list above are radically different aims and are hard to fit neatly into one word. To make matters even more complicated, the idea of what is success grows and morphs shapes over a lifetime.

What you think success means at 18 will change when you hit 30, and more than likely again at 45, then once again at 65.

In Alex Banayan’s book “The Third Door”, he interviews Steve “The Woz” Wozniak, a founding member of Apple Computer. Before the interview, one of Alex’s friends asked why he was interviewing Wozniak and not somebody successful.

In the interview, Alex found that Wozniak was one of the happiest people he ever met. Wozniak never stopped smiling and laughing and generally appeared to be enjoying his life. In the interview, the former Apple guru states that is his idea of being successful; being happy.

“The Woz” explained how he didn’t want a stressful and unfulfilling life, so avoided things that made him unhappy. He may not have become a Steve Jobs, but he was more than happy being Steve Wozniak.

I’ve often heard it said that you shouldn’t compare yourself to others; compare yourself to who you were the day before. I think overall this is good advice, especially looking at Caesar comparing himself to Alexander The Great. However, I think there should be an addition to this comment.

Compare yourself to the way you were previously, but use others as a guiding point.

You want to personally grow, but you can get insight from watching other people. You can also get ideas of what success is by watching others. For example, your next door neighbor who is rich and miserable could be an example for what you don’t want your success to be.

You can never be the person you’re watching, but you can get motivation and learn from them. As Caesar couldn’t be Alexander, but he could learn from Alexander, and in so doing be a better Caesar.

So, what do Julius Caesar, Colonel Sanders, and Confucius have in common?

All three achieved their idea of success much later than they desired. They also had to course correct on their journey, changing direction as doors closed in their faces.

Am I too old to be successful?

According to Julius Caesar, Colonel Sanders, and Confucius, you’re never too old to be successful. However, it is important to know what you in your own mind mean by successful. This will give you proper aim on your journey.

Thank you for reading my ramblings. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, please share.