The Human Condition:

Locked In and Locked Out – July 3, 2016

Trapped in fog

One day recently I woke up realizing that I was now the person I would be for the rest of my life. This might seem like a trivial observation—well, of course, I’m me!—but as I move into the latter years of my seventh decade, the realization has a whole subset of corollary meanings.

We all are taught to believe in the possibility of personal change. And I still do. Last year, I started taking keyboard lessons.1 In the next few years I may follow my father’s example, from late in his own life, and take flying lessons—if I want to expend the time and money required for that expensive hobby. I’m still writing new books, reading voraciously, learning new things, and growing mentally. I still work out with my karate exercises, watch what I eat—mostly—and try to maintain my physical plant.

But with this early-morning realization came the understanding that, as a person, as a psyche slotted into a physical body and inhabiting a certain place in space and time, I am not going to change very much from here until my last morning and my last breath. My habits are pretty well fixed. So are my likes and dislikes. So are my core beliefs. So are my attention span, personal energy level, and degree of caring or not giving a damn about things and people in the world around me. While I might learn new things and acquire new skills, they are still going to fit into an established pattern, a defined worldview, and a set of psychological reflexes.

In part, this is an example of the Eighty-Twenty—or even, at this point in my life, the Ninety-Ten—Rule.2 The rule has various uses, but basically it states that 20% of your effort generally goes to 80% of your result, and the remaining 80% of effort goes to just 20% of result. So, in business and marketing, 80% of your profits come from 20% of your customers; 80% of your customers take 20% of your staff time; and 80% of your complaints come from 20% of your customers—but generally not the same 20% as those who provide the profits.

In life, I take the rule to mean that, when you’re young, you need to spend only about 20% of your time, effort, and energy to have a lasting effect on your life and future prospects. The years ahead are full of possibilities; your success depends on a wide range of probabilities; and your luck is still accumulating. But when you are much older, you need to invest 80% of your time and effort to make any real change in your life, because the possibilities are now fewer, the probabilities a lot lower, and your luck mostly spent.

This cause-and-effect was shown to me most forcefully when I was at the university. A student in a four-year degree program will generally take eight semesters worth of classes—or twelve quarters, in the schools on that system—between matriculation and graduation. Theoretically, the contribution of each class grade, and the average of grades earned in each semester or quarter, has the same level of effect in establishing your overall grade point average (GPA) as any other class or semester. But in the first semester or quarter of your freshman year, you establish that GPA quickly—low, middling, or high—depending on the quality of your effort. In the second and third terms, you can move that GPA up or down fairly easy, depending on the effort you invest. But soon after that, and with each passing grading period, your average becomes more and more locked in, and movement becomes more sluggish. Until, finally, in the last term of your senior year, you can either work like hell or slack off entirely, and either way you won’t be able to budge your average by a hundredth of a grade point. Your GPA and your destiny are fixed, for good or ill.

How you feel about this slow and steady stabilizing of your personality and limiting of your prospects in a kind of time-hardened amber depends on how you feel about yourself and your life. This is a personal conversation you must have with your angels—or demons—when you reach late middle age.

If you have become the sort of person you aspired to be in your teens and twenties, you can take satisfaction in knowing that not much will be able to change you. In the time remaining to you, you might suffer financial or personal loss; you might lose your house and possessions to fire or flood; you will certainly lose friends and loved ones to the grim reaper; your body and mind both will slowly lose resiliency and elasticity. But you will still remain cheerful and optimistic—if that is your nature. You will still be able to make new friends or establish a new home, and you will mark the losses of body and mind with equanimity, just as you have met other adversities.

But even if you have become exactly the person you meant to be, that early-morning realization still represents a closing off of possibilities. If you have passed out of the job market, as so many of my age cohort have now done, then you know you can never go back at the level you once attained. If your retirement planning and savings fall short, and you need to go to work again, it will be at a different level, probably much lower, in a different field, with different people, and with foreshortened expectations of authority and prestige. You also know that alternative avenues, other possible lives and achievements, are no longer open to you. You won’t ever be President, or a rock star, an astronaut, a big-league ballplayer, or any of those dreams that must start when a person is young and can invest a lifetime’s worth of effort to achieve. You won’t even be able to become a mediocre physician, lawyer, therapist, or other professional—at least not without a total upheaval of your life and current situation, and probably not even then.

And if you are not the person you wanted to be, not in the place you wanted to inhabit, not in the personal relationship or professional situation you wanted to occupy at the age you have become, then that early-morning realization can come on as a sudden feeling of suffocation. Like trying to budge a 2.8 GPA into the high 3’s in your senior year, the opportunities, the possibilities, just aren’t there anymore. You are like a fully loaded airplane with not enough remaining runway or a strong enough headwind to take off. You are mathematically at a dead end. At this point in your life, all you can do is maintenance work. You can try to be nicer to people, make an effort to shed your bad habits, go out and try to meet new people and form new relationships. You can change some of the negatives about yourself that have accumulated over the years, but the chances of changing your basic situation are slim. Your time and your luck have both been spent.

As Bette Davis and Steve Forbes—and probably philosophers and pundits going back to the ancient Sumerian civilization—have observed, growing old is not for sissies. It’s even harder than that, because—as most of my friends have agreed—while you may be aging outwardly, inwardly you still feel about thirty years old, or whatever age was your floruit, your green years of flowering expectations, your good times. And that imagined age will last for decades after the flowering has passed. I suspect you feel thirty or however many years old right up until physical and mental infirmity so distort and limit your life that you bitterly regret the things you once could do that are now impossible.

Time is a bitch. Old age is hardly a blessing. But still, as they say, it’s better than the alternative.

1. I was inspired to do this by a story told at one of the management meetings at the biotech company where I worked. The story related to new cellular regeneration—that is, “stem cell”—technologies and how people will be living longer in the years to come. A woman had turned one hundred years old and was asked by a bright young reporter if she had any regrets. “Yes,” said the woman. “I regret I didn’t start taking violin lessons when I was sixty, because by now I would have been playing for forty years.” Think about that for a moment. You or I might die tomorrow. But if we did live another forty years, what are the skills we might master and the things we might achieve?

2. Also known as the Pareto Principle, after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto.