Not Yet Past It (Nypie)
I was standing near the buffet table with a few fellow volunteers, eating my first helping of food laid out to celebrate Stanford Business School Alumni Consulting Team’s 30th anniversary, when a young man came up and introduced himself as Jonathan Levin. I recognized his name as the recently appointed Dean. After a brief chat, he took a few brisk steps towards another group near the bar and we noted in unison how young he was, slim, tall, with a youthful, upright stride, maybe in his early thirties, not a hunched academic who has poured over books and computers for most of his life.
Moments later another school official stopped by to greet us and we remarked on Levin’s youth. “He looks younger than his age, he is in his mid-forties”. Chatting with her about a different school program in which I had an interest, my age came up, maybe I elicited it, as I sometimes do. “You’re like Levin, at an older age, I would not have guessed that you were over 60”. I love hearing that, and luckily I do often, but I worry about being jinxed. A saying in Hindustani makes me beware of the evil eye. Is some unknown killer debility lurking beneath the surface of my robust health?
Like many people, in the days before a birthday, I reflect on the year gone by and the year ahead. Time seems to move faster as I age, as older people had warned me earlier in life, but I don’t understand why. I am in complete command of my schedule, feel no pressure, have no meetings or work deadlines. Yet, it feels as if my last birthday was just a few weeks ago. When I was young, during my long vacation from boarding school, living in Calcutta’s suburbs without anything to do, time passed ever so slowly, days felt endless.
I’ll soon start my 79th year. Wow, that does sound old, but I don’t feel it. I don’t know where I would peg myself in the conventional age scale. My doctor, leafing through my annual check-up results, said a 35 year old would be happy to have them. Another doctor, looking at my insides during an ultrasound exam, said they were of a man in his fifties. I can still jog for an hour without doing myself in, but I move slowly, really slowly. Yes, there is some loss in random access memory, and concentrating for an extended time feels more demanding. But is the age number a distraction even if a smidgen of physical and intellectual deterioration is real? Should one stop trying to improve what one is doing, or not try to develop new skills, take on new challenges? One thing is clear, the long term has arrived, and the end is nearer. How should one make the best use of the remaining time?
The answers to those difficult questions differ from person to person, obviously. Many of my cohort have disconnected from their careers, begun to putter around, spend time with grandchildren, travel, do volunteer work. I do some of that too, but most of my energy is devoted to developing a new career as a writer. Why at this age, so late in life? Perhaps because I feel unfulfilled, but that is a long story.
To cut it short, when I was young, I had no sense of what I wanted to do, had no compelling interest or passion, wasn’t aware of the possibilities. Because of that, I was easily steered towards a prestigious profession that would provide a secure, good living. Almost as soon as I started training for it, I discovered I hated it, but I stuck with it on and off, flailing for a way out, and all options seemed impossible. Deeply depressed, after dithering for years, I plucked up the courage to lunge at the raft of graduate school to avoid drowning, barely hung on through years of its winding calms and rapids as a mature student to acquire another profession, not riveting, and marred by the glacial pace of work and passive-aggressive bureaucratic infighting. But thankfully, it allowed me to express my core values, a vital improvement that helped me to emerge from the shroud of debilitating melancholy.
Finally, after fulfilling my familial responsibilities, and feeling financially secure, I got the chance to begin the career I wanted, but had remained camouflaged under a thicket of cluelessness and family and social expectations.
After I reached Europe in my youth, my intellectual horizons widened considerably. I devoured contemporary literature, especially by French authors such as Camus, Malraux and Sartre. I came across the phrase “hommes de belles lettres” and fantasized being counted among them. A couple of decades later, I experienced an explosive runner’s high, like an LSD trip I imagine, when it felt as if new synapses connected in my brain to light up a side that had lain dark and dormant, and I emerged to see a different world with enhanced color and sound, as if a brighter and more sensitive lens had fused into my mind. That moment confirmed my desire to write, but the circumstances were far from conducive to follow through.
It took a very long time before I won the freedom to make a start, in my early seventies. Is that too late? Well, yes to perhaps enjoy success and recognition; but no, if writing is engaging, enjoyable, and a challenge. I took classes to undo the bureaucratic style I had adopted from writing for work and learn to write for a broader audience. Education for adults is superficial, and does not provide the close attention and guidance that young students get at university. As a transition, and because I enjoy travel, I wrote travelogues that I posted on a website, initially for friends, but surprisingly, and I don’t know how, my readership expanded, and the site gets 5,000 visitors per month from all over the world. Recently, I received a contract to expand a long essay I had written about Emperor Ashoka’s life and exemplary governance into a full-length book, a sign of progress, but intimidating too.
Will I have time to put in the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers” made the benchmark for developing a craft? Unlikely, unless I live for another decade and remain in good health. Angela Duckworth, a recipient of a McArthur genius grant, in her book “Grit” writes: “we develop the capacity for long-term passion and perseverance as we get older.” If we enjoy what we do, an interest can morph into a passion, especially if we have the discipline to practice with the intent to improve, have focus and something to prove, and particularly, if it serves a higher or an emotional purpose.
When I feel I am treading water and the task is too daunting, which is often, Angela writes that people with grit, a quality at least as important as talent, get up, dust off, try again and finish strong. Easier said than done, but I do try. A few days ago I called Krishen Khanna, one of India’s masters of modern art, to wish him on his 92nd birthday. He is still painting, engrossed in it every day, for the day and does not think beyond it. He is an inspiration. Like him, but fourteen years his junior, I believe that I’m Not Yet Past It, a Nypie–an acronym coined by the Economist magazine (July 8).