"I Wanna Be Adored"
When I was in my early 20s, I expended a lot of mental and physical energy on being lauded for succeeding at a young age. I wanted to write like Bret Easton Ellis, run a national TV show like (believe it or not) Jeff Zucker, and bring all the fire and attitude of a snotty punk kid to every staid institution I touched. If I'm honest, I probably wanted to disrupt the planet long before "disruption" was a silly buzzword, all in the name of making myself the budding iconoclast I believed I was. In other words, I was an arrogant little douche. In the immortal words of Tears for Fears, everybody wants to rule the world, but some of us believed we were well on our way to doing it simply by virtue of how far we'd already gotten by the time we were 22. At that age, I was helming the highest-rated and most influential prime-time local newscast in the country. A year later, I would be, as far as I knew, the youngest executive producer in the history of the station I worked for. I drove a BMW. I had a loft apartment. I was unstoppable -- except of course that I wasn't because, again, I was an arrogant little douche.
Over the course of the next several years I did far too many drugs and indulged far too deeply in a lifestyle that literally killed my best friend. Sure, I continued to climb the ladder and I moved to the second biggest market in the country where I worked as a senior producer, but the reality was that I didn't give a shit about actual success as much as I did satisfying my hedonistic tendencies. I put my career trajectory on hold to devote my energy -- and finances -- to pretending that I'd already arrived. Never saved money. Never worried what would happen tomorrow, let alone 40 years down the road, in part because my depression was always telling me that I'd never make it that far anyway. Life was nothing but the here and now, even when I made the mistake of trying to settle down with someone I purported to care for more than myself and my childish whims. When things bottomed out, as they did more than a few times, somehow life self-corrected and something even better came along. I hurt, badly -- but then, hadn't I always? Wouldn't I have anyway?
"But Gravity Always Wins"
Two weeks ago, an article ran at the New York Times that anyone who still feels restless in middle-age would've found impossible to ignore. The piece, titled "Finding Success, Well Past the Age of Wunderkind," examined the trend of people disproving Fitzgerald's famous maxim about second acts in American lives. It told the story of Lucille Gang Shulklapper, a woman who in youth wanted to be the next Edna St. Vincent Millay but who got detoured into teaching and raising kids, suddenly finding her way back to the dream she'd always had for herself. She published her first book of poetry at 60 and went on to publish several more. It's not like she became a big star or anything, but it was never really about that -- it was simply about being creative. The piece goes on to list the big names who peaked late in life: athlete Ernestine Shepherd, swimmer Diana Nyad, KFC empire-builder Harland Sanders, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt. (Even Ricky Gervais didn't really get his career off the ground until he was 40.) These people defied the conventional wisdom that if you're not well on your way to accomplishing your creative goal at an early age -- and if you haven't actually completed it before middle-age -- you may as well not even bother.
If you've hit middle-age, you understand why this school of thought exists. The energy it takes to launch a brand new venture out of the blue just isn't always there and unless you've hit retirement age and have a little breathing room in your life, there's a good chance you're still working day to day to get by. This is the dilemma: At, say, 45, who the hell has time to work on something that could satisfy creatively long-term when next week's bills will still be due? Maybe if you've spent years building up a nest egg you can take the time you need, but it's the Gen-Xers' lament that this has been harder to do throughout their lives. There are plenty of success stories out there, but there are just as many about people who were laid waste by any or all of the three crushing recessions America endured in our lifetime. My parents couldn't have imagined being in my position when they were my age -- and they still can't -- and if the various stories written lately about Gen-X hitting its inevitable mid-life crisis are true, I'm not the only one.
And that's it, isn't it? For somebody who started out on the fast-track and who began his career being told, "Someday, we're all going to be working for you," I faltered and fell, often thanks to my own stupidity and insistence -- over and over again -- that I'd never actually grow old. Maybe I'm lucky, because looking back I have life experiences those who settled down quickly and never ventured out into the world and deep within themselves could even imagine. It allowed me to write a book in my late 30s. But still, at this stage of your life you're always left taking stock, wondering what you did right and what you did wrong, and what you might have missed out on or failed to prepare for. That mid-life crisis really does hit you, no matter who you are or how you lived the first half of your existence on this planet. If you played it safe, it manifests in wanderlust and nostalgia, the quiet desperation Thoreau once wrote about. If you lived like the proverbial grasshopper, well, we all know how it ended for that poor bastard. One way or the other, though, you begin measuring out your life in coffee spoons and wondering what the hell is going to come next, whether you're ready for it, and whether at the end of it all you'll be able to say you did what you wanted to do.
"The Tales of Your Woe and Your Secret Ambition"
I'm writing for television in my spare time, which officially makes me like every other person living in Los Angeles. I do this with the knowledge that it may lead absolutely nowhere and I could continue doing what I'm doing right now for the rest of my life. But can I really? I think about that all the time. I work in media, which means that I'm doing six different jobs at the same time and working 16 hours days most of the week. But I'm painfully self-aware and hyper-cognizant of the fact that my primary job -- complaining online -- is a young person's game. An Angry Young Man is cool; a Bitter Aging Man is a pathetic cliché. So I push forward into stretching my creative wings just as I did with the book I somehow miraculously managed to crank out seven years ago. My new idols aren't kids. Much like those named in the Times piece, they're people who've pushed through their youth well into middle-age, maybe have become just a little wiser, and finally realized their dreams -- as well as, one would hope, financial security -- later in life. Who the hell begins an entirely new career and tries to enter one of the toughest businesses on earth at 45? Me. Dumb-ass me, who dicked around for most of his youth, going from thrilling success to heartbreaking failure over and over again. Marrying the wrong person. Taking the wrong job. Letting hubris get the best of me. Winning big then betting it all and losing bigger. Then throwing money at the chemical bliss I hoped would make it all go away or at least level everything out.
I have no idea how many people out there are like me, although I know that when you make a lot of mistakes and have a lot of regrets you tend to think that everybody else has their shit together. It sure as hell looks that way from the outside. Then again, maybe people who meet me think I've got my shit together. The fact is that I don't and I never really have. But while I'm one of those people whose screw-ups seem to come back and haunt them no matter how much time goes by and how hard they try to exorcise it all, the only choice is to move forward and keep trying to make life into the way I want it to be.
What other choice is there? When you didn't achieve it as a kid, or when you had the opportunity and squandered it, trying to reach for your goals in middle-age or beyond is really all that's left. Maybe it's important to always remember the words of George Eliot: "It's never too late to be what you might have been."
Then again, that was easy for her to say. Middle-age for Victorians was around 20.