by Jim Powers
The songwriter/composer Irving Berlin wrote something like 15,000 songs in his lifetime. He won four awards.
“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” Napolean Bonaparte
I turn 72 this month. The average lifespan for an American in 2022 is 76, a decline over three years ago, primarily because of deaths from the Covid pandemic and the increasing violence in our country. That lifespan amounts to approximately 4000 weeks, and I’ve used up most of them.
I’ve written millions of words in my 72 years, many published, many not published. I’ve taken tens of thousands of photographs during those years, most of them published in one venue or another. I’ve won a lot of awards for both over those years. And I have no idea where the various certificates, plaques and trophies are now. I’ve stashed them in various desk drawers over the years and eventually threw them away.
As an almost 72-year-old man I have no useful advice for current and future generations. Old men looking back over their lives tend to paint themselves standing in their best light. So, I’d like to share a message from my 21-year-old self, both to me and to those who have only used up a small number of those 4,000 weeks they have to look forward to. Never do anything in life for “colored ribbons.”
Just for full disclosure, I have a lifelong character flaw. I don’t care what others think of me. So, I’ve never cared about recognition. I’m internally motivated. I have achieved whatever I’ve achieved because it was important to me. It was a conscious decision of that 21-year-old self to live my 4,000 weeks working at stuff that was meaningful to me. Clearly, other people didn’t always agree with my choices.
What advice does the 21-year-old Jim have for the current generation of 21-year olds? It is simple: Walk into dark rooms.
At 21 you are standing in the center of a large, circular hall. The walls of that hall are full of doors. Because of the accident of who you were born to, your intelligence, your parent’s socio-economic situation, education, health, etc., not all those doors will open. But at 21 you should try every one of them, and those that will open you should walk through into the dark room on the other side. Turn on the light. Look around.
Maybe what you see won’t interest you. Just turn off the light, close that door, lock it, and open the next door. When you find a door that leads to a room that interests you, go in and explore it. Sit on the furniture, gaze at the art on the walls. Raid the ‘fridge. If someone in your life tells you that spending time in that room is a waste of your time, ignore them. They are fearful and are trying to control your life. If you like that room, live there for a while. You may want to spend your life there.
It is likely, though, that at some point you’ll start wondering what is behind other doors. Don’t let fear of change prevent you from opening as many doors as will open and spending as much time there as you like. Design your life so that you don’t have to stay in one room forever. It’s a trap that captures too many lives and leads to regret.
Every choice you make in life locks one of those doors. Want to get married? Maybe you’ll have to give up your dream of paddling around the world in a kayak. Have children? Perhaps the necessity of providing them a stable environment and security will lock a lot of those doors. A 30-year mortgage, a new car, a boat, etc. means you can’t take as many risks, and still more doors are locked.
Despite the usual ups and downs of life, I have no regrets about how I’ve lived my life. I’ve never been forced to work at anything I didn’t want to do. We chose not to have children, for example, because they would not fit into the way we wanted to live. Looking back, it was the right decision for us, despite being frequently told that we were just being selfish for not having children (as if that makes any sense at all).
I’m not saying that any of these things are wrong. Only that every choice has consequences that ripple through your 4,000 weeks. You don’t want to get to the end filled with regret.