You Only Have 20 Years To Live
The Doc walks into the room, head slightly down, shoulders heavy with bad news.
You know it’s bad. Your chest tightens up, your breathing becomes labored. You feel the floor start to tilt at a 45-degree angle. You feel like you’re losing your balance. You sit down to keep from falling down. You’re young. You have your whole life ahead of you. How bad can it be?
The Doc clears his throat, “You only have 20 years to live. “
After you get over the shock. After your heart slows down to something resembling a normal rate, what do you do? Where do you go? Who do you talk to? After the shock wears off, what will you decide to do with your twenty years? It’s like having twenty bucks and not a penny more, and no more coming.
On what will you focus for the next 20 years? Work? Family? Snowboarding? Living your dream life? Seeing the world? Building your business? What is it? You only get once chance. Twenty years goes by in an instant. What will you do with your 20 years?
I’ve got bad news for you. The fictitious account, above, is not reserved for the terminally ill.
It’s you. It’s YOUR life. YOU only have twenty years to live. If you’re reading this in your late teens or twenties, you’d better realize it and get your ass into gear. You’re already late. The starting gun went off a long time ago, and you’re still stumbling in the starting blocks. You have only 20 years to live. Let me explain why. Here’s your terminal disease. It’s called life and growing up.
You literally think you’re going to live forever. I heard a Millennial say the other day, “With modern medical science, we’re all going to live to be 150.” Errrrgh. Wrong answer. Thanks for playing. Next customer, please.
Fact is, for the first time in the history, lifespans may actually be shortening. That’s debatable and not the point of this story.
The point is this story is this: If you’re reading this in your teens or twenties, you have a few major obstacles in your way. You are terminal. How do I know this? I used to be 20. A while ago. You’re in your twenties. You’re swimming in testosterone and energy. Pure, raw un-channeled, unbridled energy. That’s good. You can get stuff done. Unfortunately, you either don’t know what stuff to get done, or you don’t know where to start to get the stuff done you want to get done. While brimming with energy and confidence, you’re sorely lacking in every other quality you need to accomplish anything – judgement, maturity, experience and the knowledge that comes with it.
Look at the graph below:
As your experience, maturity (i.e., decision-making and good judgement) and knowledge grow, your energy wanes. For some people it drops off a cliff after age 39.
Of course, you won’t believe this (because you’re in your 20’s and full of testosterone and energy), but it’s as real as a terminal disease. And this goes for women, too. For men, your testosterone level in your 40’s will be 2/3 of what it is today, and your energy level will drop with it. If you eat shit all the time – like McDonald’s and sugar three or four times daily like most Americans, studies have shown your testosterone level and energy level will be even lower – half of what it is in your twenties. If you’re carrying around a basketball-sized gut or a spare tire of fat around your sides, it will be even lower. Fact! Could be 1/3 of what it is now.
In other words, you have energy to spare, but you don’t know shit yet. Yea, yea, I know. You’ve heard that before and don’t believe it either. Believe me, we all, myself included, thought we knew everything when we were 23. You don’t know jack shit. Learning about how things work – including yourself, your own body and the world, comes from experience, which you don’t have yet. When you hit 45, you’ll say to yourself: ‘Yea, I didn’t believe it, but now I see what they meant. I thought I knew everything, and I didn’t know jack-shit.’ It’s a cliché because it’s true.
So, what’s the point of the story? See that shaded box in the graph, that’s the 20 years you have to live your life and do something productive. That’s when your energy level is still high enough to get shit done, and, more importantly, you have started to accumulate skills, knowledge, some wisdom and experience and you may actually be able to accomplish something. You can stretch that to 25 or 30 years if you’re one of the lucky few who becomes accomplished at something by the time you hit your sweet spot at 40-45 years old. You may even be able to extend that into your 50’s and 60’s. If you’re Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen, you can keep producing great work into your 70’s or 80’s, but they’re 1 in 10 Million and able to get work based on their unique fame, which they built as youngsters.
Unfortunately for most people, by the time the other lines on the graph catch up to the world – by the time they have the maturity, knowledge and experience to become productive, their energy has left them standing on the shore. Those are the people you scoff at right now for being old and boring. You’re going to be one of them someday. Believe it.
Don’t believe me? Heard from Michael Jordan lately? How about Tiger Woods? Did you listen to U2’s latest album, which they gave away for free. I tried. Couldn’t do it. Which brings us to the Passion. Some great artists have such amazing passion in their younger years, that they are able to create great things in spite of the lack of maturity and wisdom. Maybe they’re born talented, but I doubt it. I think they were just lucky enough to grab their passion at an early age and not be stopped by the lack of knowledge. In fact, that’s the benefit of the crazy confidence of youth. You don’t know how little you know, so you just go for it. That’s the point. You have to stop fearing failure and go for it.
If you have great passion for something, your twenty years to live actually shifts left – to your younger years. That’s not great news if you’re sitting around doing nothing. For many creative types, their creative years are over by their thirtieth or fortieth birthday. Some don’t even survive their twenties. If they do, sometimes they’ve peaked by 30 or 40. You may live to be 150, but you’ll be retired for 120 of those years.
Once you add Passion into the mix, you find some 20-year-olds and even Teens can produce some amazing work. Look at Rock and Pop music. The Beatles did all their great work in their 20’s. The Beatles broke up before any one of them turned 30. George Harrison a mere 26 when the Beatles ended. The list of rock stars – classic and recent – and movie stars, who did great work and were dead before they were 30 is legendary. So, the good news is, if you have passion, you can produce amazing work in your early life – in your teens and twenties and then chill out with your millions and enjoy your life like Michael Stipe of REM, who retired from the music biz at age 47. The bad news is your passion may drop off a cliff after your early burn, and you’ll probably be done creating (or dead) by your mid-30’s. Think of your favorite rock stars. Where are they now? Who knows?
With medical science pushing back the grip of death, okay, you may live to be 100 or 110, but you’ve only got about 20 or 30 years to create your fortune or your business or whatever it is that makes up your dream. There are always exceptions. There are loads of them, but Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, were all loaded and hugely successful by the time they were 30. So, get off your ass. You haven’t got forever. You’re thinking, ‘I’m only 25. I don’t know what to do.’ Do it anyway. Start.
Try, Fail, Learn. Repeat
That’s the only way to succeed. Failure is your one and only true best friend.
That’s how you learn and get better. You have to get wet to learn how to swim. You can’t do it from the beach. Get going. You’ve only got a few years left, and that’s IF you don’t get hit by a bus or have a plane land on you.
Next time you see a 50- or 60-year old, notice how slow they’re moving. Notice how they can’t be assed to get up and do anything anymore. They’re not going out to set the world on fire, but you can, if you hurry up. You are going to be one of those old people soon, and your dreams will still be in your head, waiting for you. The money to pursue your dreams may be more available, but you’ll be busy with family obligations, a mortgage, deadlines at work, two car payments, etc. You’ll be stuck in a cubicle the rest of your life. And you won’t have the energy to struggle against all that to follow an impossible dream, which only a twenty-year-old would be silly enough to pursue. In other words, you’ll talk yourself out of it.
The Exception: The Late Bloomer
You can always hold out hope that you’re a late bloomer. A lot of great works were created by artists and visionaries in their later years. Hitchcock didn’t make his best movies until his 50’s and 60’s. There are exceptions, but usually late bloomers have been slogging away at their dream for 20 or 30 years and only get noticed later in life. You can’t expect to sit around and do nothing or waste your time having fun and then have it fall in your lap when you’re 40. You have the energy now. What will you spend it on? You have a pristine body now, will you use it up drinking beer, eating garbage and not sleeping, or will you spend those limited number of chips on investing in your dream? The choice is yours. There are no do-overs.
You want to know in your twenties what it feels like to have an old energy-drained body? Look at the 20-year-old Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating injuries. Maybe their body’s plumbing is all fucked up, or they’ve got a brain injury or a limb or two missing. They’ve made the ultimate sacrifice, maybe even more than the people who didn’t make it back alive – because they’ve traded in their twenty-year-old perfect body for a 70-year-old’s body and lack of energy. That is something to be respected.
You’re given one perfect body and mind per life. What will you spend it on?
It’s Never Too Late
If you’re reading this in your 30’s, 40’s or 50’s, the gun went off a long, long time ago. It’s just an echo now. If you still have any dream left in you, you’d better run like hell. It’s not too late to start, but every second is precious now. Don’t waste any one of them. Keep yourself fit and sharp. Eat healthy. Do you really want to be a 50-year-old who eats fuckin’ Krispy Kreme doughnuts or bagels because somebody brought them into the office? Do you really want to be 50 pounds overweight and sleepy? The beer and pizza ain’t helping. You’ve got to get fit and squeeze every last ounce of energy out of that old carcass and make your dream happen. Or not. Go have a doughnut and relax. It’s up to you.