When are the best years of your life?

A group of us were in the hotel bar late one night after an all-day business conference. Fueled by some polychromatic cocktails, I asked the people I was with - all of us in our 40s - whether they thought their best years were ahead of them or behind them.

“Ohhhh,” said one woman. “No question. My best years were in college.”

“Really?” I asked. I was surprised. She was smart, attractive, and had a successful career. Not only was college decades ago, but she had 30, 40, or even 50 more years of living to do.

Why would she spend that time looking backwards?

“I always thought you’d be something special”

I was surprised and yet I understood. I used to look backwards, too, thinking of times that seemed more full of promise and potential. Of things I could have done but didn’t.

That feeling was particularly strong one night when I reunited with an elementary school friend I hadn’t seen in 30+ years. After a few minutes, she asked me with particular curiosity “What did you wind up doing? I always thought you’d be something special.”

She meant it as a compliment. We grew up in the Bronx but she knew I’d been admitted to the city’s best high school and had high hopes for me.

I paused, unsure of my response. I’d had a fine career and life, but I remember wistfully thinking “Yes, I thought I’d be special, too.”

The wrong model

The problem was that the woman in the bar and I both had the wrong modeI for how life really works.

We viewed life as a continuously dwindling set of possibilities. You start with an almost infinite set of things you can do or be. (When I was 5, I declared I was going to be a paleontologist. At 11, a baseball player. At 17, a psychologist.) But, over time, your options - particularly the special ones - become fewer and fewer.

Then I started to think differently.

Body and mind

My change in perspective started with how I viewed my health. I also had the wrong model for that, thinking of my body as a machine which, over time, inevitably started to wear down and break. So my best physical days were necessarily in the past.

Then a friend gave me a book called “Grow Younger Next Year”. It taught me, in simple language and accessible science, that my body is a much more dynamic system than I’d imagined. That by moving and eating differently I could change my circulatory system and produce new possibilities. I changed my habits and I changed my outlook.

Similarly, I learned how thinking and learning differently could change how my brain works and open up new possibilities there, too:

“During most of the 20th century, the general consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively immutable after a critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by findings revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood”

The same is true in other parts of your life. Working differently and relating to people differently open up possibilities you might have never even imagined when you were younger.

The road ahead

If I have a hero, it’s W. Edwards Deming. Born on a chicken farm in 1900, he was a statistician who worked with the census bureau into his 40s. At 47, he travelled to Japan to help with the first census after the war. While there, he met with people about statistics and quality control. And his subsequent fieldwork with factory managers in Japan marked the beginning of the Japanese quality movement.

His efforts unlocked tremendous commercial value while also helping individual workers regain their pride of workmanship. In 1950, Japan awarded the first Deming Prize. Still, for decades, Deming was largely unknown in the US, where he lived and worked. It was only after he was mentioned on a television show (“If Japan can, why can’t we?”) that his consulting business took off. He was 80. At 82, he published his most popular book.

He died at 93, having experienced things he could never have imagined as a young man on a chicken farm or in mid-life at the census bureau.

Deming is a great role model for me. And now it's even easier to create the kind of full life he led. With new tools and practices developed since his time, it's easier than ever to shape your reputation, control your career, and make a difference. Easier than ever to create new possibilities.

The best years of your life? They’re ahead of you.