At thirty two, Yi had been the oldest junior officer in his regiment. The other officers, sprightly young turks in their teens and early twenties had taken great pleasure in calling him ‘the old man’. One of them in particular loved to walk bent over like an octogenarian in mockery. He wondered what they would think if they saw him now, freshly released from prison and even lower down the pecking order than he’d been when the young ones had loved to torment him. He shuddered at the thought.
He was forty years old and no more than a private in the army. Despite years of loyal service to his nation, he’d been rewarded with no more than a pat on the back. Then jealousy and betrayal had chewed him up and spat him out like stale chewing gum. Now he was no more than a victim of the system he’d fought to preserve for so many years. Was he angry? I’m sure he was. Bitter and disillusioned? Maybe. All the same, he continued to do his duty and fight bravely, knowing that if he fought well enough, there’d at least be a pension for him to look forward to.
But the impartial winds of time and chance were about to blow his way. A foreign enemy was at that moment getting ready to invade with a massive army. In a few years, they would be sweeping across the land like a plague, destroying everything in their path. When that moment would finally arrive, YiSun-sin, a man who hadn’t joined the army till he was in his thirties, who, between prison and taking time off to mourn the death of his father hadn’t looked like he was destined for anything great, would become a national hero.
He would never lose a battle.
He might be the greatest military leader of all time.
The Best Years of your Life?
There’s this idea making the rounds through dormitories and halls of residence in institutions of higher learning the world over. It’s like a disease, like a flu that spreads from person to person disrupting lives and killing people’s joy. I’ve talked about a whole set of ideas like that, here and there, and now I’m going to tell you about another one that falls right in that category: the idea that the twenties are meant to be the best years of your life.
In her book, The Defining Decade (which you can download here), psychologist Meg Jay tackles this virus and its many mutations repeatedly. We first meet it in the shape of a nerdy student from Tennessee who thought that life after school would be a crossover between endless party and soul-searching, with a bit of baby elephant saving in Africa thrown in just for good measure. She was wrong, and ultimately found herself depressed and alone, with the baby elephants sadly unsaved and the parties having lost a lot of their savor.
“I thought the twenties are supposed to be the best years of my life,” she laments.
The psychologist’s response was quite telling: “In my experience, these are the most uncertain and some of the most difficult years of life.”
She sure got that right.
The world is filled with exceptional people who excel greatly at the things they do right from a young age. There’s no way I could argue with that, so I won’t even try. I would simply be crushed under the overwhelming weight of all the examples that you could think up: Albert Einstein, who came up with his special theory of relativity when he was 26 years old, Steven Spielberg was already the most famous film director in the world by the time he was 29, and Bill Gates was already driving his first Porsche by the time he was 21.
Two facts are worth pointing out, though, amidst all these examples: firstly, however many examples you can think up, the fact of the matter remains that most people don’t experience any spectacular success while they’re still young. It’s the tyranny of statistics, I know, but it’s no less true.
Secondly, many of those who achieve great success when they’re in their twenties go on to do even greater things later on: Bill Gates doesn’t become the richest man in the world for the first time until he’s 40 years old, Steven Spielberg doesn’t win the Academy Award for best director until he’s 46 years old and Albert Einstein doesn’t win the Nobel Prize in Physics until he’s 42 years old.
The conclusion to be drawn is pretty clear: the best years of our life come in later in our life than most of us think, whether we’re a superstar or another average Joe. Or, as Meg Jay put it: “Contrary to what we see and hear, reaching your potential isn’t something that happens in your twenties — it happens in your thirties or forties or fifties. And starting that process often means doing what doesn’t look so good.”
It’s in our forties and fifties, that we get to be leaders in our society, that we’ve established enough connections to make those millions and that we have struggled long and hard enough to earn those awards. Sometimes the struggle is particularly long and painful, like it was for Yi Sun-sin. Other times, it’s just a job that you hate, a boss who wants to make every day hell, late nights and early mornings at work, or a blog only five of your friends read. But the struggle is always there.
What do we do? Sit around and pout over how unlucky we are to be young?
I’ll leave the answer to that question to my good friend Kemi Maranga, award winning poet, through her poem Average.
By Kemi Maranga.
This is for the underachieving overachievers.
Those complacent in their mediocrity.
Not discouraged by unflattering labels,
but rather melting into them.
Finding comfort in its embrace.
Shielding them from the devastation of disappointment.
Not a hindrance to discovering their abilities.
But a challenge to try.
Even if they’ll fail whilst seeking significance in bleakness.
This is for those who’d rather run through empty fields screaming,
Praying the universe hears them.
Instead of sitting quietly in corners of rooms
filled with people who will not hear them, or try to.
Those with a handful of gifts
But whose grip is too tight to let the seeds fall and sprout.
Or those who do, and the thicket thickens uncontrollably.
Leaving them gasping for air.
Happy they took the risk.
This is for those always crying,
Silently slowly dying.
An uninspired tortured existence painting their world gray.
Their bones creak.
Their hearts ache for the unknown.
Their sparks never ignited,
Unsure if they can be.
Too much time has passed.
This is for those who don’t think they’re good enough.
They probably aren’t
(Or maybe they are).
But still do things with their best capabilities.
Life’s too short to be perfect.
Life’s too long to not do something.
It doesn’t really matter.
Love yourself deeply.
Do or don’t.
To whatever capacity.
Be free and happy.