Aging and the Perception of Time

This is a guest post by Rachel Gold. But first, some background from me:

Some people say time is a funny thing, but I don’t really find it amusing; mostly it just makes me anxious. It feels like it goes by too fast. It feels like I have too many ideas to fit into one lifetime. How am I supposed to accomplish all of what I want to do when I blink and three months have gone by?

Maybe I just get too focused on my day-to-day life and need to lift my head and look around once in awhile. Or maybe it’s something I’ve become more aware of now that I’m hovering close to the big four-oh. (40 seemed ancient to me when I was a child; now it just seems like… 40. It’s a number, just like any other age.) So what’s this all about, then? Where does this anxiety about time come from? I never gave it a second thought when I was in my 20s and early 30s.

I must have commented on this to Rachel one day, because she then proceeded to talk me off the ledge using her unique explanation of time. It had a very calming effect on me and I was grateful for the new perspective. However, it didn’t last. Months later I found myself feeling that same anxiety again, as though time was slipping by too fast and I needed to hurry, hurry, hurry. That’s when I asked Rachel if she’d write a post about this for my blog. It was something I thought would be great to share, but I also just liked the idea that I’d have it nearby so I could read it whenever I needed to shift my thinking again.

If you’ve ever struggled with a similar mindset about time, perhaps this will help you, too.


After I demonstrated my revised age math to Kristin over coffee, she asked me to replicate it for her blog. Maybe I should call it “inspired age math” so we can abbreviate it IAM.

I started doing IAM for myself a few years ago because it seemed like most people, myself included, have a very poor sense of how long a life really is. (In general we actually have a very poor sense of time, but that’s a topic for another blog.) This could be because we’re actually better at living in the present than we think; let’s hope so.

When we get so down on ourselves about age — at least when I do for myself — it sounds like this: “Dude, you’re 42. John Green is 36 and he’s got bestselling novels and a movie. You’re such a slacker.” I compare my age like it’s a simple score and lower is better. That’s not how lived human lives actually work.

Let me show you one way that they do work. I’ll start by assuming you’re 42, because that’s how old I am so it’s easy for me to work with. Also it’s just over 40, which is an age that gives a lot of people trouble.

So let me ask you, how many years have I lived? 42, right?

Nope.

How do I figure that?

Let’s start with the first tricky part of that question — the word “I.” Who are we talking about when we ask how long “I” have lived? From age 0 to 23 I was a kid — my pre-frontal cortex wasn’t fully baked. I had some of the same personality traits I have now, but there are some new ones, some changes, maturation, all that. So let’s count the “I” that is an adult.

How long have I lived? 19 years.

In that time:

  • I’ve had some major relationships and made many amazing friends
  • I’ve had three major jobs, spanning two career fields, plus some freelancing
  • I’ve bought four houses (and sold three)
  • I’ve drafted nine novels and sold four
  • I’ve learned a TON of stuff

Bonus opportunity: pause reading and calculate how long you’ve been an adult and make a quick list of some of the things you’ve done and learned as an adult.

What if we had that time to live all over again? What if we had that time to live over again but knowing all the mistakes we made the first time so we don’t have to repeat them?

We do have that time.

Between now and when I turn 61, I have 19 more years. I could theoretically do all that stuff again, only smarter. Or I can do new stuff. I can live my entire adult life over again.

And then between 61 and 80 I can live that smarter adult life over yet again. I can effectively live my entire adult life over again twice and I’ll only be 80 years old. Actually 19 years is probably too big a chunk. I don’t feel that connected to my 23 year old self. In my 20s I was still just really figuring out how the world works.

If I look at the time from 32 to 42, that’s a hugely productive and amazing time in my life. When I look at how much I did and learned and changed in those 10 years, I’m blown away by what I could do between now and 52.

At the same time it takes some of the pressure off. I didn’t have to get everything perfect from 32 to 42 (I made some really epic mistakes). So I don’t have to have everything right in my life between 42 and 52. I can try some things, work on what’s important to me but know that what’s important can change over time. I can test and tweak because I know that at 52 I have another huge span of time in front of me, and then another, and another…

Okay, but what if you’re 65 years old and just retired from a career you didn’t really like and you feel like you wasted your whole life? This math will still work for you.

Consider this: you could take the next 5 years and just do whatever you want, try a bunch of stuff, look for activities you really love. At 70, look back over those five years, pull out the very best stuff, and now you have another five years to do all the best stuff over again. Then look back again and do five more years of the most enjoyable parts of the previous five. Five years filled with enjoyment is a long time — one week filled with enjoyment can be a long time — and don’t even get me started on Eternity, which isn’t a time outside of this time, but a timeless quality that reaches us in time.

The poet Mary Oliver asks, “What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?” I love this quote, but I love it even more when I realize that I can have one wild and precious life after another.

Update: Read “Age & Time part 2” over on Rachel’s blog.

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Rachel Gold grew up on mythology and fairy tales, to which she has added a deep love for fantasy literature and gaming. These days, you can often find her in the company of literary werewolves and entrepreneurial elves. Rachel’s novel “Being Emily” is the first young adult novel to tell the story of a transsexual girl from her perspective. Her second novel, “Just Girls,” will be out this September. For more information, visit www.rachelgold.com.

4 Comments Aging and the Perception of Time

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