Are we living a good life?
Have we been pursuing our dreams?
If we were to die tomorrow, would we be happy with our life, knowing we’ve lived well?
Or are we thinking it’s too late to live a good life and pursue the things we want in life—our goals, dreams, or adventures?
These questions may be uncomfortable, but they’re essential in informing our quality of life and whether we experience a sense of fulfillment.
The State of Our Dreams
Most of us have goals and dreams. Common examples include having a family, traveling around the world, building a dream home, running a marathon, writing a book, living abroad, learning a language, climbing a mountain, achieving financial security or independence, starting a new venture, and things like visiting every state (or continent) or every national park.
With 11.6% of the U.S. population (37.9 million people) living in poverty in 2021, about half the world population living on less than $6.85 (USD) per person per day, and about 9.2% of the world population (719 million people) living in extreme poverty, on less than $2.15 a day, even having these dreams is a privilege.
According to the 2016 Global Dreams Index Survey, polling 5,484 women aged 18 and older in 14 countries across six continents, about half the world’s female population isn’t satisfied with their current lives and has given up on their dreams. But of the women who did pursue their dreams, 82% were satisfied with life.
According to a 2021 Moneypenny survey, only 7% of Americans reported that they were working in their dream career, and 54% overall report that they’re happy in their job (with 19% unhappy and 27% neither happy nor unhappy).
According to a survey of more than 2,000 Americans, 22% reported that they pursued one of their childhood career aspirations, while 78% reported that they didn’t. Of those who ended up in a childhood dream job, 88% reported that they’re happy with their current job, versus 70% for those who didn’t (but 70% is still high).
When it comes to our views of the good life, recent data shows that they’ve been changing recently. Today, more people focus on good health, a simple and balanced life, and meaningful connections with people. Meanwhile, insufficient income is the top obstacle to the good life, with 62% of respondents noting that as a top hindrance.
Quality of Life Assessment
Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.
Changes in Life Expectancy and Retirement Patterns
As many people consider whether it’s too late to pursue goals and dreams, the context has changed significantly when it comes to life expectancy and retirement. For starters, people are now living longer on average. In 1960 (the first year the United Nations started tracking global data), average life expectancy was 52.5 years. Today, it’s up to 72 years. Average life expectancy for U.S. children born today is about 76 years.*
What’s more, the concept and practice of retirement are also changing rapidly. According to 2022 Gallup research, the average retirement age among U.S. workers is currently up to age 61 from age 57 in the 1990s. Today’s workers report that they expect to retire at age 66, on average. Meanwhile, the percentage of people aged 55 to 74 who are retired is declining, because people are working longer.
Think It’s Too Late? Not So Fast
Given that context, let’s revisit the question of whether we think it’s too late to pursue our goals and dreams. My friend Karin has been a teacher, real estate broker, stockbroker, sales manager, and vice president at a global financial services company. At age 60, she chose to pursue some new endeavors that called to her heart and spoke to her core values.
Karin earned a degree in spiritual psychology and became active with writing, photography, hospice, counseling prisoners, camps for children with cancer, coaching, and travel. The depth and joy she’s added to her life since making those changes are incalculable.
She’s not alone. Consider these examples of people who have proven that we have incredible potential to do things—sometimes big things—later in life:
- At 61, Mahatma Gandhi led the Salt March to protest the British salt tax imposed on the people of India, walking about 200 miles (320 kilometers).
- Colonel Sanders started Kentucky Fried Chicken when he was 65.
- At age 65, Laura Ingalls Wilder published the first book in the Little House on the Prairie series.
- Noah Webster published his first dictionary when he was 70.
- Peter Roget published the very first thesaurus when he was 73.
- At 75, Barbara Hillary, a cancer survivor, became one of the oldest people and the first black woman to reach the North Pole.
- Grandma Moses, the American folk artist who was featured on the cover of TIME magazine, started painting when she was 78.
- Japanese skier and alpinist Yuichiro Miura climbed to the top of Mount Everest at age 70 and then again at 80.
- At age 85, German classical scholar Theodor Mommsen received a Nobel Prize in Literature.
- At 92, Gladys Burril ran a marathon.
- Australian country and western artist Smoky Dawson composed, recorded, and released a new album at age 92.
- At 100, Teiichi Igarashi climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan.
And remember: even Scrooge made some big changes later in life.
We should be careful here. These may be fun and inspiring examples, but the point of life isn’t achievements and world records.
For some, those kinds of adventures and accomplishments are motivating and meaningful. Others are interested in savoring life and spending time with their loved ones, books, or hobbies—or giving back in ways that are meaningful to them. The point isn’t adopting someone else’s dream or trying to impress people. Rather, it’s to live our own good life—and be sure we don’t play small and abandon the things we want to do for lame reasons that won’t stand the test of time.
Take the Traps Test
We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.
7 Reasons Why We Fall into the Trap of Thinking It’s Too Late
There are many reasons we can fall into the trap of thinking it’s too late for important things we want to do. For example:
(1.) We’ve been so busy living and managing our daily responsibilities that we haven’t carved out enough time and energy to work bigger things.
(2.) We feel trapped by financial commitments or constraints. According to a 2023 CNBC / Momentive survey, 58% of Americans report living paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes lack of financial resources is a major impediment, but for some, it can be a rationalization.**
(3.) We feel like it’s not practical or even a bit crazy to pursue some big goals and dreams. They may appear out of reach. And we may not be in the habit of pursuing them.
(5.) We may feel pressure from family, peers, or others to remain on our current path or to fit into a more traditional definition of success. It may be that we’re letting ourselves get boxed in by others and what they want for us (or what we think they want for us)—or by conventional views.
(6.) We fear going out of our comfort zone and failing in the attempt. Fear is indeed the great inhibitor, not just in this case but also with most hard things in life. But in many cases, our fears are phantoms conjured by the ancient part of our brain stem and no longer relevant for the modern world and our current circumstances.
(7.) We may lack confidence. It’s likely that doubts will creep in when we think about big things we’d like to do. So we may abdicate and retreat. Needlessly.
“Most people don’t do what they love. It’s true….
And the older you get, and the more you look around,
the easier it becomes to believe that you’ll end up the same. Don’t fall for the trap.”
-Nicolas Cole, writer and gamer
The Problem with Thinking It’s Too Late
These beliefs and rationalizations have real consequences. Feeling that it’s too late to pursue our deeper ambitions or live the life we want has big downsides.
According to researchers, as we contemplate our lives, we typically regret the things we didn’t try or do the most (more than the things we tried that didn’t work out) in the long run. According to Dan Pink’s American Regret Project survey, “inaction regrets outnumbered action regrets by nearly two to one.”
“I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing
I might regret is not ever having tried.”
-Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO, Amazon
In their book, Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging, Richard Leider and David Shapiro note that it’s not uncommon as we age to look back on our lives and regret things we haven’t done. Many people are living what they call the “default life,” which can prompt some tough questions:
“Where did all the time go?
How did my life pass so quickly?
Why did I squander my one precious opportunity for living?”
When Richard asks older people about their biggest challenges, one of the common themes is “the fear of having missed out on life’s opportunities with no time left to catch up.” Enter the “late-life crisis.” In the book, Leider and Shapiro note that the “late-life crisis… really is a thing”—and that it affects both men and women. They cite recent research that about a third of people over age sixty experience it and that it’s “characterized by dissatisfaction; a loss of identity; an expectations gap and the feeling that life has peaked.”
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
How to Stop Thinking It’s Too Late: 12 Steps
How to interrupt these unhelpful thought patterns and the sense of futility that accompanies them? There are several things we can do to escape this wasteful trap:
(1.) Pay attention to whether we have limiting beliefs that are holding us back. Examples of such common beliefs: we’re not smart or talented enough; we lack the confidence or creative capacity to do what’s needed; we’re stuck; we’re not ready; we’re damaged goods.
(2.) Get clear on what we want in our next chapter. It helps to know our purpose, core values, and vision of the good life. Talk to friends and loved ones about our goals and dreams. Brainstorm and journal about our future possibilities. Revisit those childhood aspirations and revel in the enchantment of dreaming again.
(3.) Recognize that our capacities and potential in many areas increase as we age. Although we were stronger and faster when we were younger, we gather more knowledge, experience, wisdom, and insight as we age—as well as more connections. These are powerful assets when it comes to doing big things. When we’re older, we’ve shed some naive habits and beliefs from our wide-eyed youth, and we’re better at discerning patterns and understanding what it takes to navigate complexity and overcome challenges.
(4.) Let go of outside expectations—of caring too much about what others think. Focus instead on who we really are, what we really want, and where we want to go in the coming years.
(5.) Map how we spend our time. Too often, we waste large swaths of our days on things that are either questionable, trivial, or even counterproductive. If we stopped those things (or even some of them) and swapped in planning, preparation, and action on our aspirations, we could make good progress on things that matter. Also, identify what we must stop doing to free up margin for the new endeavors.
(6.) Calendarize the most important things we must do. Take the things we really want to do, break them into preparatory actions and steps, and then place those actions onto our calendar and integrate them into our daily and weekly routines.
(7.) Start small and build from there. Too often, we let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We talk ourselves out of even trying. We’re intimidated by the unknowns and what may seem like an insurmountable climb. The problem is that we’re discounting the compound effect of daily, disciplined action and the motivation it provides.
(8.) Form new habits that support our big ambitions. When we develop new habits and repeat them often, we not only re-wire our brain but also change our identity—our conception of ourselves. Create systems and routines that support our progress toward the things we want to do and keep making improvements.
(9.) Be mindful of who we spend time with. The people we hang out with influence us deeply. There’s a big difference between being around people who encourage and inspire us versus people who criticize and belittle us. Some lift us up while others hold us back. Too often, we’re complicit in remaining oddly loyal to people who are only using or abusing us.
(10.) Revel in the excitement of doing something big and bold. Something that touches our heart. A rousing adventure. Bold endeavors, uncertain initiatives, and daring ventures stir our souls and bring us back to life.
(11.) Recall that we’re all mortal—and with an uncertain expiration date on this planet. Nobody knows when their time is up, so we should take full advantage of the time we have now. (See my article, “What Reflecting on Death Can Teach Us about Living.”)
“Keep death daily before your eyes.”
(12.) Note that this business about pursuing goals and dreams doesn’t have to be a solitary or selfish endeavor. Far from it. We can team up with like-minded dreamers and seekers. And we can build service and impact into our plans and commitments. By pursuing our dreams, we may very well inspire others to do so as well.
“Ultimately, if you give up on your dreams, you teach your children to give up on theirs.”
It’s a cliché to say it’s never too late and, of course, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes it is too late. Like when we’re dead and gone. But that doesn’t mean that the sentiment behind it is wrong. It isn’t.
The key is distinguishing between when it is truly too late and when it isn’t. And the point is that way too many people think it’s too late when in reality they’re deluding themselves or hiding. Here’s to snapping out of that delusion and honoring the gifts we’re given. Right now.
- Have you fallen into the trap of thinking it’s too late to pursue your goals and dreams?
- If so, which ones? What aspirations are lying dormant within you?
- How has that thought prevented you from bringing more excitement, meaning, and fulfillment into your life?
- What will you do about it, starting today?
“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest,
how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated.
And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough,
that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”
-Ted Hughes, Letters of Ted Hughes
Tools for You
- Traps Test (Common Traps of Living) to help you identify what’s getting in the way of your happiness and quality of life
- Quality of Life Assessment to help you discover your strongest areas and the areas that need work and then act accordingly
- Personal Values Exercise to help you clarify what’s most important to you
Take the Traps Test
We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.
- “Do You Have Limiting Beliefs about Yourself?”
- “Getting Good at Overcoming Fear”
- “Feeling Behind? It May Be a Trap”
- “Are You Drifting through Life?”
- “Tired of Settling? How to Light Your Life and Work on Fire”
- “Time to Check the Path You’re On?“
- “How to Craft a Vision of the Good Life“
- “Golden Handcuffs: Stuck in a Job You Don’t Like?”
- “Are You Feeling Empty Inside?”
- “Do You Have Margin in Your Life?”
- “Are You Playing the Long Game?”
- “What Reflecting on Death Can Teach Us about Living“
Appendix: Tips on Purposeful Aging
In their book, Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging, Richard Leider and David Shapiro offer helpful recommendations for things we can do to age purposefully, including:
- Recall the finest chapter(s) in our lives so far, think about what made it so, and brainstorm ideas for how we can bring those qualities into the next chapter.
- Think about someone who has aged gracefully in ways we admire—and what that might suggest about what’s possible for us.
- Press the “reset button” in our lives and get clear our purpose—on why we get up in the morning.
- Consider whether we’re honoring our core values (or not), and what changes we can make to do more of that.
- Ask whether we’re living the good life (which they define as living in the place we love with the people we love doing the work we love that’s on purpose). If not, ask ourselves how we can move in that direction.
- Get clear about what we want our legacy to be.
Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding the “Too Late” Trap
- “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” -unknown (often attributed to George Eliot)
- “The way to live our vision on a daily basis is to understand that right now is the only time we have.” -John Hanley
- “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” -Sydney J. Harris
- “It matters only that you manifest your genius; it doesn’t matter when. It’s never too late or too early.” -Mark Victor Hansen, author, trainer, and speaker
- “It’s never too late to give up what you are doing, and start doing what you realize you love.” -Hans Rosling, Swedish physician and academic
- “You are not too old and it is not too late to dive into your increasing depths where life calmly gives out its own secret.” -Rainer Maria Rilke, Austrian poet
- “Every time you suppress some part of yourself or allow others to play you small, you are in essence ignoring the owner’s manual your creator gave you and destroying your design.” -Oprah Winfrey
- “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” -Chinese proverb
- “You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however.” -Richard Bach, Illusions
- “Retire from your job but never from meaningful projects. If you want to live a long life, you need eustress, that is, a deep sense of meaning and of contribution to worthy projects and causes, particularly, your intergenerational family.” -Stephen R. Covey, author
- “The old… should, it seems, have their physical labors reduced; their mental activities should be actually increased. They should endeavor, too, by means of their counsel and practical wisdom to be of as much service as possible to their friends and to the young, and above all to the state.” -Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman philosopher and statesman
- “I believe that it is not dying that people are afraid of. It’s something else. Something more unsettling and more tragic than death frightens us. We’re afraid of never having lived. Of coming to the end of our days with the sense that we were never really alive. That we never figured out what life was for.” -Harold Kushner, American rabbi and author
- “I think I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth—I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.” -Henry James
- “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you have imagined.” -Henry David Thoreau
- “Age puzzles me. I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were interesting and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more intense as I age…. To my own surprise I burst out with hot conviction.” -Florida Scott-Maxwell, Jungian analyst
* Note, though, that the human life span hasn’t changed much, according to researchers. Average life expectancy has increased so much in large part because survival rates among children have increased dramatically due to economic, social, and technological advances and greater access to medical care and nutrition.
** Researchers have noted that older people aged 75 to 90 with better economic, social, and health resources were more likely to report goals related to social and physical activities and leisure—and less likely to report goals related to recovery of their health. And older people who lacked social resources were at greater risk of having no personal goals. Source: Saajanaho M., Rantakokko M., Portegijs E., Törmäkangas T., Eronen J., Tsai L.T., Jylhä M., Rantanen T. Life resources and personal goals in old age. European Journal of Aging. 2016 Jun 1;13(3):195-208.
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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!