Does Life End at 35?

19-10-2013

Do you sometimes lie awake worrying that you aren't succeeding fast enough? Are you tortured by younger peers who have global businesses, penned acclaimed books and a string of iron-man medals? Do you count down the years until you can no longer make the 30 under 30 list? Take a deep breath. My 92 year old grandpa has some advice for you.

Now listen up

He is a tremendously accomplished individual and considered by many to be a pioneer in biomedical engineering. I visited him in Beijing recently. We were taking an after dinner stroll. I was pestering him for details about his career, looking for tidbits that might help my own. What was he like at my age? How did he work? Is there a secret a routine? He stops me mid-sentence "You know, my career only really took off after I turned 58".

Hang on, what?

"Yes, I'd say the 10 years between my 60s and 70s were my busiest".

I was floored. Here is a man who helped revolutionise medical technology and he did it in his twilight years.

Serving in WW2

It began in 1976, with the death of Chairman Mao. Under his rule, China experienced decades of hardship. Academia was heavily restricted and the country had become technologically isolated. Prior to this, my grandpa had lived through the invasion, civil war and famine. With Mao out of the picture, the new leadership were desperate for reform. In a push to kickstart research, the government reached out to academics all over the country. My grandpa was one of them.

Having only been allowed to complete his undergraduate degree, he spent decades doing whatever research and teaching came his way. Eventually - and this is the key word- he worked his way up to become a professor in electrical engineering at a respected university. In 1977, despite being close to retirement, he seized upon his new professional freedom. In front of China's senior academics and officials, he presented a convincing proposal to explore the emerging field of Biomedical Engineering, a term only recently coined in the West. Over the next decade, he spearheaded research and collaborations that would make technology such as CT, ultrasound and CAT scans a pervasive part of Chinese healthcare. Even after retirement, he was still mentoring PhD students well into his 70s.

As a studious young man

My grandpa's story made me reflect upon the worship of youthful achievement and our drive to get it all so early in life. I, like many other insecure overachievers, feel an urgency to do big things. Deep down I know this anxiety is root in fear. That I'm not actually any good. That I will waste my shot at life and be a disappointment. So I strive for a quick success because I need to validate my worth. After that I can relax and everything will be plain sailing. Right? Instead, this warped expectation more often leads me to behave in a manner that's unsustainable and counterproductive.

It's easy to forget that our careers extend for decades beyond our 20s and 30s. The truth is significant works usually take a long time. Whether it's business, academia or the arts, most of the contributions made have been the result of many years of toil. It's just that we hear of the young overnight success because that's a more attractive narrative. Even then, those rare few who achieve a lot early in life do not simply stop. The race doesn't end with the win.

My grandpa had no choice but to wait a long time for his opportunity. It's likely he would have achieved even more had he moved to the West. However, had he missed his moment, I dare say he would still have had a fulfilling life. Without the acclaim and recognition he'd still be the jovial, curious and industrious man I love.

Stealing wifi for his beloved iPad

His advice to me: Don't be in so much of a rush. Be easier on yourself. Comparing yourself to what others are doing is a waste of time. He also adds an old Chinese saying "大器晚成" - A big construction is always completed late.

With this in mind, I feel more positive about entering my fourth decade. There's still loads I want do and I feel good about figuring out what success means to me, a topic which I will leave for another article. As always, I look to my grandfather for inspiration. He recently Skyped me about co-patenting a new method of microwave cooking. I think he was only semi-joking.


If this has provoked any ideas of your own I'd love to hear from you @kzhu

Thanks to following people for helping me write this:

@jamesmitchell @glasschance @r4vi