Building a Better Bloke

Are my best days behind me?

Posted in Life skills, Philosophy by Sam de Brito on November 12, 2009

By Sam de Brito

At the beginning of the film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, written by Charlie Kaufman, there’s a scene where the crazed protagonist, Chuck Barris, the creator of the Gong Show talks to himself in his crappy motel room.

“When you’re young,” he says “your potential is infinite. You might do anything, really. You might be great. You might be Einstein. You might be Goethe. Then you get to an age where what you might be gives way to what you have been. You weren’t Einstein. You weren’t anything. That’s a bad moment.”

Hearing those words in a dark cinema was a bad moment for me …

I was 33. Jesus’ age when he died on the cross, Julius Caesar’s age when he was mass murdering Gauls to make his name as a general. By 33, Alexander the Great had conquered the known world. At 33 most great football players have represented their country, experienced group sex and are settling into jobs in broadcasting.

That very same year I watched Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a bloke with bad hair named John Brogden became leader of the NSW Liberal Party — on his 33rd birthday. He was 54 days younger than me.

Things weren’t crook. I had a sexy girlfriend eight years my junior — always a consolation — I was writing for a sparkling new TV cop show, but all the big ticket items Australian men are told mark our value as human beings — property, fame, fast cars and Tanya Zaetta’s phone number — had eluded me.

Jarvis Cocker, lead singer of the band Pulp, had warned me in his song ‘Dishes’:

A man told me to beware of 33
He said ‘it was not an easy time for me’
But I’ll get through,
Even though I’ve got no miracles to show you

Tell me about it, Jarvis.

The B-side of life

There comes a time in every person’s life, usually your 30’s, where the mass of everything you haven’t done right rears up behind you like the shadow of a cartoon villain and you find yourself wondering ‘Where did the time go?’ ‘Have I pissed opportunity after paycheques after youth into the sweet snows of my one-go-at-life?’

A girl I know who was a successful told me some years ago: “When I was 33, I asked 20 of my closest friends to come to my birthday party and two of them showed up. It was then I asked myself ‘who are these people?'”

David Byrne poses a similiar question in the Talking Heads song ‘Once in a Lifetime’: “And you may ask yourself, ‘well…how did I get here?'” he sings.

It’s only taken me 26 years since that song’s release to work out what the hell Byrne was on about. At a certain point, you’re onto the B-side of life and you better start dancing.

Many parents console themselves in their 30’s by staring into the faces of their children, saying, ‘I’m doing it for them, now’. However, if you don’t have ankle-biters, you’re left with a lot of time on weekends to ponder the maybes and what ifs.

You may find yourself finally signing up for those dorky dance or language classes and once you’re doing them, wondering why you didn’t try it sooner. You may get the urge to jump out of a plane or visit relatives you haven’t seen in a decade, finally rid of the sense that these are things people with no lives do.

Commentator Phillip Adams, now pushing 70, has obviously thought about it too. He once said: “When people say how do you do so many things? I often answer them, without meaning to be cruel, ‘how do you do so little?'”

“It seems to me that people have vast potential. Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence, or take the risks. Yet most people don’t. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever,” he said.

So maybe those night classes aren’t so dorky after all?

Me, I’m going with Mr Adams on this one, and another bloke who seemed to know what he was talking about, one Gotama Buddha.

He said: “an enlightened being uses the time they have left wisely.”


17 Responses

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  1. a talking head said, on November 12, 2009 at 10:05 am

    Now THIS is why I love your writing, Sam de Brito! These are the type of articles that I want to roll around in, if words were tangible.

    Talking Heads – loved them! (that dates me, doesn’t it) What was is called back then – new wave music? (the Plastics etc.)

    33 is a good age to have this revelation. Whatever the age – it’s never too late.

  2. Nick said, on November 12, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Brilliant. I recently went on a holiday and the lack of things to occupy my mind in turn brought on more than a few nights of 3am introspection – ‘why did I do that?’ ….’if i had only done that I would be successful like that guy’…etc etc …..but the great thing about having this mind spin happen in your mid thirties is that, as long as you cut back (a bit) on the booze and other stuff, eat healthy and keep surfing, you’ve still got a LONG time to go as an eliightened one…….the Big Boss willing, of course.

  3. Surly Dave said, on November 12, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Nice work.

  4. Neil Fraser-Smith said, on November 12, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    A nice piece Sam, however you seem to be skirting around the main point. What is “success”?

  5. Lukey said, on November 13, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Ahh great post. So much much better than that trash over on the AMAL blog! kidding 😉

    I can definitely say this early-30s introspection is also happening to me. I’m exactly 33, it seems everyone I know is married with kids and I’m experiencing a lot of sleepless nights wrestling with doubt about wether I wasted my 20s. I couldn’t put it any better than the words of Adam Duritz in the Counting Crows song “All My Friends”;

    “Thought I might get a rocket ride
    When I was a child
    But it was a lie
    That I told myself when I needed something good
    At 17 had a better dream
    Now I’m 33 and it isn’t me
    But I’d think of something better if I could
    All my friends and lovers
    Will leave me behind
    And I’m still looking for a girl
    One way or another
    I’m just hoping to find a way
    To put my feet out in the world”

  6. Stephen said, on November 13, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    Nice article Sam, I like reading your stuff

    As to relevant song lyrics, Bob Dylan’s It’s Alright, Ma (I’m only Bleeding) says it better than most:

    Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
    Suicide remarks are torn
    From the fool’s gold mouthpiece
    The hollow horn
    Plays wasted words
    Proves to warn
    That he not busy being born,
    Is busy dying.

  7. adrian said, on November 14, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Great work Sam. Its a strange feeling to read things that so closely resemble ones own thought processes. Lost Boys is fantastic and, I believe, sums up mine and many of my mates experiences even though we grew up at the opposite end of Sydney out west. But for me personally your post on ‘the void’ was a benchmark.

    This post sums it up again.

    I hit 30 this year and turned my life around. Yea, I did jump out of a plane – but I’m much more engaged with people out there now, and not at the pub. I finally feel like I have a life ahead.

    Thanks for your writing – I thought I’d throw the praise in here so it doesnt get swamped in the AMAL comments.

  8. AJ said, on November 14, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    Once, when I was getting all freaky about turning 30, a friend of my gf at the time said “I love being 30 something. Now I can get on with my life”

    It helped at the time and some 5 years later I understand him completely.

    While those people who exploited their 20’s for educational, career or familial gain might be well down those tracks to their version of success, I was goofing off, plaaying up, taking long summers and ponderng what it all meant. I got to do this with all the youthful vigour that one has at their disposal at that age.

    There were a hell of a lot of mistakes but now when I catch up with younger party animals and maybe see a bit of myself in them, the value I see from earlier recklessness is in all the wisdom that I gained from it. It’s one thing to be told. A totally different thing to find out or yourself.

    So are my best years behind me? No. Granted, today isn’t as much fun as yesterday was. There’s no more major benders or 6 month weekends. The skin on the women who find me interesting isn’t as tight and supple. I’m a few years further down the bad food/drinking/smoking track.

    But the tools I now have to achieve what I want, in my own way, in my own time – the respect and patience to do it all with integrity and honour make these days better than ever.

    Maybe I’ll be able to say the same things in my 40’s.

  9. Bender said, on November 15, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Not bad despite the sense of deja vu I got from reading this…….

    I’ve had those moments of doubt about whether the path I had chosen was leading me anywhere as it didn’t seem to be moving much. Now in my 30s it does seem to be moving a lot quicker. Mainly thanks to the work I had put in when in my 20s. But I have been on this path since the age of 10.

    But I think whatever setbacks you may have or whenver you feel like you’re spinning your wheels or whatver extra work you have to do that you didn’t think you would have had to do it doesn’t matter – you have a lifetime. Soldier on.

    Set goals. Work towards them. Don’t stop. Be open to adjusting your direction as needs be.

  10. Tinman said, on November 16, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    “It seems to me that people have vast potential. Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence, or take the risks. Yet most people don’t. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever,” he said.

    The key word here is “confidence”. If you don’t have that, doing anything seems like an almost insurmountable challenge. I used to think that my best days were head of me, but then I realised that there were no “best days”, there are just “days”. At 33, I feel like I’ve achieved nothing (no career, no relationship, no social life, no material assets) because I have no self belief. (Clearly knowing this is of no benefit to overcoming it.)

    It is the lack of confidence in one’s own ability to succeed in the face of challenges that prevents people from trying new things and living within the bounds of what feels ‘safe’/familiar. I have come to the conclusion that confidence (irrespective of whether or not it is justified) is the ultimate determinant of whether people succeed or fail in life. Those who believe in themselves find a way to negotiate life’s challenges, while those who lack confidence balk at even making an attempt. The ultimate question then is, how do you become confident when you aren’t? I don’t know the answer to that one…

  11. Tim said, on November 19, 2009 at 11:13 am

    I often get asked “how did you get so good at photography?”, by doing it a lot it seems. In my case that means taking over 200,000 photographs over a period of 5 years.

    Even just the going out to take photos at over 500 gigs/events would be the equivalent to about 20 years worth of effort for most people.

  12. IndMike said, on November 19, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    Just to give a diff perspective to Tinman…

    “At 33, I feel like I’ve achieved nothing (no career, no relationship, no social life, no material assets) because I have no self belief. (Clearly knowing this is of no benefit to overcoming it.)”

    I would say

    At 34, I feel like I’ve achieved nothing too, some career(above avg job but loathe to join the rat race), good relationship( twice a week, but wanting a “happy” harem, may get sorted out after trying the group sex thingy 🙂 ), ok social life( being an non-Oz born citizen and all, got 2 kids, so we are their servants too), ok material assets( enough to not work for a few years assuming other thing are constant)…

    and I am wondering, Is this all… Should I have gone harder in my 20’s, invented one of Skype/youtube/kindle( actually did product work on all this in mid 90’s)… ignored marriage, become a multi millionaire/famous so that I can have the harem… Would that have made me happier ??? But most of those multi millionaire/famous folks are into drugs to get happy… So may I should jump staright to the latest legal harmless drug…

    What do I do next ???

    slowly beginning to notice my ego… Vipassana like stuff should help me through…

    • Tinman said, on November 24, 2009 at 11:42 pm

      I suspect that this is a fairly normal case of “the grass is always greener”.

      Whatever we have, we always think that we would rather have something else. A mate of mine whined for ages about wanting a relationship, but as soon as he got a new girlfriend, he bemoaned the fact that he had no free time to pursue his other interests. The moment he got what he wanted, he decided he wanted something else.

      I believe that Sam has mentioned before about how it is part of human nature to never be satisfied with what we have. The theory behind it is that this tendency serves an evolutionary purpose by driving us to constantly strive for new goals and desires. As a result, no matter how good a wicket we find ourselves on, we are never satisfied with our lot.

      In your case, even if you were rich and had a harem of women, you’d pretty quickly get over that and decide you want something else. Its a point worth remembering should the urge to discard what you have for some theoretical ideal become too strong. In other words – a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

  13. alice, who the f*ck is alice?? said, on January 8, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    I don’t know if lady-comments are welcome here but I’m a rabid devourer of Sam’s work firstly because I think he’s sublimely clever and his observations hilarious, spirit-lifting and astute and secondly because I’m interested in the manly plights/journeys/musings/tortures of my male friends, my future partner/s, future son/s, my brother etc. As a young woman benefiting richly from the post-feminist storm surge i’m very aware of the increasingly delicate masculine-feminine balance in our society and i think we should all be paying attention to one another’s struggles, challenges and victories a bit more.
    that said, and perhaps this is a post-feminist thing too, this post resonated with me completely. i feel the same pressure to do, go, be, succeed, accumulate, experience, own, express, achieve, etc., though i’ll concede that i don’t have that apparently hard-wired ‘provider instinct’ to deal with and i acknowledge the strain that puts on many young men. i’m coming at this from a slightly different angle because i’m still in my twenties, and living in the constant awareness that i will have that moment at 30, and 33, and 40, etc. i’ve already had it in various self-indulgent and melodramatic ways in my early 20s – there’s just so much i could have done by now etc. but what i’m pondering is, maybe for some of us, our twenties just isn’t a maelstrom of productive foundation-laying, possession-hoarding, salary-increasing, hair-straightening (maybe spiking for you guys) activity – maybe there’s a specific type of person for whom ‘the twenties’ is more of a languid, wallowing, ‘figuring it all out’ time, like we’re packing for a trip and we’re spending this time slowly collecting the things we need to take with us and fitting it neatly into a bag… throwing things out, rearranging it, etc. maybe the foundation a lot of non-achievers are building in that early period is not one of career success, wealth or even wacky zany adventures, but a foundation of the self? i don’t want to say that all early achievers burn out, have mid-life crises, live life on repeat and suffer the tedium of shallow social relationships because i don’t think that’s the case, but i do think that someone who puts some time into really working on themselves, their sh*t and the world around them out will be better placed to incorporate ambitious pursuits into a complex but balanced worldview. to think that Sam has this ‘oh the things i should have done’ thing going on is surprising and not a little perturbing – he’s clearly a man who’s invested considerable time and energy in understanding himself and his world, and working out ways to positively build into both and i really think that that’s worth 33 years of oxygen consumption. of course it’s a values question, but then the question kind of answers itself – if you haven’t got/done/experienced/seen the things you wanted to by this point in your life, then those things weren’t the things that were most important to you. is the house-car-boat-jetski-adorable-toddlers routine that you ‘haven’t got yet’ really what you want? because the things that are out of our control, that hold us back and thwart us and stop us from all that are nowhere near as powerful as the forces within us that drive us toward getting what we want. when we want something, we’re insatiable, all of us. and maybe what some of us want is to truly understand things and make informed decisions about where to put our focus and enjoy the momentary pleasures of stimulating travel, meaningful friendship, whatever. I’m 25 and i haven’t finished a degree yet, i drive an old second hand car on which i owe money, i’m in debt, etc etc and i beat myself up about these and other things often, but when i’m honest with myself, and i ask myself what i want my life to look like at 40, i say that i want to have exquisite social relationships, good health, varied life experiences and be accumulating the building blocks of a career wall rather than hurtling, blinkered, down a set track. so if my twenties is telling precursor, then things aren’t looking as bad as i often think.

    i guess what i’m getting at is if you’re in your thirties and you’ve achieved more on the inside than on the outside, you might just be doing things the other way around, and it might not be the wrong way. you can become good and wise and peaceful when you’re older, but not everyone gets the chance to get older, right? so maybe you way’s the right way.

  14. in wonderland said, on January 13, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    I enjoyed your thoughts Alice.

    Is there anyone else who is anxious for Sam’s holidays to be over?

  15. Texas Doc said, on May 22, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    I too was engrossed in Sam’s article as I finally heard another human being describe the uneasy visualization of the “mass of everything you haven’t done right rears up behind you like the shadow of a cartoon villain and you find yourself wondering ‘Where did the time go?'” I finished medical school in the US, but after a rather bruising experience on the hospital wards, I for the first time am wondering if trashing my 20s for my career was worthwhile. When I look back to the mind bending days of late high school and college, I felt that I was caught up in a nexus of energy, creativity, boundless optimism, and knowing that I had time to finish dozens of projects and experiments. Now at 33, I feel that my twenties were a far cry from college; little spontaneity, poor social experience, and little intellectual growth (although my head is stuffed with medicine). Now I have a visceral understanding of “Once in a Lifetime.” My twenties were the time to build on the experiences that I had in college, but not retard myself socially. Looking back, without the intense youth that I embraced in college, I would be a total basket case by now. I have one year before my residency begins, and now feel the same zeal to plunge in without thinking that made life so memorable in the past. Those small moments in time reverberate stronger than anything in the past decade in my mind. Until recently, I felt that my time was up to regain the life I lost before my twenties. I now have a gentle reminder in my age that I must continue to experience and live fully now without procrastinating. Perhaps our twenties are destined to be confusing and foggy because we develop the varied components of a full life but don’t have enough time to learn how to piece them together to form a cohesive whole. I’m hoping that my thirties will grant me this while also being a second chance at my twenties with one key caveat: there’s time to experience, but no time to bullshit.

  16. Ebie said, on February 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Nice article Sam but with all due respect, Charlie / Chuck isn’t talking about being 33. Wait’ll you hit 50, bub.

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