False Summits

It’s the bane of hikers, the false summit. You’re staggering up the trail, or a rocky ridgeline, and you’ve been eyeing the peak for hours, only to reach that spot and see that the trail keeps rising, that the rest of the mountain was simply occluded from view.

So you march toward the next peak, believing this one, only to discover yet another false summit.

This can go on so long that when you arrive at the true top, the feeling is one of both immense relief and disbelief. You march the last agonizing steps expecting to be fooled again. And then you want to collapse and kiss the rock that leads upward no more.

For the longest time, turning 40 was my personal summit, the end of my road. My plan was to be dead by June 23rd, 2015. And not in some vague, “If I keep this up, I’ll probably never to live to see 40” kinda way, but more in the tradition of some Inuit tribes, where the elders paddled off in their canoes to make room for a new generation.

I only ever discussed this plan with my best friend Scott and Amber. I trusted the two of them not to have me locked up. And I know the reaction from those who have soldiered right past 40 is that this is a young age, and to stop being histrionic. But that was exactly the point. 40 is young. And if we’re not careful, we’ll twiddle our thumbs until we get there.

Scott knew me as well as anyone has ever known me, and he knew I was dead serious about this plan. He saw me say over and over that I was going to do something absurd, and then watch me go do it (or more likely, be my accomplice). We used to have tearful conversations about the plan. He would try to talk sense into me. But as I explained it to him, planning on being dead by 40 was not an attempt to curtail my life, but a way of expanding it. By planning on being dead by 40, I made my life so much longer.

I’ve always been fascinated with the perception of the passing of time. My earliest powerful memories are of being in the back of our red and white Ford van on the way to the beach. We made the trek every summer, and my brother and sister and I would create a playroom on the folded-flat rear seat, which turned into a bed. The three and a half hour drive was interminable. Time slowed to a crawl. Anticipation, striving, forgoing immediate self-gratification, and the racing mind of youth conspired to turn what I could otherwise idle away with a book on any given afternoon into a savage form of torture for which there was no end.

In high school, years later, I would do the exact same drive, and time would fly right by. Same length of time, two very different experiences.

Being curious about the cause of this, I began paying attention to how different time seemed to flow depending on circumstances. What I noticed was that the first time I drove anywhere with my new four-wheeled freedom, the drive felt much longer than the subsequent trips. Each drive along a route seemed to take less and less time. I realized that the first time I drove to a new place, I was hyper alert for the directions, and I was seeing new things. There was so much to take in, and so my brain would rev up, effectively slowing time down by processing a lot more. As I became familiar with the journey, my brain would shut off and coast. I could zone out, later “come to,” and marvel at the curves I navigated without being aware of them.

Three and a half hour drives today feel like absolutely nothing to me, but only if I’ve done them before.

A similar revving of the brain occurs during life-threatening events. I’ve been in a few car crashes, and time really does slow down. The brain is like a CPU, and it can be overclocked. It’s not efficient to run at max speed all the time, so the brain shuts some cores down and coasts when it can. 30% of our calories are burned by this 5 pounds of our bodies. But when our survival is at stake, it makes sense to dump all resources into calculating some way out of the mess. Newness and fear, then, seemed to be the way to keep life from zipping right by.

Comparing life to a road we travel is so obvious that it’s become cliche. So my revelation from a car crash as a youth and all those road trips was this: The way to make a life feel long was a combination of newness and danger. Seeking danger seemed like a bad idea — more a recipe for a shortened life than a perceived longer one. But what about newness? I decided to explore this further.

And what I noticed right off the bat is that for most people, life is not so much a journey as it is a commute. We like to pretend that life is some open road we explore, but it’s really a path we carve into the pavement, worn there by habit, or the back and forth of routine. I wrote about this in I, Zombie, a horror book primarily concerned with the horrors of a habituated life.

A life of commute scared me. It meant traveling the same road back and forth every day. Wouldn’t my brain then shut off and allow me to coast, managing curves without even thinking about them? Wouldn’t my life speed right by like the drive between my house and my best friend Nathan’s?

I wanted a life that would feel longer, a path that stimulated my mind by constantly feeding it new scenery, new experiences, and new information. This realization hit me like a lightning bolt one day. I was 19 years old, sitting at a lunch table with my Tandy computer repair coworkers, all of us in our white shirts and garish ties, a few pocket protectors scattered here and there. My colleagues were a lot older than me. And I saw, in an instant, that I would be them with the snap of a finger. I would repeat the same actions over and over, and my life would disappear just as surely as those curves that I’m able to unconsciously navigate along familiar roads. I would startle in my seat, glance in the rearview, and wonder where the path went.

Soon after that lunch, I moved to Charleston, SC, to shake my life up a bit. I went back to college, got a job doing something I knew nothing about, and bought a boat to live aboard. I was always an avid reader, but now I read voraciously and far more variously. Before, I’d consumed mostly Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I would read all the Forgotten Realm and D&D books. Like familiar roads, they would allow my brain to shut off and the hours to float by, completely unnoticed. Each book was largely the same. Now, I turned to challenging books by Russian authors and lots of non-fiction about really esoteric stuff. Books that required every sentence to be looked at twice, just like new scenery when we’re afraid of missing some turn.

Any adventure or opportunity that came my way, I said “yes.” A girl asked if I would pose nude for a sculptor friend. Sure. Someone asked if I would help drive their daughter from Charleston to LA. Absolutely. We did the drive in 36 hours. I jumped on a boat once heading for Hong Kong for no pay, and this required finishing my classes in the middle of the semester and leaving a very cushy job driving a water taxi. The more uncomfortable and new, the more likely I was to go for it. Despite my fears. Despite the craving for comfort and ease.

Friends and family used to tell me that strange opportunities like this just seemed to come my way. Curious about this, I took a deeper look at what was happening, and I saw the same opportunities were there for them as well. The difference was that I was actively seeking them and always taking them. I went on church trips to build houses for Habitat for Humanity. I took vans full of kids on Alternate Spring Breaks to volunteer in Bronx shelters. Life was about maximizing my experiences to avoid that very life from slipping away. And it was all fostered by my self-imposed time limit of 40 years to live.

When people tell me, “Oh, but 40 is young,” what I hear is: “Why try to live a full life today? You’ve got time!”

Without a deadline, it would be so much easier to put off bold plans until I was no longer bold enough to tackle them. Or to put off my dreams until the forever-sleep robbed me of the chance at them.

I hated the thought of “having plenty of time.” My plan was to cram in all the things I wanted to accomplish in half the time, and nothing in my life has been a better motivator for getting things done.

When loved ones heard I planned on being dead by age 40, they were sad for me. It was hard to reconcile my active and happy life with such a philosophy. What they missed was that the happiness owed everything to the plan of a curtailed life. I was living a full and happy life because I didn’t assume I had forever.

Something I noticed while in college: Most kids spent the majority of their time doing the same few things. Again, it’s like driving a commute rather than heading to a new destination. After a few nights bar-hopping in Charleston, I realized that my memory of college would be a single memory, an average of all these nights, just a vague recollection of laughter with friends over drinks. Each moment would be enjoyable, but few would stand out over time. My life would be compressed due to lack of newness. This is the same observation over and over: Take detours in order to fill a life with new memories, lengthening the perception of time.

This doesn’t have to mean a lack of family or true and deep friendships, either. My two best friends today are people I’ve known and kept up with for over twenty years. Amber and I moved every few years, taking on new jobs, selling homes and buying new ones that needed more work. We were contributing to society more than we would have if we’d stayed with the same jobs and grown apathetic and bored. Or in the same houses, rather than buying new ones and fixing them up as well. We left behind a trail of improvements, and found ourselves improved as a result.

Rather than have vague memories today of thirteen years in South Florida, where we met, we have all these different stages of our lives that stand out in stark relief. A year in an apartment, two years in our first home in Florida, two years in Virginia together, five years in North Carolina, three years in Jupiter. Five distinct lives instead of one.

When I lived on boats the first time, I met the most interesting families I would ever come across. Parents with teenage kids. Parents with newborns. Many of them stayed on the move, homeschooling as they went. I just spent a week on my friend Terry’s boat, and it’s littered with all the books and supplies for schooling his teenage kids. These kids growing up on boats are the brightest, most mature young adults I’ve ever met, hands-down. They aren’t on a commute; they are on a journey.

Our brains evolved to live a life of constant trouble and danger. Amber and I discussed this a while back, when she had a very restful night of sleep, but said she kept waking up all throughout the night. I’ve always noticed this with nights spent camping or on a boat at sea. You don’t get the eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, instead getting little naps punctuated by semi-alertness.

Well, what did our ancestors do? They didn’t lock the door of the cave, knowing no one would come in and eat them, spear them, or take their things. The only way to get a truly restful night of sleep was to assuage any worry by remaining vigilant. That is: True rest came from the complete lack of stress that anything bad might happen in the night. Shutting our brains off for eight hours at a time is not the goal of sleep but a curse. Shutting off our brains for decades at a time is not the goal of life but a similar curse.

Moving is a pain. Selling and buying homes are a pain. Quitting jobs and seeking new ones are a pain. Getting rid of possessions and living light is a pain. Saying goodbye to existing friends and meeting new ones is a pain. Every one of these splinters of sensation, though, stands out in the end. And the decades of numbness go by like those daydreamed and unseen curves.

And so back to the summit: The march to 40 was a march to a false one, sure. Along the path, people would call down and tell me to go slow, to take it easy, that there’s a lot of mountain left. Along the path, hikers with the full mountain in mind or a trail map would see my traipsing off into the bushes along either side of the trail, trying my best to scout out the entire mountain, to look under every rock and around every corner, and they would say to me, “There’s plenty of time to do that once you get over the next rise.”

Screw that. There’s always plenty of time until there’s none left.

I turn 40 this month. It is an amazingly young age. I’ve never been in better shape, and there’s so much potential mountain stretched out ahead of me. But there’s even more that I want to do. So why look at 70 or 60 or even 50? Why put anything off? I’d rather pick out the first false peak that I can see and assume that’s as high as I’ll ever get. And what can I accomplish before I get there?

My best friend Scott had his first of two kids when he was my age. So even that’s not out of the question. I’d love to have a family, raise them at sea, homeschool them, watch them grow. The idea that a vagabond lifestyle leaves you cut off from people and unable to also have a family is an excuse to commute to work every day, to not take chances, to not live a full life. I’m saying this as someone who feels the urge all the time to settle, to be comfortable, to stop taking chances. I’m not saying the lifestyle I chose is right for anyone other than me, only that I wouldn’t be as fully happy any other way.

We often hear that “age is just a number.” Yes, but it’s a useful number. Age is a mile-marker, those little green signs that dot the interstate. I feel like I have a choice: I can tune out and zoom down the highway, noting those little markers now and then, and peering in the rearview and wondering where those decades of flattop went. Or I can scramble over that berm, peek behind that bush, climb that outcrop, and forget about highways and paths straight to the top and the idea of getting anywhere as quickly and painlessly as possible.



Update: A week after posting this, a bit of science to back up my hypothesis.

55 responses to “False Summits”

  1. Yes! I thought I was supposed to have children and the white picket fence and all that by now, but it didn’t happen. My life is working out the way its supposed to, not the way I THOUGHT it was supposed to. 40 for me is coming on June 25th, and I’m happy with where I am right now. A good job, a house coming this month, and marrying my best friend this year. Not bad for 40.

    Also? I think its so cool that we almost share birthdays! :) I’ll raise a glass to you on June 23rd, Hugh!

  2. Beautiful, Hugh. Good luck with ALL of it.

  3. Happy Birthday – I hit 40 on Friday. I have just spent a year saying yes to many different opportunities. Circumstances kind of forced me to. It was an interesting year and one that sets me up beautifully for the next 40 years.
    I hope you continue to pen your wide variety of stories and share them with us. That will be a great adventure as well.

  4. This is a great post, but it doesn’t take moving every couple years to keep from becoming stagnant. I’ve lived at the same house, the one I bought at 18, for 18 years. I’ve worked at the same company for 17 years, and I’ve never grown apathetic and bored. Having some stability has allowed me to explore other experiences I might not have been able to. I’ve been a silk screen operator, silk screen maker, production artists, quality coordinator, IT support, research technician and designer, all while working for the same company. I have learned to play guitar, trumpet, and french horn. I’ve rebuilt, rewired and painted my first motorcycle. I’ve taught myself to cook and to do woodworking. I’ve written two books. None of this would have been possible if I had to worry about moving or finding a new employer every couple years. A nomadic lifestyle might work for some, others need stability in order to really experience life.

    1. Word. Like I said, this isn’t a solution for everyone, just for me. We can all find ways to stay engaged on our drives. Or choose not to stay engaged. Whatever works.

      It’s hard to share descriptions of our lives without others taking them as prescriptions for theirs. I’m not interested in self-help for the masses. I’m interested in self-help for myself. If sharing that gets people thinking of solutions that work for them, awesome. The more sharing the better.

      Thanks for sharing your solution and thoughts. Onward and upwards, right?

      1. I definitely agree, each person needs to find their own solution. The funny thing is, that solution can also change. I used to be the person to rush out on an adventure at the drop of a hat. Now I find myself rushing home from work each day so I can start a new project. And in ten years? There’s no telling what I might need.

        1. YES! to this exchange.

  5. hagakure.
    The samurai prepared for death so they would have no fear of living to the fullest potential of today.
    It didn’t mean they wanted to die.
    My goal for 40 was that if I wasn’t rich I would give up and find a safe civil service job to secure a pension. I did that. It was the death of me living different lives; ten years as an electrician, ten as a carpenter, two as a stone mason, etc. now I have done the same thing for ten years, and it’s not so bad.
    Mileposts are points in the road, not markers of the end of the journey.

  6. Feel like I just read a post by Older Me.

  7. Wow. That was great, Hugh. I so feel you on the rapid passage of time. It’s terrifying, but also exhilarating to realize that that awareness is an invitation to not just coast along like you describe. Good for you for not settling, and congratulations on this milestone!

  8. I’ve been reading a book by Julian Barbour, The End of Time, the next revolution in physics. Oddly the idea that time is an artificial construct is really comforting. And it helps to just look into the idea, “does time have any real relevance to life?” I know we don’t see what is around us, the actual physical reality. I was thinking about Time, and I took an oral history course and studied memory. If your life is 40 years of memories why do you remember one event and not another. You have 24 hours of impressions every day and your life consists of a movie that you have edited. Those kind of approaches have been very helpful to me. Pulling back and seeing what do those measures, memory and time, really mean. BTW Happy Birthday!

  9. Just a minor point on perspective. Some people say things like “40 is young” so you don’t freak out and think your life is over. A lot of people seem to feel as like they’re failures if they haven’t “summited” by then. I think your post is a great way to remember there is life both before and after 40.

    ps I’m 47 and now freaking out about 50! that’s when life’s really over :)

    1. I’m 58 and freaking about being 60. It used to seem so old, but I feel young as ever.

  10. I love your outlook. Life has many adventures for those who welcome them, but all of us have different journeys to make. I had my kids at 38 and 40. I went to grad school in my mid-40s to do what I truly wanted to do, and changed careers. As much as I envy your adventures, I also know that my career and my kids keep me somewhat rooted, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing — for now. Phil and I look forward to many more adventures in a few years. We’ll wave if we pass you on the high seas. I send my love as you embark on the journey of your 40s. Fair winds and following seas, my friend. <3

  11. Amazing view on life! I’m 45 and embarking on a new chapter of my life as well and it feels great! Honestly, sadly, I never put as much thought into it as you did, but something in my soul has always kept me moving, changing, exploring, adventuring, all the while people around me thought I was nuts. Changing jobs on the regular, taking random classes in all sorts of subjects for fun, traveling to as many new places as my wallet would allow, I even adopted my nephew as my son! Becoming a middle school teacher has been one of the best adventures EVER! I can look back on my life so far and I’m thrilled I didn’t live it on auto pilot!! Your piece simply crystallized for me what I’ve always done but never “thought about”.

    I’m newly engaged to a beautiful woman that, as it turns out, shares your birthday! Woot woot! After 10 magnificent years fulfilling my natural calling as an educator, I’ll soon be moving on as my best friend and I launch a new business… the expectation being I’ll soon be financially able to live an even more adventurous life with my “new” family (keeping fingers crossed that the supreme court will find gay marriage constitutional this summer)…

    I believe THIS IS the way people should live life…they would have fewer regrets when they finally do take a look around and see all those missed opportunities distant in the rear view mirror along with their weary, wrinkled faces.

    Thank you for the incredible stories you weave! You have become my favorite author and hero… hero because of how you’ve lived your life (I’d already read about your ‘younger days’), but mostly because of your moxy and determination in getting your books out via the self publication route! Not an easy thing to do! You have my full admiration.

    Feliz Cumpleano! Here’s to many, many more!

  12. I feel like I’ve been stuck in a jeep going up the mountain. Peering longingly at others paths while I chug along. I’m so happy I stumbled on yours, Hugh. It may have been a few miles later than I prefer, but I’ll just have to set my summit a little higher. I figure if I hop out of the jeep 10 miles late, I’ll make my summit 50. You’ve really been a changing force in my life, an example of something more, and a testament to a dream I’ve been passively chasing for far too long. This post (along with the fire at your back) have resonated with me more than I can hope to convey. Thank you, as always, for posting your thoughts and sharing your life with us. I can’t wait to hit the trail! And hey, here’s to hoping that our wayward paths eventually cross, because that would just be way too cool.

  13. Hugh, I love your approach to squeezing life out of each day. And I I envy your health.

    The life I planned J. J. Abrams is living right now. :) I had similar goals, but I’ve had Crohn’s for over half my life. As I am about to leave my 40s, I realize I am blessed to have had one of those boring, repetitive jobs for almost two decades because it included insurance over my numerous surgeries and meds. Not the life I planned, but its alterations have brought gratitude for what I have, not what I don’t. Instead of overtaking Hollywood I enjoyed coaching my son in Little League, teaching my daughter about film and stories and spending a quiet dinner with my wife.

    My limitations inspire me to explore the world in my writing in ways I can never do in real life. It’s freeing and invigorating to know that each blank page allows me to indulge in a life I hoped to live.

    I hope your 40s are as eventful as the other decades in your life!

    1. I hear you Pete. Mine is 14 years of MS. It’s amazing how far, and deep, our minds can take us, isn’t it? My husband is a distance runner, and he certainly sees more than I am able, but I find comfort (most of the time!) in the rich depth of what I can discover, right where I am.

      1. Carolyn, it’s nice to meet a kindred soul. :) For years I was bitter. As my health became unpredictable, I’d watch TV and films and say “I could’ve done that!” Getting from there to a healthy acceptance and appreciation for what I have wasn’t an easy journey. As you know, you eventually learn to explore the world within your reach. There’s plenty there to enjoy.

        I’ll pray for you and your health.

  14. Great Post! These things are what you make them and thats exactly what they should be, yours to make what you want of it. Happy Birthday Hugh. The summit I first chose was 25, talk about false, who would want live past that I thought. Well I prospered past that. I had my first son at 39 and put together savings to begin writing full time at 40. On September 14th 2008 my wife threw a 40th birthday dinner party, on September 15th Lehman collapsed, and my savings – like most every one else’s – became untouchable. This all recovered of course yet I was able to test my mettle. If I understand correctly you were in South Cove when the Towers fell. I was a few blocks away, on my way to see a client in Tower One. Each day is the day, everyday is special, and all are your own. Happy Birthday.

  15. Jason Brookshier Avatar
    Jason Brookshier

    Hugh – Of all your posts, this is easily the most insightful and beneficial, regardless of whether it works for everyone. I realized a year or so ago that I had become utterly stagnant in life, and decided to do something about it. (I’m 37, so 40 is just around the corner.) Now I no longer have a guest room, but a fully decked-out music studio. I no longer have a dining room, but a room full of WIP oil paintings. And I’m about to release my first novella on Amazon, with a novel to follow later in the year. Some of these things I’ve dabbled in for years, but it wasn’t until I faced my own stagnation recently that I became serious about it. It isn’t easy to transform, and I’m still making the transformation, overcoming my fears and habits, but this post from you just helped solidify my resolve a little more. Thanks much, Hugh.

  16. You’re not gonna give up writing and go into acting or anything, just for a change of scenery, are you? I’d be really pissed.

    1. I’m going to be writing more than ever.

      1. Hugh,
        We’re all glad you’re not giving up writing. This was an awesome post. I skipped the commute and took a different journey: had a kid at 17. He’s an amazing 31 year old with an almost one year old. My last is almost twelve. I think you’re right. Interesting choices are there for those who make them. As I approach 50, I am happier and healthier than I’ve ever been.

  17. I used to worry that I’d wasted my best years languishing in poverty, homeless and unable to do anything other than scrabble for survival.

    Maybe it’s all a matter of scale. Give me a few years and I’ll be at forty, but I don’t really miss not being able to do a lot of the “normal” things. I’ve got my own life, its own experiences, its own adventures.

    I’m tired of moving from state to state. I’m tired of living the nomadic life. The income from my writing has finally given me a small measure of stability, and so I can take the time to explore that for awhile.

    In a way this feels like my epilogue, the peace that comes after the adventure’s over. I’d prefer to see it as a chapter break, a moment’s rest before I get on with the midpoint. Or maybe I’m still in the backstory, building the flaws I’ll have to overcome.

    Maybe every stage of life is an age that is dying and one that has yet to be born.

    1. Michael, I love that!

  18. Fascinating! I thought I was the only one. Thirty was my go-to number. Managed to cram in as much as I could in thirty years, including three children.
    In recent years, however, due to the spouse’s job, I feel pedestrian, trapped in a repetitive commute. A great restlessness has set in. Eats at me. I’ve always had a overarching need for newness, freshness, untried hikes and vistas and people and whatever…
    I think a move to Montana is in the works.
    When I turn ninety, if I make it to ninety, I plan to climb Everest and remain in the air up there.

  19. Hi Hugh,

    As someone with a severe disability, this post really resonated with me. I have to constantly remind myself to get out and try new things, as the temptation to stay in my place of comfort and safety is often very strong. Just a quick question on reading; Do you have any non-fiction books you would recommend? “‘m in my 2nd year of a history degree at university in the UK, but like to read non-fiction beyond history, to avoid making my brain go stale:). Anyway, great writing and keep it up. Your an inspiration to me.

    P.S. I sent a couple of emails, about tech, No Man’s Sky and the future of humanity. Did you get them? I know you must be really really busy but was just wondering.

  20. Smiles Hugh…. Been there and done it. Wouldn’t trade it for anything. Even now at 73 I’m still restless, but health has slowed me down.

    Ever since I reading Molly Fyde (the first one), what, three years ago, I saw something in the underlying current of adventure in you. After finally meeting you at Elie Caseys little talk in PBG I was smiling inside because you confirmed the wandering spirit that I believed we had in common. Yea, it’s just beginning for ya, and it will be better. Do like I did and remove the rear-view mirror from your life and stay focused forward.

    PS. Sail up the African coast on the way home. Lots of really good experiences in the islands off the coast.

    1. Great advice. Thanks, Greg.

  21. Nailed it! Of course! A few years ago, in my early 50s, my health was taken from me, along with most of the life I knew. After the overwhelming sense of self pity passed, the strongest emotion has been gratitude for every adventure I ever took, every risk, every leap of faith ever made. It’s possible I will regain some of my health and life, and I plan to spend as much time as possible going on more adventures and taking more risks. Another lesson to take from life: it seems like a lot of people my age, people that I know, have died of cancer.
    We’ve built financial security, so we have the option to live for today. And I intend to do just that.

  22. About half-way through this post, I stopped, put my phone down and started adding (minor) plans to my to-get-done list. That’s a first stepping stone.

    I have now finished this post (laptop) (also no longer at work ha), and I have to say it is one of my favorites by you. When I was first directed to Wool by a friend, I would never have guessed it would also lead me to my first self-publication (following your advice back then). Its so very true that we can never know where a Yes may lead, but saying No only reinforces our comfort zone, our cruise control. This post is a reminder to me that I need to get back to saying Yes more often.

    Thank you Hugh for an inspiring post.

    1. Thanks, Brandon. And congrats on getting your work out there!

  23. Great post Hugh, as usual.

    I really liked the way you forced yourself to live in the moment instead of planning for some future time when it would be the “right time”. The right time may never come. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow never comes. It’s perpetually today and you have to live NOW. It seems that most of us learn this too late, or only after many many years fooling ourselves to the contrary.

    Time is a funny thing. When you’re eight and dying to get out of school and go home to play, it seems to move at a glacial pace. It’s endless until the end of the day, the weekend, the next vacation, summer holidays. Then you’re in your twenties and time starts to get away from you. You go to college and run out of time when a paper is due or before a test. In your thirties, it goes even faster, with responsibilities mounting, marriage, children, jobs, mortgages, bills… You’re so busy, life passes by in a blur. Then you’re in your forties and the days pass like you’re in a carousel, round and round, one day bleeding into the next and before you know it, it’s Thanksgiving and then Christmas and then New Years once more. Then it’s summer, then fall and then back to Thanksgiving again. Wait — wasn’t it just Easter?

    Before you know it, you’re fifty. Half a century? 2/3 of the way through your life? Things start to hurt, your eyes start to fail, and you lose some of your energy. How I long for the youthful body I had only a decade or so earlier. I like my brain as it is now, my mind, my sense of myself and my understanding of the world. But dang… Too soon old, too late smart.

    At this point in my life, I am becoming very selfish. I want to do all the things I never did because I was too busy chasing a life I felt I should live. It was a very good, very privileged life, but it wasn’t my life of choice. It was a life that I thought I should live to tick off all the boxes. Now, I’m pursuing the life I always wanted to live. Nomadic, travelling as much as possible, being outside for as much time as I can manage, doing exactly what I always wanted to do — write and make a living doing it.

    Finally, after all those years flying by, I am. :) It’s never too late. But time is passing. The one saving grace is that when I write, when I am in the middle of a chapter, a scene, time slows down and I get lost in it. Hours pass and I barely know it. I feel like I’m truly living in the moment.

    That is a wonderful experience.

  24. Your post couldn’t have been more timely. My husband and I will celebrate our anniversary with a family reunion on June 20. We expect about 35 people at the dinner and I’m devoting this week to preparing pictures and other mementoes so our guests will know what we’ve been doing since we married. As I gather this material, I realize the years can be divided into five sections. By coincidence, we’ve lived in five different cities, and traveled to five different countries. Which is appropriate because we;ve been married 50 years.

    Some background. We’d each been married before (twice for me) and had children. I was a month shy of my 40th birthday when we said, “I do” in a suburb of San Francisco. The first decade was spent at our jobs, plus I moonlighted teaching Contract Bridge in recreation centers, and finishing raising the seven children. My husband was an accomplished artist, so I quit my job and began to participate in art shows, selling his paintings in shopping malls and Fairs. It lasted 19 years, but I call it Decade Two. Decade Three began in about 1984 when we bought a studio condo in a resort on a Maui beach. We rented it by the day, week or month, and we learned to do the booking (and bookkeeping) hired cleaning and maintenance people and became landlords. That lasted 20 years, and we were still doing it when Decade four began in 1991. Curt retired and we moved to a city in Southern Callfornia. Although I’d begun writing stories and novels in the ’80s, I finally began to sell my work, and wrote almost 20 books. Much to my surprise and delight, Curt caught the bug and wrote two novels as well. Decade Five began in 2003 because we sold the condo, moved to the desert near Palm Springs, and took up performing. Curt sang with a choral group, doing two or three concerts a year, and I joined the Performing Arts Club, where I acted in stage plays and sang (even solos) in our two or three musical productions every year.

    Embracing self-publishing thanks to Konrath, KKR and DWS, I have 4 novellas and nine full-length novels on Amazon (which earn a little every month), my first full mystery will be published in November, and I just signed a contract for two cozy mysteries to come out in 2016. And, as you may have figured out, next month I’ll be 90. Finish life at 40? No, that’s when my life really began. Happy Birthday on June 23rd.

    1. Brilliant. What a life!

      And I reject the idea that you can’t contribute to society while living a varied life. Just because one moves around doesn’t mean they aren’t working a job and contributing to their community at every step along the way.

  25. Great blog, Hugh. Happy birthday early in case I don’t catch you on the day.

    I’m a tad bit older than 40. :) I feel grateful for my wonderful life. I’ve accomplished all the big goals I’ve set for myself. I alternate between times of busyness–going, doing, writing–and times of just reading and napping. While I’m not in the best shape of my life, I’m in good shape.

    I think it behooves us to keep making bucket lists and crossing them off. I still have plenty more stories to tell, places to see, people to meet, healing and supporting others as I go.

    I hope the years after 40 are all you want them to be, Hugh!

  26. Hi Hugh–

    My experience is exactly the opposite! For 30 years I was a conference interpreter. Every single week I had a different conference, with different colleagues, in a different city. Often a different country. A billion experiences crowded in and I CRAVED routine, sleeping in the same bed, slowing down and experiencing things in a slow fashion. I’m living that now, in a small sleepy town in the south of Italy, feeling the seasons change, enjoying very much being in the same place, day after day. Funny how life is, eh?

  27. Love the post Hugh. I totally get it.

    Yet, I’m a person who needs stability. And funny enough, my daily commute (20 min on foot either way) is also my daily adventure. I walk this stretch of road – which I have walked for over ten years now – being wide awake and aware. I love seeing the little things, the flowers in the front yards and in the cracks on the sidewalks, the trees, the birds, seagulls chasing crows and vice versa, the people I see again and again because their life happens to take them to the same space I walk every day. (I even greet some, though I don’t know their names).

    And yesterday I had an exciting adventure: I watched a funnel cloud reach down from the sky. Yes, in the middle of a town in Northern Germany. On a sunny and windy day. I took pics. Nobody else even noticed it.

    I love that kind of adventurous life. Thank you for making me even more aware of it.

    1. I want to see the pics :-)

  28. Thanks, Hugh, for a positive and interesting perspective on life in general. It made me think. What if I died tomorrow? What would I regret? Would they be big regrets because I didn’t do something that I had the time and opportunity to do, or would they be small regrets because I did so much that I simply didn’t have time to get to that thing? Mostly, they’d be small regrets, because at about thirty, less than three years removed from graduation, I decided that I better start doing things and seeing things I wanted to do and see. I traveled (alone) to many different parts of the country, met people I knew from college or from online, and saw things (and learned about them), some of which weren’t on my radar (like the battlefields at Vicksburg).

    It was sort of relaxing to realize this. Not so say that there aren’t more things on my bucket list, but it’s nice to realize that my life has been pretty full. Thanks again!

  29. “The tragedy of getting old is not that one is old, but that one is still so young.”
    – Oscar Wilde (Or a close approximation to the exact quote anyway.)

  30. Hi Hugh! I was Sarah Pride when you knew me. I only recently reconnected with Scott (a great thing) and found you and your blog, which I enjoy so much. I haven’t read your books yet, but I will and I look forward to it. (What should I start with?) You were brilliant at 20, and you are clearly a great writer. I am excited to see that your life has been consistent and successful. I’m not at all surprised. The way you write about yourself in this post is so accurate. It was hard to be around you and not feel somehow inferior. You were starving for knowledge and new experiences EVERY DAY. It seemed mad, but because you were so clearly sane, it was just mesmerizing. Scott was similar and needed you. I am similar too, in nature, but your energy, intelligence and confidence leaves me in the dust. But I, too, always believed I wouldn’t live past 45. I’m still a few years away from that marker, but increasingly confident that I’ll see the birthday. I hope so. But I too had a deadline…so dancing, acting, teaching, mothering, loving, and now producing & writing are the priorities. Study a little and do it and learn as you go. I never made the connection to the perception of time, but it’s an amazing observation. Anyway, this is great, and I’d love to be in touch again.


    1. Hey Sarah, great to hear from you. If you’re still in Charleston, ask Scott about my birthday party. And bring the hubby and kids if you can swing by. Be great to see you again.

  31. I just turned 40 on May 1st, and actually spent this whole past year blogging every frickin’ day about it. The walk toward 40 was really important to me for many of the reasons you mentioned here, not least of which because I always assumed I’d die young. I guess I still think that way, and I’m not sure if it’s a self-defense mechanism I’ve built up or something deeper. Gotta say though, to you and anyone else reading who’s turning 40 this month or soon, I always guessed the walk just AFTER turning 40 would be very ho-hum, back to normal, and it has been. The walk TO 40 is where the meaning is really waiting to be found. So don’t be afraid to gnaw this over a bit right now. It’s healthy to do so, completely appropriate too, and it’ll help you avoid any so-called crises later on. ;) Happy Birthday!

  32. My wife and I live by this idea. We were married in 2010 and we have made it a point to live life full of new experiences. I started at a small newspaper in Jesup, Ga. We both quickly saw the detriment of the day-to-day, sitting in an office constantly doing something we didn’t love. Almost on a whim, we decided to teach in South Korea. From there we lived in an RV for a year, traveling all across the United States. We’re back in Korea for the next 9 months and are excited to see what comes next. We never want to let up and absolutely love the life we have. After traveling the US and Europe, we look back on all our adventures and are amazed that it has only been 5 years since we started our JOURNEY, not a commute.

  33. Die young, but put it off as long as you can.

  34. A man and a life after my own heart. I was always wandering and finding different things, living alternate lives. Now I know it was all to become a better writer, and to live a richer, fuller set of lives, not just one. Eventually “settled” and did the family thing, but that allowed me to fire up the writing career, so all good. The varied background lets me write about things with more authenticity and authority.
    Bravos to the brave. We have better stories…

  35. So, I’m forever late to the party, as usual–but I try never to miss one of your posts, whenever I can make time for it. I miss most people’s blogs, but few writers have consistently changed my view of the world the way you have a habit of doing.

    I lost 5 years to a cubicle job I hated, but which paid well. I have some memories from that time and I wrote a few books that weren’t good enough to be published traditionally and now that I’m indie, I won’t publish them:) And I made some nice memories with my wife and friends. I also gained a ton of weight, grew terribly depressed, and got stuck in a very deep rut. Every time I thought of quitting, they raised my pay, so I spent 50-60 hours per week sitting in the same chair doing the same sets of tasks, going out for the same cigarette breaks, and usually eating the same lunch everyday.

    True story: the day I finally quit was the day I got a call from my literary agent to offer me representation. Obviously, there’s more to the story as I ended up self publishing, but my life changed for the better as soon as I broke out of that rut and its been changing ever since.

    I’ve some years to go before I turn 40, but should I be struck by an asteroid, I can honestly say I’ve lived a good life (most of those 5 years aside). I married the love of my life, we have a son, we’ve bought a house for him we’ve made into a home, I’ve made some very deep and meaningful friendships, and I’ve published some damn fine books people have enjoyed reading.

    And honestly, although those 5 monotonous years bleed together in my mind as one really long year, I think of them often. I don’t know if it’s worth 5 years of my life to have learned the lesson, but I haven’t repeated the mistake since. I’ve worked much better, more interesting jobs and just plain done more with my time.

    Also, if you want a constant variable for change, you and Amber should start that family. Everyday my son wakes up a little bigger and that changes me. It also reminds me how short life truly is and to enjoy every bit of it I can before it’s done (inevitably sooner than I would like).

  36. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer, offers life advice thus: “Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next—and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.”

  37. Hugh, I heard about this blog post from a reader who commented on the series of “brave essays” I’m doing about my experiences taking a nude drawing class. Every week, for 8 weeks, the torture, the reflection, the hard-won truth nuggets. I don’t even really know why I’m doing it, but a good part is because I WANT to be woken up, to strive and struggle. Something in me has always had this drive to live fully, and not just that, to write about it, to try to share and inspire, to live as fully, bravely and truly as I can. I’m ten years older than you, with two grown children, but my life, like yours, has been a series of “books”..that time when we were first married and lived in California. That book about moving to Kauai and having two babies. And then the epic tale of selling everything and moving to the midwest with two small children and both of us going to college, followed by another epic move back to Hawaii, building all over again, with pre-teens. And then my masters in social work, and then the empty nest adventures we’ve begun to have, as we carve and shape the life we’ve dreamed of.
    It comforts me to read this, to know you’re this kind of person. It makes me feel less alone in being so driven.

    In case you find the time, this is the post our mutual reader commented on. Bless you and Amber, you trailblazing amazing people you. xox Forty is just the beginning when you’re living large.

  38. Vickie Boehnlein Avatar
    Vickie Boehnlein

    Hugh, I read this blog post with interest, admiration and some trepidation. I found your comments on the perception of the passage of time very insightful. I had a conversation with my husband recently that focused on the same phenomenon but with the emphasis on another aspect of it. We were talking about distracted driving and how we have both experienced times when we have been driving for a while down a familiar path and suddenly realize that we don’t remember the trip at all. Our conversation focused in on how amazing the brain is that it can allow a person to do something they have done a hundred times before but at the same time be actively engaged in some other area. Using this perspective the idea of a commuter life takes on a different perspective. Now the routine of a life that is always the same allows you to focus on other things while you proceed through the mundane.

    Due to an unusual upbringing in a strict prophetic-based religious organization I believed until into my twenties that the world was going to end in my lifetime. Not just my lifetime but in my early lifetime. Because I believed I wasn’t likely to finish High School I didn’t put as much effort into it as I should or could have. Because I believed that I would never have a need or likelihood to complete College I didn’t go to College. Many of my friend’s parents never owned a house because they believed that there was no point to having something permanent when it would all be unnecessary in a short time.

    Fortunately before I got to far into my twenties I moved away from this belief system and embraced a different path. I am now 45 and married with children, a house I love and a job I have worked at for 28 years. I realize that for some the idea of working at the same job for more than a few years can seem like stagnation but I have found that this has left me free to explore more in my leisure life.

    Life is spent, typically in three parts: sleep, work and leisure. In my life sleep and work are the parts that are not ‘mine’ and therefore less important. My life (the leisure time) is much more fulfilling to me and the area of my life where I am able to learn and experience all the varieties of life. So when I look back at the road of my life there are parts that will have faded into memory just like the bends and turns of the familiar commute but other parts will have taken that place in my memory. I don’t need to remember every detail of every trip that I have made down that familiar road because I remember the road as it was the first time and the way it is today and all the rest of the time I have filled with more important memories.

    I have found what works for me and I am glad you have found what works for you. For those that are still looking, I hope you find your answers.

  39. Reading through your post.. and the comments, there seem to be a lot of us turning 40 this month (I turn 40 on the 16th).

    Happy birthday! I hope you have a great day and live life to the fullest as much as possible :)

  40. […] a sci-fi writer, Hugh Howey, who wrote a post about false summits. Most of the post is about growing older, but he relates it to mountain climbing. The whole time I […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *