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Age is just a number – even after losing a year to a pandemic

Are you worried you're a year behind? Here's why we should combat the idea that success has an age limit, and how to reframe your outlook

I can’t wait to be 80, if I’m lucky enough to reach such a ripe old number. I have an image of myself at that age: stouter, grey-haired, distinctly partial to a G&T. The kind of woman who has banished the anguishes and vanities of youth. A woman who hoots with laughter, embarrasses her grandchildren, and chats to anyone who will spare her a bit of their time. 

I’m far from that woman at the moment, emotionally as well as in terms of years. For one thing, I feel a bit fraught – and fraught is not a word I associate with my imaginary 80-year-old self. I’ve watched each month of this pandemic slipping by with a quiet but fervent panic. There seem to be so many reminders of what I’ve not yet managed to achieve. Lockdown has either disrupted or accelerated normal processes, and it’s hard not to question which side of the equation I fall on. Having been cooped up together for months, many of my friends seem to be getting married, buying houses, and even getting pregnant, while my most immediate concern  – aside from paying rent – is whether the milk’s gone off yet. The toxic combination of social expectation and biological anxiety has started simmering away. More and more people have begun to ask me when I will marry my long-term boyfriend (not anytime soon, is the answer). The questions are usually directed at me, not him – the assumption being that time is my enemy more than his because, as a woman, I have so much more to ‘lose’: looks, fertility, cultural capital. 

When it comes to work, on the other hand, progress has felt hard to measure. Days slip by and slide into one another. Isaac Newton invented calculus and discovered universal gravity when sent home from Cambridge University in 1665 because of bubonic plague; the biggest thing I perfected during the long months of lockdown was an average-to-good Tom Yum soup. When wandering around the local park for what feels like the millionth time, I couldn’t help but wonder: have I simply lost a year of my life to Covid? 

BUT – and it’s a big but – there are other ways of looking at it.

Let’s get one thing straight: the best years of our lives are not behind us. Of course, there will always be things we wish we’d done, experiences we’d gone for, other lives we could have lived. We’re our own harshest critics. But we’re all like that. There’s a sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping into our collective consciousness, that it’s somehow too late – that others are ahead, and that we can’t possibly catch up. But it’s never too late to begin something new. You can always start over. If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s the hope that a brighter, better future can come when all that stood before is swept away. 

Some of the most brilliant and successful people around – people you might assume were born with a god-given gift and passion – had absolutely no idea what they were doing for a solid chunk of their lives. Or they did know what they were doing, but it was something radically different from what they ended up becoming known for. The idea of talent being innate is one of the biggest lies there is; in fact, numerous studies have found that it’s what we’re told as we grow up that counts (e.g. a child who is told they’re good at maths aged 4 is likely to still think they’re good at maths at 15, even if they’re no better than their contemporaries). ‘Genius’ violin players are genius because they’ve spent 10,000 hours perfecting their craft, not because they were born that way. Even Mozart – one of the most iconic child prodigies – was helped along by a music teacher father and intensive bouts of training. 

The fact is that – no matter who you are, where you are, or what stage of your life you’re at – time is on your side. Alan Rickman gave up a graphic design career for acting when he was 42; Samuel L. Jackson didn’t get his first movie role until he was 46. Louise Bourgeois didn’t become a famous artist until she was 78. It doesn’t all need to be figured out now; some of the best things come when they are least expected. You’re not a failure because you haven’t found fame and fortune yet. Maybe you’ll never find fame and fortune, but you will find something or someone that brings you utter joy, and that’s enough to feel you’ve had a life well lived. 

I suspect women feel more aware of ageing than men do, at least for the first few decades of life. We have timepieces built into our bodies, obvious indicators of what stage of life we’re at. But that’s as much a gift as a curse. As Zadie Smith wrote, “That our bodies should bring us such concrete signs of time passing — that they should have the miraculous ability to bring us news of what is actually the case — surely means that every woman is offered the opportunity to be, as Young Disciples have it, a “conscious observer” of her own life.” I am not denying that one day I might one day miss my 25-year-old legs, bum and tum. But I have pledged to myself that I will try to think of what is learned with each sag or stretch: the wisdom, cheer, and experience that comes with each new ‘imperfection’. My mum says that she feels more confident in herself with each passing decade; my granny said the same. I’ve trusted them on everything from boys to clothes throughout the years; I’ve no reason to doubt them now. 

We asked how our readers on Instagram felt about the ‘losing a year’. Here’s what you said

“This is the second time I’ve lost a year. I had cancer 10 years ago which resulted in the same lost year, and an adoption process that should have taken 7-9 months was delayed. It’s been 18 months so far” – @mrsherdy

“No, I feel like I gained back a year of my life from not working 45+ hours a week!” – @sarahminkle

“Yes – I’ve lost a year in my grandchildren’s lives and face further time apart” – @gillh2910

“No – I gained precious extra time with my toddler when he would usually have been in childcare” – @pippiitz

“Yup. I lost my year of being 30 and thriving in London with a year of travel. I know that’s privileged but :(” – @amanadasummons