If you think back to when you were a child, the possibilities in life seemed endless. You could dream of becoming an actor or an astronaut, and nobody would say you couldn't achieve the impossible. It certainly wouldn’t occur to you that your life had limits. So why, in adulthood, do we place so many limitations on ourselves? What makes us stop imagining, exploring and experimenting with possibilities? Blame it on American culture, which is so success-oriented that it discourages adults from taking chances and risking failure, according to geriatrician and author Bill Thomas, M.D., an international expert on elder care. By late middle age, many of us have become so rigid and risk adverse that we won’t try anything that requires us to be novices. “We exchange our possible lives for competence,” says Thomas, even as our time for living differently grows shorter. It doesn’t have to be that way, however. “We think the arrow points in one direction, but it can point in the other,” says Thomas. “You can say, ‘I want to trade away some competence to renew that sense of possibility and think about my future in a different way.” Changing your future doesn’t necessarily mean switching careers or making life-altering moves, according to Thomas. Simply trying new things that have always intrigued you—whether it’s joining an adult swim team or taking a volunteer trip—can take you in a new direction. Thomas himself was interested in music, but between work and raising five children, he didn’t have time to pursue it in mid-adulthood. Four years ago, at age 49, he saw a sign on a bulletin board that said, “Anyone can sing,” and thought maybe he really could. Thomas started taking guitar and singing lessons, his wife took up the mandolin, and together they formed a band. They play local gigs, and have recorded two CDs. “We really enjoy music as a way of connecting as a couple,” he says. “The biggest hurdle in all of this was not learning to play music; it was giving ourselves permission to be beginners again.” Here, Thomas offers the initial steps for pursuing your dreams and exploring your possible lives.
Embrace aging. Living in a youth-obsessed culture makes it harder to grow as you age; it pushes you to cling to a false ideal, and keeps you from imagining new things for yourself. Buying into the false promise of endless youth wastes time and mental energy that you could use to try something new. When you embrace aging as a chance for change, you’re free to make choices that are true to the person you want to be. “You get to decide what you want, who you want to be, how you want to look,” says Thomas.
Expect incompetence. When you took your first ice-skating lesson, or started your first job, you didn’t expect to instantly succeed. You accepted the fact that you were a novice and would make mistakes. Why would that be any different in later adulthood? Starting something new almost guarantees mistakes—but you probably aren’t geared to accept that. To renew your sense of possibility, or in other words, to achieve the impossible, you have to reconnect with the idea of temporary failure.
Experience variety. Doing even one thing differently opens you up to a world of alternatives. Let’s say you’re concerned about the environment and want to make some lifestyle changes to shrink your carbon footprint. Instead of driving your car everywhere, you could invest in a bicycle (and relearn how to ride one, if it’s been a while). Or look into buying an electric bike. Either way, you’ve expanded your transportation options, and fed your sense of adventure. “That bike is going to give you a different life,” says Thomas. “The more choices you make, the more options you see.” And the more willing you are to try them.
Change the script. We carry around a load of baggage as we go through life, including negative self-perceptions and insecurities that limit our actions. If you’ve been told from first grade that you can’t sing, chances are you’ve been confining your a cappella performances to the shower ever since. Forget about the past, and become a singer, if that’s who you want to be, as Thomas himself has. “Think to yourself: If I stop caring that everybody says I’m a lousy singer, then I’m free. That was then, this was now.”
Think ahead. Depending on your financial and family responsibilities, you may not be able to explore all of your options right now. Think about them anyway, says Thomas, and get in the practice of making smaller choices. Choose to take guitar lessons. Decide to take the EMT training course. Look for possibilities to try something new. When your life is less overwhelming, and you have more freedom, you’ll be ready to consider larger moves that take you in new directions. “Planning can be part of the future,” says Thomas. “It’s imagination that gives you the gift of possible lives.”