Arbitrary Deadlines and Turning 40

“You really become a chef between 40 and 50 years old. Before that it’s school and research and doubt.”

— Alain Paissard in Chef's Table France

I thought about this quote a lot as I started to enter my forties and rethink some of my preconceptions and notions about my own career and what a successful life even looks like. For so much of my life, I’ve been obsessed with early success and setting up random deadlines for myself.

I remember how scared I felt to be responsible for hiring the people I would mentor at just 26 and 27, but I also remember feeling like I was falling behind when I didn’t go full-time with my own studio until I was 32, while still being full of doubts that I was ready. A few years after that, I remember feeling like a failure when I thought my studio wasn’t growing fast enough by the time I was 38 (it was still just me plus an apprentice and contractors), and I decided to change paths again. Everything was based on arbitrary mile markers that I had created in my own head, and I was always behind.

What if some of us don’t reach the peak of our abilities that early, though? What if some careers or lives require the kind of experience and learning that we can only get from time and failure? I’m still figuring this out, but I’m slowly accepting that timing doesn’t matter as much as I thought it did. Some authors may become bestsellers in their twenties, but Mario Puzo didn’t publish The Godfather until he was almost fifty (and kept publishing sequels until his death thirty years later). Stan Lee didn’t break out with Fantastic Four until he was forty, and Alan Rickman was 41 when he finally got his big break in Die Hard. Not only did it not matter if they succeeded before they were 25, all of them had a few extra decades of adult life to hone their craft and gain the kinds of experiences they could later draw on to be successful.

So, like I said, I’m still processing this, but maybe some of us just have to spend those extra years in learning, research, and doubt before we’re “ready” to be a chef or a novelist or a comic book writer. Since I don’t really have a choice at this point, I’ll just have to embrace that and make sure I put all those earlier years to good use now.