Having spent a lifetime learning, I find myself in the possibly enviable but somewhat confusing position of having forgotten more than most people know. Still, I would not be afraid to take on a fundamentally new learning project; that is, tackle something entirely new and learn it well enough to practice it at a very high level. Perhaps I could even develop a new, satisfying and possibly lucrative career.
Some of you may think this is not a serious option. Let’s make sure that we understand each other on this point first. To achieve learning to the point of new career development would require a serious investment of effort and time. For the purpose of argument, let’s say it might take four-five years of reasonably steady effort with lots of attention to detail, particularly toward the end of that time, when I would be plotting a meaningful entry to my new field. How much money I would make at entry level or even later would be irrelevant to me, but perhaps not to others. I’ve been a student all my life, and thus I know how to survive on a relative pittance.
Secondly, when at the entering point in any new field you would expect to have to make beginner’s mistakes. Gradually you would make some initial noticeable contributions to the field. Others would regard you as a player–even if you were developing a completely new field or a new way of looking at the world or a piece of it. It might take you three-five years to just make a credible start. While you may not have made your first landmark contribution three-five years out, others looking at what you are doing dispassionately might say that you have a chance to “change the world.” Perhaps they would all agree that it is a very slim chance, but that it is at least a non-zero chance. Thus, after going through the initial phase of learning the basics sufficiently well to start, and then going through what an apprenticeship, you would like to foresee another 15-20 years to make a few serious contributions to a field you may even be defining anew. In summary, we are looking at a 21-30 year timeline.
I would argue that it may make little difference when you begin. You could begin at age 18 or maybe even at 60, 70 or 80. But, it may be best not to think about start time at all. Even though some experience at learning facilitates more learning and greater efficiencies in learning, some will have already decided that there are limits to what they can accomplish. Some will also say that if you do not undertake such a quest while you are young, it will be of little use to begin it later. Such thoughts are self-defeating. I’ll let others expand on that hypothesis, because I’m thinking it really doesn’t matter when you begin.
If you do not begin a quest, then regardless of the age at which you might begin, the question of how things will turn out is really pointless. Begin! Then we’ll see how it all turns out. You can begin while very young and fall under the wheels of a bus before you’ve hardly gotten out of the starting gate. Alternatively, you can begin at 80 and fall quickly into a progressive dementia which makes it impossible to count to ten let alone start a new career. Either way it’s over before you really get started, and you’ll probably be the last to know when things come to an end.
You should always be learning and evaluating what you have learned. You can undertake something really serious early or much later in life, but you should always be prepared to test the limits of your knowledge, and expand it in provocative and creative ways regardless of age. Timing as well as the length of time you have remaining to you are always considerations, or at least we think they are. In fact, we often have less to say about those factors than we think we have. When you are prepared to begin, you should begin.