The acrimonious late-night showdown between Jay Leno and Conan was surely about a lot of things. Money, ratings, television. But it was also about a man who couldn’t get over his glory days. Who decided to step down, but then missed his old life and was desperate to return to it.
It’s happened before to high-profile men — Brett Favre tearfully said goodbye to football and then hello and then goodbye and then hello again.
Sometimes trying to get back to your glory days actually works. Mr. Favre had a great season this year. But typically it ends up hurting the piner and those left in his wake (sorry, Coco).
While most of us will never play professional football or host a late-night talk show, we all can struggle from time to time with wanting to return to our “glory days” and missing some bygone period in our lives. This can hit in middle-age and inspire a man to buy a sports car and ditch his wife for a young babe. But it can also happen at the end of your twenties when you’re trying to adjust to the working life and missing your college years.
It’s hard not to think back to high school and college with real fondness. It was indeed a glorious time. No real responsibilities besides studying and working at a pizza place. Sleeping in, playing sports, driving around with your friends, and hanging out at parties. You felt profoundly free. The world was your oyster, and the possibilities for your life seemed endless. What were you going to make of your life? Who would you be spending it with? What were you going to do when you “grew up?”
These days you have a pretty good idea of the answers to those question. You’re married to Susan, have a job as a financial planner, and live in Dallas. Life is good, but sometimes you think back to the student life and would give anything to get back there. You wax nostalgic until you’re in a deep funk and sit on your porch sipping on a brewski and reminiscing about the good old days. Pretty soon you’re surfing the internet for a time machine.
“Ohhhh, man I wish I could go back in time. I’d take state.”
A little nostalgia for another time period in history can be a positive thing, but too much nostalgia for another time in your life can rob you of satisfaction and happiness in this one. How do you get over your glory days and fully embrace the life you currently lead?
Create new firsts. When people over the age of 35 are asked to recall the most vivid or most important events of their life, they disproportionately remember things that happened between ages 15 and 25. This association is natural — it’s the time of our lives when we’re making big decisions about our identities and the direction our lives are going to take.
It’s also a time where we experience myriad “firsts.” First kiss, first date, first time away from home, first time outside the country, first sex, first love, first college class and so on. Any kind of first is an exciting, heady experience. Firsts make you feel alive.
If you’re feeling stuck in your life and longing for the past, maybe it’s time to experience some new firsts. Certainly, a lot of the big ones have already been notched, but there are always new things to go after. First trip to Asia, first time surfing, first marathon, first time riding a motorcycle, first painting class. Keep filling your life with new, soul-expanding adventures.
Focus on a new goal. Sometimes our funk is not so much for lost youth, but simply the let down we experience after we achieve one of our major life goals. Psychologists have shown that we actually get more pleasure and satisfaction on the journey to a goal than we do when we finally attain it. We’re happy for a bit, and then we think, “Okay, what now?” Olympic athletes and astronauts often struggle with depression after they win a medal or make it to space. After you’ve reached such a pinnacle in your life, what can you possibly do for your next act?
The obvious answer of course is to create a new goal. Without goals your life will lack direction and purpose. The goal doesn’t have to be as grandiose as the one you’ve already attained, it just has to be something that will keep you busy and give you something to focus your life around.
Let go of false scenarios. Oftentimes when we pine for the good old days of our life, we find ourselves somewhat unconsciously dreaming of a false scenario. We want to get the freedom of our youth back. But if we were asked to give up our wife and kids we wouldn’t have any desire to do so. What we really want is to have that freedom back and keep our families. But of course that’s not possible.
Everything in life involves trade-offs. The single life is great, but there are definitely times when you’re lonely and sitting at home wishing you had somebody, and times where you’re sick of playing games with women and just want to find the one. You can’t get rid of those negatives without being in a committed relationship.
Acknowledge trade-offs, be grateful for the benefits of what you have, and don’t torture yourself with impossible scenarios.
Move on and out. In high school I did pretty well for myself. I was a football player, student council president, homecoming king, and voted Mr. Edmond North High School. I was never cocky and never ran with the popular kids, but when I graduated I thought I was a pretty cool guy.
Then I spent two years working in Tijuana, Mexico as a missionary. Nobody knew what a homecoming king was or what the Mr. ENHS title was, and they didn’t give a crap about any of it. I didn’t know a single soul, and they didn’t know me from Steve. My high school exploits quickly seemed totally unimportant, and I was humbled in a hurry.
If you’re still living in the town you grew up in or the town you went to college in, and you still think a lot about the past, it may be time to start a new life for yourself somewhere else, somewhere where you don’t keep running into people who still remember you from way back when and want to spend their time reminiscing about the good old days.
Recapture the salient qualities of the time that you miss. It’s impossible to recreate the past. You’re never again going to play varsity baseball again, and hold hands with your crush at the movies, and hear your name called as prom king.
But while you can’t recapture these experiences whole hog, you can work on adding the most salient qualities about what you used to love back into your life. Even though it will never be the same, that doesn’t mean you should give up on trying to recapture some of the elements that used to lend some magic to your life.
If you miss playing high school sports, a lot of what you’re missing is the feeling of competition among men. Join a intramural team for adults in your town.
If you’re missing the camaraderie you used to feel with your frat brothers, a big part of what you’re missing is having strong male friendships. Join a lodge of Freemasons.
If you’re missing the warm fuzzies you used to get when dating, start romancing your wife with novel dates. Studies have shown that going on unique and interesting dates with your spouse can bring back the old butterflies you used to feel for each other.
Embrace different kinds of satisfaction. Being young is definitely awesome. The freedom and fun will be forever unmatched. But the key to growing up is being able to embrace new kinds of satisfactions in your life. Having a lot of freedom is certainly one of the pleasures in life, but it’s not the only one.
There is incredible satisfaction in becoming a husband and a father. In molding and shaping your children. There is satisfaction in becoming a mentor to young men. In finding success in your career. In making an impact on the world. In being in control of your life. In being wiser. There is pleasure in the passion of new love, but there is pleasure in long-term companionate love as well.
When all you think about is what you miss about your former life, you can miss out on the joy to be found in your current one.
Embrace the idea of “seasons” in life. Some people prefer life in places like California, places that are always fairly temperate but lack distinct seasons. But I’ve always been a seasons guy. I like watching the world change around me, seeing how different the very same place can look in each season, and enjoying the distinct activities and weather each season brings. Each season, although different, has its own charm.
For example in Vermont, summer is a glorious time. The days are warm but not scorching, and the nights are cool. You can spend your time wandering through the woods, eating maple cremes, and floating down picturesque rivers.
Of course, the winter is another story. Cold, dark and snowy, it keeps the state from being overrun with new residents who fall in love with the area in the summer and fall. Winter season stretches on for half the year and many people, even those who’ve been there their whole lives find it depressing. The winter really brings them down; all they can think about is the coming spring.
My uncle-in-law has lived in Vermont for decades, and I asked him how he stands the winters. He said they used to bother him, but he started getting right out into it-snowshoeing and skiing every day-and now the winters don’t faze him at all. I talked to another Vermonter who said that winter was her favorite season, because she loved to ski more than anything.
So where am I going with this? Well our life is broken into seasons. Spring, then summer, then fall, then a long winter. During the winter of our lives things are certainly not as carefree as they once were, but we can find the things about this period of our journey that are unique and fully embrace them.