Back in the 1990s, my teenage self always looked forward to Tuesdays. Partly, I just liked them. But Tuesday was also the day when a friend-of-a-friend updated his website, and this was always a treat.
This guy, who I never actually met in the real world, posted funny stories from his life once a week. He had amassed a following of literally hundreds of people from around the world, each eagerly awaiting the appearance of his emails in their super cool Hotmail inboxes.
He had created a blog before blogs really existed, merely by typing stories in raw HTML and emailing a manually-updated list. Somehow, people stumbled across it via wonky 1990s search engines, and his audience grew and grew.
Inspired by his success, I started my own website. A grand total of two people ever read it. Given the immaturity of analytics in those days, both of them were probably me.
I soon gave up, and justified it by believing that I was simply too late. Clearly, this guy had completely dominated the telling-stories-on-the-internet market. Perhaps I’d have succeeded if I started earlier—say, in 1995 or so.
By 1999, I had missed the boat. Nobody would ever become famous on the internet again.
With hindsight, it is possible to admit that 1999 wasn’t actually too late, and that there just may have been a market for blogs even after that. It’s hard to believe, but it may also be true that people weren’t interested in whatever ramblings my past self was inflicting on the early internet.
However, the belief that I’d missed my chance persisted long after this particular episode. In the mid-2000s, I watched bloggers rise to fame in much the same way again. I observed their ascents, thinking, I could have been one of you, but it’s clearly too late now.
In fact, I remember thinking something like “I didn’t miss the blogging boat in 1999, but I’ve definitely missed it now!” I was wrong then, too.
Afterwards, I thought the same of YouTubers, long before we even called them YouTubers. Then I watched Twitch streamers rise to prominence, with the same internal chorus echoing: “There’s no point me joining in now, this space is clearly already saturated. I’d just disappear into the crowd. I needed to start years ago. I’ll just wait for the next thing, so I can be ahead on that.”
But that wasn’t true either! Not only was I wrong about each of these examples, my belief in my perpetual tardiness persisted even in situations when I was a legitimate early adopter. For example, I joined the famous anxiety factory, twitter.com, very early, and I still believed I’d shown up too late. Part of me just assumes I’ve missed my chance, no matter what is actually happening.
Examples of this are most common on the internet, where a big new thing has appeared every few years for my entire existence, but this dynamic shows up in other areas of my life too. Whether I’m learning physics, writing books, or doing standup comedy, I always see everyone else as having left me behind on their journey towards success. I feel stranded, wishing I’d shown up in time to join them on the only boat that would ever be.
Of course, this is all nonsense. It’s not even hard to see the flaw in my logic.
The wrong belief at the heart of this is something like ‘it’s impossible to become successful in a field where other people are already successful.’ As with many unquestioned beliefs, it sounds ridiculous the second I write it down. Yet it has outsized power when I allow it to go unchecked.
It’s also easy to disprove. After all, there are countless examples of new people bypassing the leaders in any given field. For a start, every successful athlete started out as nobody in a space dominated by existing legends in their sport. Each of them had to work to rise to prominence.
Returning to one of my internet examples, the guy with the most subscribers ever on Twitch only started a couple of years ago… several years after I mentally wrote it off as too late for me.
Ancient humans also conspired to make me look silly, by coming up with proverbs like “the best time to plant a tree is a hundred years ago, the second best time is now”. People figured that out thousands of years ago. Why am I still struggling with it today?
To be fair to myself, one reason that these beliefs are so powerful is that they are sometimes true. It is possible to miss chances! For example, at this point I have to concede that I am unlikely to ever become a professional athlete.
I think my brain takes the reasonable possibility of missing a chance and applies it to every situation, regardless of whether it’s applicable or not. But why?
One possibility is that part of me is so afraid of missing chances that I see it everywhere. I could believe that.
Or it could be that I’m unconsciously looking for excuses. Sometimes it’s more comforting to not try, rather than to try and fail.
But…what if it’s neither of those, and my brain is actually right? I am actually missing chances constantly. These misses are so frequent that it arguably makes sense for my mind to automatically assume I already missed out on whatever I’d like to do.
This isn’t as ridiculous as it may sound. Every day, I make choices which remove countless possibilities from the future. If I go to one café for a muffin, then I can’t go to another café for a croissant. (Well, I can. But I can’t do them both at the same time.)
I can only live one variation of all the possibilities for each day, so in practice I’m missing uncountable chances all the time. In that context, it makes sense that my brain just assumes I’m too late by default. It’s in the habit of thinking “oh I can’t do that anymore” for most things I could conceivably have done.
Internal processes are hard to describe, but I think this one goes something like this:
- I dream of something I might like to do.
- My brain mentally draws a path from the past to a present where I’ve already succeeded—in other words, I imagine myself starting years ago, doing all the hard work required in the intervening years, and then reaping the rewards right now.
- I think “Wow, I’m nowhere near that! I haven’t done any of that work! And doing it would take ages! Clearly I should have started years ago, just like I imagined I did in my head a moment ago. Oh well, too late on this one, I’d better go do something else instead.”
Again, this sounds silly when I say it aloud. It makes no sense to compare an imaginary path to success—where the hard work is done by an imaginary version of my past self—to the genuine reality in which I have to sit down and do the work to achieve anything. But I can see why my brain might be tempted to do it.
My new internal flowchart goes something like this: Am I actually too late for a thing? If yes—like with athletics, or whatever—accept it. If not, do the thing. If I don’t actually want to do the thing, then don’t. This sounds like a simple system, but it’s surprisingly hard to stick to.
I can imagine traveling back to the 1990s and being ahead of the curve on every possible innovation. But I can’t do that in reality. Instead, I have to recognize that the only moment is now, and get on with achieving my goals, whether it seems like others are ahead of me or not.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.