Who Says You're Too Old?

You're not getting older . . . you're getting better!

Yeah right! Tell that to my body!

My body is changing. The armies of Father Time are staging a full frontal assault. Knees creek, muscles atrophy, hair drops like spring pollen, eyesight fails, the mind can no longer perform its mental gymnastics. Has anyone seen my walker?

I can hear the sarcastic snarls of the curmudgeons at this point: "You're not getting better . . . You're getting older." But that's because they haven't met Caleb.

Caleb was a forty-year-old version of Jason Bourne when he and Moses spied out the promised land for God. Back then Caleb had the heart of a lion and now, 45 years later, he still roars. This man is no puss-n-boots. 

And Caleb ... said to him, “I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land, and I brought him word again as it was in my heart.But my brothers who went up with me made the heart of the people melt; yet I wholly followed the Lord my God.And Moses swore on that day, saying, ‘Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever, because you have wholly followed the Lord my God.’

And now, behold, the Lord has kept me alive, just as he said, these forty-five years since the time that the Lord spoke this word to Moses, while Israel walked in the wilderness. And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old.I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming.So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the Lord said.”  Joshua 14:6-15 ESV

"I am still as strong today as I was in the day!"Was Caleb just whistling that old Bruce Springsteen tune, Glory Days. Was his rant simply an Old Testament version of "The older I get the better I was"? Or was Caleb really defying his years? I think the latter. Look around, Caleb's cohort is growing:

  • Julio Franco played Major League baseball till he was 49.
  • Stanley Druckler, the New York Philharmonic's first chair clarinetist did not retire until 80.
  • Warren Buffett continues to run Berkshire Hathaway at 81.
  • In 2004, a 74-year-old man ran a marathon in 2:54:44 (4 minutes faster than the gold medalist in the 1896 Olympics).[1]

Why do some press on while others pass out? According to Geoff Colvin in Talent Is Overrated:

The explanation seems to be the factor that made them excellent performers in the first place, deliberate practice. Just as mere experience, even decades of it, is not enough to make anyone a great performer, neither is it enough to defy the effects of age, even in a person's field of specialization....Continued deliberate practice enables top performers to maintain skills that would otherwise decline with age.[2]

Sure, your body is definitely changing and we all do slow down, but those who refuse to cave in, who are willing to invest "effortful, focused, designed practice" on an area of expertise can expect to maintain skills that would otherwise decline with age.[3] So maybe it's time to eliminate the following from our vocabulary: 

  • Over the hill.
  • Put out to pasture.
  • I'm just too old!
  • I'm retired!
  • Weekend warrior.

It's time to drop the excuses, put a picture of Caleb on the mantel, and get down to work. What skill would you like to maintain into old age? You can. But you've got to give it focused, designed, deliberate, repeated practice.

Should this research finding surprise us? I don't think so. Remember the words of the Psalmist?

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;my soul knows it very well.

Psalm 139:14 ESV


[1] Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.  New York: Penguin Group, 2008. Page 183-184.

[2] Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated. Page 181-182.

[3] Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated. Page 182.