What if?

what if - image for article by Greg Alder

What if you were 75 and had embroidered all your life. Worsening arthritis eventually makes embroidery too painful. You put down your needle, but your creative passion continues to burn fervently. You look for another creative field that will be less taxing on your joints. So, at 75 you take up painting. A few years later, you appear on the cover of Life magazine. A character in a popular TV series is named in your honour. Your art is compared to Peter Bruegel’s. When you die at 101, you are memorialised by President John F. Kennedy. In 2006, one of your paintings sells for US$1.2 million.

What if you’ve been a competitive figure skater who studied art history. Chance leads you into a career in journalism. You find yourself writing for Vogue. Now, in your late 30s, you feel you want to do more. You think you wouldn’t mind having a go at creating fashion, not just writing about it. You have had no formal design training, but you plunge in anyway. In the decades after you start designing, your clothes have been worn by Michelle Obama, Alicia Keys, Victoria Beckham, Avril Lavigne and several Kardashians.

What if you’re a printer’s apprentice with three loves – travel, psychology and science. Travel wins out and you journey to the Mississippi. You enjoy the experience so much you decide to train to be a steamboat pilot. Your career as a steamboat pilot is interrupted by the Civil War. You head west and have a go at mining. You fail as a miner, and get a job with a friend at a local newspaper. You write frequent articles that are published in many small newspapers. However, you still have ambitions to write a novel. At 41, you publish a novel that becomes one of America’s most-loved books.

What if you were 36 years old and recently married. Your husband’s work with the US State Department takes you to Paris. Your first meal in France is a revelation. You don’t know the first thing about French food. In fact, you didn’t cook until recently. You are so moved by that meal that you decide to enrol in Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. Thirteen years after starting to cook, you publish the 726-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It is a critical success. You go on to publish 20 books. In 2009, Meryl Streep plays you in a movie.

What if doctors advised your mother to abort you because they predicted you would be born with severe disabilities. Your mother rejects the medical advice – even if the prediction proves to be correct. You have poor eyesight, which you lose completely in a soccer accident at 12. Despite your disability, you study law and find work as a court-appointed lawyer. However, you still dream of following your true passion, singing. At the age of 36, you audition to record for a local rock star. Luciano Pavarotti hears your recording. Your singing career takes off. Today, you have sold millions of recordings and have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

So, here’s my question. What if you were any one of these people? Would you have dared changed career?

A lot of us think that our life’s journey has been set in our teens or twenties. The career we have started is the one we shall retire from. There are things we’d love to do, but they involve forfeiting a regular income or moving away from friends and family. We tally up the reasons to stay where we are. They are convincing. And so we stay.

These people had the courage to ask, ‘What if?’. So, what is your ‘What if?’ question? What would it take to convince you to change? At any age. Could you let go of the safe and familiar?

(If you haven’t guessed their identities, the people listed here are Grandma Moses, Vera Wang, Mark Twain, Julia Child and Andrea Bocelli.)

Photo by Nicolas Barbier-Garreau

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