Harry Bernstein’s first book was published when he was 96 years old. After a life in which he supported himself as an MGM script reader and as editor of a construction magazine, it wasn’t until five years before his death that anyone would take his books seriously.
Over the years, he had written 40 other books, but they had all been rejected by publishers. He ended up destroying those manuscripts. But after he finally had a first book accepted — a memoir of the anti-Semitism he experienced as a child in England — he wrote and published three more books in his late 90s.
Bernstein said his 90s “have been the most productive years of my life.”
I’d never heard of Bernstein until I came across this quote a few days ago. I’ve still never read any of his work, so I have no opinion about it and I have no idea whether any of those 40 destroyed manuscripts were lost masterpieces. But as someone whose life hasn’t turned out — so far — the way he planned, I was struck by the lesson of his life. Maybe it’s never too late to become what you always knew you were intended to be.
I’ve written before about my frustration with losing touch with the person I had once been — with somehow losing the confidence and drive to achieve that I had felt in my youth. I’ve been thinking about variations on this theme for the last few years, but it’s really accelerated in the last six or eight months. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about my fears of never doing anything meaningful with my life.
I always assumed that people who achieve something meaningful have a linear and obvious path to their success, but what I’m learning is that success looks much more obvious and predictable when you’re looking back at someone’s life, not speculating about what it might be in the future. And I’m also finally accepting that the path to something meaningful is rarely straight and obvious.
I heard an interview Thursday night with a social psychologist who argues that most people go through life mindlessly — not thinking about what they’re doing or why they’re doing those things. Her prescription is mindfulness, but not the kind that we’ve come to associate with Eastern thought and meditation. Hers is a scientific approach that involves simple techniques and paying attention to language.
One of her most interesting experiments came back in the late 1970s, when she took a group of men in their 80s and put them together in a camp where they were led to imagine that they were 20 years younger than they were. After a week of this, other people rated them as physically younger than the people from a control group which hadn’t gone through the experience. After just a week, they started becoming what they were being “tricked” into believing they were. (I highly recommend the 51-minute interview.)
So maybe we don’t have to have a little bit of success in our 20s and then build on it in our 30s and build on it further in our 40s — and one and on until we’ve become the straight-line successes we’ve always hoped we could be. Maybe we can try different things and learn different things and wander around in life for awhile. Then maybe when we’re ready, we can choose to become mindful enough to start being the people we need to be.
For me, I suspect I’m always looking for someone else’s permission or approval to be what I want to be. I’m looking for proof that I’m good enough. I’m looking for legitimacy — but it seems that those things come from yourself if they’re going to come at all.
Harry Bernstein would have loved to have success before his first book was published when he was 96. He obviously had a passion for writing books, even though nobody seemed to care. At 95, he was a nobody. He was just a foolish old man sending out manuscripts. If I had known of him, I would have smiled condescendingly and thought it was sweet that he wasn’t giving up on his impossible dream. I would have thought my “realism” would have kept me from continuing to try after all those rejections. I would have been wrong — about Bernstein and about myself.
My life hasn’t been the straight and obvious path to success that I expected, but that’s OK. Harry Bernstein reminds me that it’s never too late to become what we want to be.