“Have You Ever Thought That Your Real Life Hasn’t Begun Yet?”

One day, toward the end of a conversation I was having with the painter David Salle in his studio, on White Street, he looked at me and said, “Has this every happened to you? Have you ever thought that your real life hasn’t begun yet?”

“I think I know what you mean.”

“You know–soon. Soon you’ll start your real life.”

–Janet Malcolm, “Forty-One False Starts,” in Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers

I know this feeling very well. I wrote about it, which I try to fight with the reminder that “Now is now,” in the last chapter of Happier at Home.

How about you? Do you ever feel that your “real life” hasn’t yet begun?

  • Catherine

    I feel like this a lot and it distresses me.

  • Nikki

    I have felt as though I had been born in the wrong time, or sometimes it is hard when De Ja Vu happens, it is disorienting in wondering which is real and why were we showed that?

  • tarzan

    Since I just retired from 40 years of teaching, I definitely feel that maybe now my “real” life will begin. No, on second thought I loved my years of teaching, and now–after my regular summer break–I’m ready to start my next chapter of living.

  • Barbara

    I always think that my “real life” hasn’t begun yet. I also feel, like Nikki, that I was born in the wrong time, or, that I’ve been “downgraded” via re-incarnation into who I am…but I was, in a past life, to the manor born. I don’t mean that literally, of course but I think the latter probably because I find I can’t understand the uncivilized nation we’ve become. So, I feel that my “real life” would be one where I would be able to do all of the things a woman in the past would have done – play the piano, garden, handwork, etc. all day long – and not have to cook!

    • Peninith1

      Then your real life would be founded on the ill-paid labor and shabby treatment of a lot of other women. Seems like when we imagine ourselves into the past, we magically imagine ourselves as one of the leisured ‘one percent.’ Now is, on the whole, a better time and place.

      • teresa

        Our real lives now, as part of the priviledged Western world, are actually still founded on ill-paid labor and shbby treatment of a lot of people. Only difference is, now they are in another continent and less visible than in the past.

        • peninith1

          true enough . . . something to DO in our real lives, then, besides wish to inhabit a parlor in Downton Abbey.

        • Carolyn

          This is a tough one because some of those people would starve without those jobs, much the same way we would have during the beginning of the industrial revolution. It used to be easy to avoid. You bought North American made goods. Now, finding those is becoming more and more impossible. And the solution is much more complicated.

    • Carolyn

      What is it about the cooking thing??!! I find food the most time consuming and perplexing part of life. I would LOVE a Happiness Project just about food! Buying it (socially responsible but doesn’t cost the earth), storing it (big fridge or shop daily?) cooking it (quality meals that don’t take too much time and effort) cleaning up (those who don’t cook clean up??!!). Because food can be such a big time and energy suck, part of me still can’t believe that any happiness at home project doesn’t include it. Every family I know has issues of one kind or another around food.

  • peninith1

    My ‘real life’ has been so MANY different lives over my 66 years. I have spent a lot of time in those years thinking that I was living the wrong life, or not living the life I was best fitted for.
    Finally, I did find a resolution to that issue, an imperfect solution in terms of my original dream for myself, but good enough.
    Now, I am about living a REAL life and not about struggling against a constant sense of disappointment in life and myself. My life may not be completely pleasant, exactly the way I want things to be, but I am living comfortably, I have time to do the things that matter most to me, I am creating quilts all the time and I believe my skills and artistry are improving, I am sufficiently prosperous, and I am doing my duty by my family. If I were living my ‘best’ life, I would certainly have better self discipline in some areas.
    I guess, to me, a ‘real’ life would be the life our Higher Power would imagine for us if we could align ourselves with what was healthiest, most develops our best gifts, and most expresses our capacity for love and generosity and compassion toward others and our world. That is the ‘real life’ that I still have a desire to lean toward.

    • isabellagarden

      I think you’ve got it right.

  • Amy Daliege

    I think I fall into this trap easily. One of my very favorite books “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” made an important statement “This is not a dress rehearsal. This is your life!” It really was a wake up call for me and I’ve been living in the moment much better since then. I just re read about half the book this morning 🙂

  • Izilda Santana Takasaki

    I am from Brazil. I’ve just finished reading your Happiness Project book. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! Great to hear.

  • PNW Gal

    I am grateful that I haven’t felt like that in a long time. I felt that way a lot as a teenager and young adult. I felt compelled to live by my parent’s and peer’s rules and expectations.

  • sosummerset

    This reminds me of Lev Yilmaz’ latest episode of his Tales of Mere Existence, titled “Waiting for Life to Begin”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uo4Z-1McXG0

  • Christy King

    I used to feel like this. I also felt like I wasn’t really an adult (despite having the age and all the trappings of adulthood). Kind of like not noticing when your hiccups go away, I hadn’t even realized that I haven’t felt that way in a long time until I saw your post. Can’t really give others advice since I’m not sure what caused the change. Maybe making an effort to be more mindful of and grateful for what I have.

  • Faith A. Colburn

    I remember William Kittredge, in his book Hole in the Sky remarking that he worked on his family’s farm in eastern Oregon and wondered when his real life would happen to him. Until, of course, he realized that it was up to him to make it happen. I wonder if the extended adolescence represented by longer and longer years in school may be having an effect on that passiveness. Does the very structure of our society, making so many people so dependent upon an employer, leave us feeling that we have no control over how we live our lives? Although we have choices about the work we do, do we have enough control over how we do it and for what proportion of our time? Wondering when your real life will start seems, to me, like a question of pesonal initiative and whether we feel we can take it.

  • Diet Schmiet

    Most definitely. Mine’s always been about losing weight: when I lose weight I’ll find a man / fall in love / start a family / be happy. I’m now 45 yrs old and gave up on many of those things in recent years. I am however, still trying to achieve ‘happiness’ and last year took the huge step of leaving a job and leaping into writing and blogging full-time. I’m not yet where I want to be, but am slowly getting there… and it seems to (mostly) have nothing to do with my weight!

  • HEHink

    Maybe that’s why I like history so much, and enjoy spending time reflecting on my own personal history…it makes me remember that my life has indeed been real, and even when I’m in a rut of wondering what will happen next, or mulling over how to make a new beginning happen, I can look back at things I have experienced and remember that yes, this IS and has been my life, and I have enjoyed it! I might have spent/wasted time waiting until just the right moment to start something, but fortunately, life hasn’t always waited for me.

  • Elizabeth

    I recently read a book where the main character said that she always felt like a freshman. A freshman in college, then a freshman in the real world, a freshman when newly married and then a freshman parent after the birth of her first child. I often feel the same way except that since becoming a parent I have felt more accomplished and comfortable where I am.

  • KK PhD

    As a 30-something who only recently finished grad school… YES. VERY MUCH YES.

  • Rachel

    Oh yes, this is how I’ve spent most of my 49 years feeling. Much of it sprang from not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve accidentally fallen into blogging and that has led to editing work. In addition to that, I’ve begun relearning French and writing a novel. I now have a sense that I’m doing what I’m “meant” to be doing and that makes me feel like real life has begun.

  • MJ @ unplannedlifeblog

    I did feel like this until a couple of years ago, then a
    series of devastating and life changing events forced me to reassess every area
    of my life and ‘start again’. Since then, knowing that nothing in life is
    guaranteed and your whole life can – and usually will at some point – turn upside
    down, I have been trying to live mindfully and honestly by following my intuition
    100%, and trying not to have too many plans and expectations. Amazing, surprising
    and unexpected things have happened since I started living this way and now
    life feels like an exciting adventure, rather than something I was somehow ‘not
    doing quite right’. It took some huge personal upheaval to get me to this place…I
    wonder if there is an easier way?

  • Elizabeth

    I’ve always thought that, if told I had a fatal disease and my life was almost over, I’d say, “Already?” Despite my best efforts, I’m still waiting for my real life to begin!

  • Cecile

    Yes! I used to feel like this all the time, like many of you here I felt I was somehow living the “wrong” life, that there had been some sort of casting error and I was playing someone else’s part. It’s only after I turned 30 and made a conscious effort to try and understand what makes me happy as opposed to what should do, that I started to feel my life was in there here and now. But I still get a shock when I remind myself of my age though, because I still feel I’m very new to this…

  • Dee Dee

    I have been a mother since the age of 17 years old, and I will be the big 50 in a month. I just finished writing my first book “In The Back Seat With Prince Charming” and soon will have a certificate in Drug and Alcohol counseling, I am so proud of my accomplishments. It’s never to late to be happy.

  • Amy H.

    I love Annie Dillard’s perfect line on this subject (one of the things that woke me up to the fact that I needed to choose to live right now): “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

  • Holly

    I think that feeling is God/the universes way of telling us to keep moving forward and to be open minded to new opportunities. I am exchanging a day of my lifetime for today–tomorrow, will I think that price was worth it?

  • Anders

    I know this feeling very well and it was a phrase I’d used myself (although I think I’d heard it once before on a TV series). However, I’ve added to it – for years I’d thought that real life had yet to begin, and then I suddenly realised that it had. It’s that thought that made me buy The Happiness Project when I first saw it in a bookshop. As I head towards 40 (not that old I know) I’ve become more aware that I’m just letting time slip away and that I’m just ambling through life and not really doing the things that I would be doing if I was living my real life. The Happiness Project has been an inspiration and although I have yet to properly start my own happiness project I hope that it help me begin my real life.

  • Kate

    I feel like this sometimes but I don’t necessarily find it a negative emotion. It kind of gives me a sense of … possibility.

  • melaniface

    Every single day.

  • Scarlett

    For a long time, I had a specific picture in my mind of how my life should be, and I thought that once everything looked like that, real life would begin. For example, I assumed that once we had kids, we would buy a home out West, closer to family, and then I’d be all grown up and really living. But my twins are two years old now and my husband and I are still renting a small apartment in Brooklyn. So I’ve finally decided that this is my life, whether or not it meets all my former expectations. I’m going to embrace it and be happy, because this is IT.

    I just finished Happier at Home, and I really loved it. I found the ending super inspiring–especially the quote from Little House in the Big Woods (Growing up, those books were my favorites). I’m really trying to be grateful for every day, because truly, Now is Now. Thanks, Gretchen!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that the book struck a chord with you. And that you liked the ending with the quote from Little House! Of all the endings I’ve ever written (and I must say, endings are my specialty), that’s my favorite. Among my favorite things of everything I’ve ever written.

  • Jordan

    I just googled “Do you every feel like your life hasn’t happened?” And this came up. i’m in a really weird place at the moment but I am going travelling next month, so maybe this feeling means more than I know!