According to Plutarch's "Life of Julius Caesar", there came a time when Caesar was thirty-seven years old and serving as a quaestor in Spain when he was seen bursting into tears after reading a biography of Alexander the Great. (Suetonius tells a version in which it is seeing a statue of Alexander that sets Caesar off.)
Of course, among the things which Alexander had achieved by age thirty-seven was dying, and in the end, I think one could say that Julius Caesar achieved more than Alexander ever had. Or at least, made a more lasting impression upon the world.
Yet Caesar's reaction strikes me as very natural and familiar. Every so often, I find myself looking back on the various ambitions that I had while in high school and college and asking myself: what have I done?
Well, not much, and a great deal, depending upon how you look at it. The dreams we have while young are usually of large and obvious achievements: publish a wildly popular novel, become a jet pilot, direct a movie, climb Mt. Everest, run for office, have a new species of slime mold named after you. Or, in Alexander and Caesar's case: conquer the known world.
But the very thing that makes and Alexander or a Mozart a "prodigy" is that few achievements come young. It is unusual for an artist to do his best work or a leader to attain the highest reaches of power at a young age.
Yet even in regard to our much more modest ambitions, it is often difficult to remember that life is long, and there are plenty of things which you are not working on right this very moment which you will nonetheless have the chance to achieve later on. As an inveterate planner (and a starter of many things -- though a finisher of fewer) this is particularly difficult for me.
At twenty-nine, I can like Caesar reflect on the amount of mayhem and recognition which Alexander had achieved by my age. And that I've thus far achieved few of the "great things" which I had while younger dreamed of. On the other hand, it has occurred to me in these last few days that when my father was my age his first child was not yet born. Some times, even those things one thinks of as "ordinary life" are, from a certain point of view, achievements.