Designing a Future That Fits

In our 20s and 30s, we dreamed big dreams and made long-range plans. After 40, we have to ask: what makes us happy today?

By Ronna Lichtenberg

Future Flexible

Used to love the future, and I believed it loved me back. Through my 20s and 30s, I thought that in the future my life would be magically better. I would be a better person. I’d finally learn how to really cook. I’d paint, tango, do good works, travel to exotic places, be a better friend. The future was when I would make peace with my thighs. But before I got to all those things, I would be a big cheese at work.

This belief in a specific kind of future was the bait that enticed me to cling to a challenging corporate ladder. It was the balance to my unbalanced life: Of course, I would do all the things I wasn’t doing; I just wouldn’t do them now. Because I was working toward something, the overwhelming grind of the present was not so bad. The future was as powerful as any drug, magnetic and reliably narcotic.

One reason for my intoxication with the future was that I’d always felt somehow set apart from the normal stream of human time. Coming from an immigrant Jewish family for whom the Old Country was best forgotten, I felt little connection to the past. And since I was unable to have children of my own, I felt that the gene pool that had produced me, stopped with me. There would be no children or grandchildren to live out (or, okay, maybe reject) my dreams. The future that fit me was about achievement, which could be calibrated on a business card and manifested by flying first class.

For almost two decades, as I worked my way up to the position of marketing director for a major financial firm, a variety of official and unofficial people told me I had what it took to get a top job. Having a big future was like having brown eyes; it seemed an unalterable part of who I was. But suddenly, in my mid-40s, I realized that no one had said anything to me about my big future in quite some time. It was like not noticing the slow decline in getting eyeballed by guys on the street — until the spring day I saw a guy almost walk into a lamppost because he was so distracted by the way the wind ruffled a young woman’s skirt, and realized it had been a long time since I’d thrown a guy off course. Same thing with my big corporate future. I had it going on. And then I didn’t.

The Future Gets Closer

I thought I was the same as ever — even better. But my future wasn’t the same. I could pretend it was, just like I could try to pretend my college jeans still fit. Or I could accept that I needed to take an honest look at my life, and figure out what future fit the person I was now.

One of the first things I realized was that my job was not such a great fit without the promise of that sparkling future. There are a lot of reasons why I left my corporate job, but one was that I still wanted an "achievement" future, one where I would do more, make more, be more. So I changed careers and started my own management-consulting firm. Running my own show was a way to climb a ladder that still had lots of rungs on it — a way to stay in love with the future.

But then life got more complicated, as it always does. My mom, who’d been really great at having big dreams for me, had been a primary driver of my ladder-to-the-stars vision of work. She lived in a small town, and felt closed in by it; the bigger my life, the more easily she could psychically escape her own. But when her health and spirits took a deep dive after my dad died, she, reasonably enough, became less obsessed with my future and more obsessed with her own.

Mom’s new idea of a great future was to die at home, without a lot of pain, with her kids nearby. Mom’s belief, though, was that the future would bring nursing-home aides with a bad attitude and a monthly tab that under normal circumstances would have stopped her heart all by itself. After all her fretting, Mom got to die exactly as she wished. But her fears passed to me like a virus.

Before Mom died, I thought I understood that the future was finite. But sitting alone with her, holding her hand while she labored so mightily through her final breaths, I understood in a real way that not only did I have less future than I used to have, but that someday my present would really, truly, absolutely end.

A Future That Fits

The good thing about realizing that the future is finite is that it makes you take the present more seriously. Daily decisions carry more weight: In the time left to us, is whatever we’re about to do really worth doing? To hell with the future — what about now? We all come to this point sooner or later; it’s where the work of midlife begins. I’m fortunate to have a lot of company on this leg of the journey, because my work includes coaching and speaking with other working women, many of whom are in midlife. I can’t say I have found any answers to the big questions, but I have found a few techniques that help me, and that seem to help others.

Plan for it. In my coaching work, I’ve learned that one way to stop thinking about the future in that "what’s to become of me?" way that usually pops up around 3 a.m. is to choose to really focus on it in the daytime.

Two kinds of planning are critical. The first is financial planning. I still encounter too many women who aren’t involved in making financial plans for themselves. If your worries about the future are financial, you must, you must, you must make a plan, and tweak that plan, with someone you trust, on a regular basis.

The second kind of planning is to start the process of creating a future that fits the person you’re becoming, not the person you’ve always been. Schedule a couple of uninterrupted hours for yourself, and when the time comes, write down the best possible future you can imagine. Imagine it in every detail. You might want to do two versions: one where you’re working and one where you’re not. Concentrate on physical details to make it real: Where are you? What are you doing? What are you wearing? Who else is there? When you’ve finished, do the same thing for the worst possible future. Remember: Just as you couldn’t include winning the lottery in your best possible future, don’t include a sudden case of leprosy or the roof caving in on you in your worst one. You want things you could conceivably plan to avoid. When you’ve done both versions, put them away.

Give yourself at least a week, then set aside a time to look at both your best-day and worst-day visions. Note what feels like a big deal to you in both scenarios. Is it working for someone on your worst day, and not having a boss on your best? Is it being with a lot of people on your best day, and all alone on your worst? See if you can get any clues about what you’d really like to have in the future that’s a change from how you’re living your life now.

An Action Plan

Once you know this, you can make an action plan. In truth, I don’t like big, fancy action plans with a lot of goals. They’ve never worked for me, and while they work well for some folks, they just turn into another excuse for self-flagellation for others.

So here’s my idea of an action plan: Come up with one thing you can do for at least an hour a week that will take you toward the future you want. That’s it. One hour of writing. One hour of voice lessons. One hour of researching your next business venture online. One hour can birth some powerful changes.

Do that thing you’ve always wanted to do that seems small and silly. If you find yourself stuck in a vision of the future that feels like it could be resolved with a toss of the coin, as in, "heads, I keep working; tails, I quit," maybe it’s time to stop thinking about "yes" or "no" and go for "maybe." As in, "maybe I could try something entirely different."

Mary, a friend of mine in her early 50s, hated her job. She spent months stuck in a bad mental loop, feeling like the only way out of her unhappiness was to retire, and also feeling like there was no way she could afford to do so. Frustrated by her inability to find a way out, she decided to take singing lessons, mostly, I think, just to do something. First she pooh-poohed their importance, then she started to get into them, and recently she gave a private concert in a small space she rented. (She was, by the way, fabulous.) So now, instead of putting her energy into hating her job, Mary spends her time thinking about which songs she wants to sing in her next concert and how to find costumes that sparkle sufficiently under the lights.

I tried this tactic years ago, when I was in a corporate job and decided to take a community-college nonfiction class, just…because. Now, having published three books, I realize that that class, which I remember calling "dumb" and "no big deal," was essential for seeing another kind of future for myself. In my experience, the more you make fun of something you want to try, the bigger the potential that trying it will be important for you.

Pay attention to whom and what you admire. I spent a lot of years admiring people who were thin. One of the gifts of middle age is that I’ve learned that lots of people with thin bodies have lives I wouldn’t want, so my admiration isn’t reflexive anymore.

I now admire things I might not even have noticed a couple of decades ago. The other day my friend Barbara told me she’d decided she was going to train her new puppy to be a therapy dog who will work with sick children. I felt a burst of admiration for that decision. It definitely feels like a clue about what I should be doing, although it is something I will need to negotiate with my two cats.

Another clue came to me from a greeting card, one you may have seen. The card features a photograph of a woman who looks to be at least in her late 70s. She’s standing on one leg, stretching the other leg flush upright against a lamp post. She’s bent toward her upraised leg: Her nose is almost to her knee. But her face is turned toward the camera, so you can see her justifiably enormous smile. "Yes!!" I thought when I first saw it. The admiration I felt keeps inspiring me to do more yoga, so at least I can be happily in my body now…and maybe, if I’m lucky, two decades from now.

For all the dread of mortality I still often feel, I realize that accepting the fact that my old future doesn’t fit anymore is doing something wonderful: It’s helping to remind me that I am here, now. I’m starting to accept that the most powerful goal for the future has nothing to do with being able to tango in a dress that accents my miraculously toned and expensively clad thighs. It’s about being able to really live in, and passionately love, the present, where I’m still a work in progress — and still capable of surprising myself.

Ronna Lichtenberg, a management consultant, is the author of Pitch Like a Girl: How a Woman Can Be Herself and Still Succeed (Rodale, 2OO5).

Originally published in MORE magazine, July 2005.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:17

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