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

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.

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