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

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.

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