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.

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