Aging, let it be acknowledged, seldom arrives in our lives all at once. Instead, it appears in large and small changes in our environment. I was recently on a crowded metropolitan bus and a very polite teenager stood up and offered her seat. At first I looked around to see where her gestures were directed and was flabbergasted to realize…she was offering her seat to ME.
Gray hair. Loss of longtime friends. Fine print getting smaller (Surely it can’t be our eyes!). Consonants or vowels becoming more elusive in fast paced vocal music. Widespread challenges to our iconic values and beliefs (like permanent employment, home ownership, the relevance and place of a college education, our alliances with one political party or another). Our precious little grandchildren turning into people as tall (or taller) than we are, with strong opinions and positions of their own. Loss of muscle tone and skin suppleness. The winnowing of what’s important to us and how we continue to reassure ourselves of our potency and efficacy. Openness (or the opposite) to new experiences. The tectonic shifts in what we aspire to and what these aspirations mean to us.
All of this is offset, at least in part, by some magical combination of having little left to prove, greater patience with ourselves and others, a much shorter list of things we think of as life and death issues, the reward of longtime friends to whom we don’t have to explain a thing, and new friends who bring fresh ideas and interests to the mix of our lives.
If we’re paying attention this can be an amazingly rich period of life regardless of the national elections and turmoil.
Which brings me to our increasingly tricky relationship with goals After 50.
Earlier in our lives goals were a part of a complex approach to our personal development, and focusing primarily on our goals could be a kind of roller coaster. Still, If things didn’t work out we had lots of recuperative years left to move on and conquer something else. Goals were often irretrievably intertwined with our validation.
Example: Being a salesperson with significant, monthly territory sales goals. If you made your numbers you were on top of the world, but you were only as good as this month’s numbers. Next month you had to prove yourself all over again.
Example: Being a parent whose sense of successful parenting depended upon kids’ grades, athletic prowess, and college admissions. If your kid did well in your eyes, you had achieved your parental goal. If your kid did not do well there was something wrong with both of you. And you couldn’t be really OK until your kid was.
Example: Taking off 25 pounds and fitting into that dress or suit for your high school or college reunion. You were often only as good, at least for that evening, as your weight loss achievement.
Note in each example the direct correlation between your goal achievement and your sense of your own OKness.
Linda and I have friends (a married couple) who are serial entrepreneurs. They worked together in each business across the decades. Two years ago, for the first time, they disagreed. Her goal was to retire. His goal was to start a brand new entrepreneurial business. Eventually the wife capitulated. It was a struggle. He was only going to be as OK as his new venture was successful. How did they get through? For the first time in their lives together it was OK to have goals BUT NOT to hook their personal OKness to goal achievement. Their OKness had to be hooked to something else or, like the salesperson example above, they could only be as OK as their latest performance and results. Not the ideal condition for high quality of later life.
We also have long time friends who set up an elaborate set of travel goals. They had just retired and were so happy together. Their sense of self-esteem was closely coupled to the goals of being able to check each of the continents off their bucket list until none remained. Quite suddenly the husband died of lung cancer. Was it great that they had goals? Yes. Was it great that, as a widow, the wife’s OKness was uniformly tied to her husband and their shared bucket list of goals? No. She had to do the painful work of creating new goals for herself and not tying her ultimate OKness to them.
This all comes up for me now because I’ve just realized one of my biggest goals. I have signed a contract with a national publisher to publish my new book. Manuscript is due 12/15/16. Publication date is around July 1, 2017. What’s different for me – and somehow paradoxical – is that I can and do have goals but no longer have the luxury of letting them define my OKness. It’s not easy to give up the success/failure paradigm. I’d have to be pretty much OK whichever way the publication hammer falls. This is a huge shift in my relationship to goals.
What are your goals now?
What do you do to create your consistent OKness that isn’t tied to goal achievement?