For my mother-in-law’s 83rd birthday, we bought her a Life Alert® system. She lives alone, and we worry that she might take a tumble and break a hip. It’s a bummer of a gift, I’ll admit. A giant reminder that she’s elderly hung around her neck. When I said as much to my husband, he replied “That’ll be us in twenty years.”
And that’s assuming we don’t have some health crisis. Just before Christmas I attended a funeral for a man who passed away at age 70. I’m sure when he was 58, he thought he had twenty years left too.
There’s something very transformative about facing your mortality. It makes you take stock of your life. You look at things like bucket list items and dream goals in a different light. At least I do.
My husband is very fond of saying that “He’s won the race” meaning he’s checked all the life boxes: education, career, family, savings. This means that while he loves his job, he sees himself slowing down in a few years.
One my favorite books last year, was Strength to Strength by Arthur Brooks. Like my husband, Brooks believes that after age 55, our years of becoming career rock stars are past us. (Most major career mobility and major discoveries takes place in our 30s and 40s.) Rather than cling to our old identities, we should spend our mid-fifties seeking new ways to define ourselves and find fulfillment. I think he would appreciate my husband’s viewpoint.
My problem with this mindset is that, like many women, I spent my peak rat race years racing a family. My ambition didn’t kick into high gear until my mid-forties, so even though I’m in my late fifties, I’m not ready to slow down. I’m still hungry for success. Avivah Wittenburg-Cox, who wrote an excellent article about women’s career phases for Forbes Magazine, says I’m not alone. For women, the years 50 and older are the years of ambition and self-actualization. Having emptied the nest, we’re rested and ready to go.
That doesn’t mean building a career at this point is easy. Society is still misogynistic and ageist. At the same time, the publishing world is youth driven. A lot of the ‘Veteran’ writers are a good decade younger than me. At my age, even if I hit #1 on the NYTimes tomorrow, my shelf-life is limited.
Which brings me back to twenty years.
I may not want to slow down but knowing that the clock is ticking has made me much less patient with bullcrap. I am working on letting go of things I can’t control or wasting time on things like stupid online drama or spending time with energy vampires . As my husband is fond of saying, “We don’t have to have dinner with people we dislike anymore.”
In other words, I will maintain my ambition, but in a way that gives me pleasure. I will continue writing books because I like writing, I will chase my definition of success because it makes me happy, and I will stop putting off the fun stuff until tomorrow These next twenty years are mine, and I’m going to enjoy them for as long as I can.
And if my son buys me a Life Alert® before I turn 83, he’s out of the will.