Probably because this is graduation season, I have found myself in several conversations recently with teenagers, young adults, and even their parents, about how many possibilities lie ahead of these kids, how many options are available, how much gusto there is to grab. It’s inspiring just to think about how they can choose any life they like, any path that strikes them. In the middle of one of these discussions, I realized these forecasts sounded similar to the kinds of things people say to me about retirement. “Wow,” they cheer happily when I tell them I’ve ended my working career. “You can do anything now.”
So we spend the first 20 years of our lives being told the world is our oyster and then the message is repeated as a mantra for the last 20 or 30. But the weird thing is that, during those in-between years, as much as we might have been inspired to live big, wild, exciting lives, most of us fit all that promise and all those prospects and dreams into a fairly small frame.
It’s no one’s fault, really, but the majority of us don’t have the resources, the talent, the knowledge, or the courage to become inventors, world travelers, or novelists, or even to be self-employed at something we know we do well. Then, after a few possible attempts at what seem at the time like wild, independent lives, we generally enter the established workforce, where health insurance is part of the package and dress codes are clear-cut. We accrue sick leave and paid vacations and we decide that it would be much better to build equity in our own houses than to keep paying rent to someone who is enjoying European vacations on our dime. We buy a house, start making payments, get married, have kids, and live an idyllic life that isn't nearly as adventurous as we once imagined it might be. This sounds cynical, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s just that we kind of promise people a large life if they dream big, and yet we don’t really offer them much in terms of instructions or models, unless we’re billionaires. And few of us are.
I became an expert at playing it safe, at being careful, at saving for a rainy day, at keeping my nose to the grindstone.
This means that, after 30 or so years of living these safe and small lives, we are starving for the chance to dream again, to see more things, have more experiences, plan adventures. It all makes sense on some level, that we jump onto the big, grown-up, rule-following boat when we’re in the prime of our lives, but I’m wishing now that I had learned more about taking risks. Partly it was the time I grew up and the expectations for women. I eked past the housewife and mother role, but following a straight career path seemed just as pressing in those days of discovering our worth as females. I succeeded vocationally, but I became an expert at playing it safe, at being careful, at saving for a rainy day, at keeping my nose to the grindstone. I had a wonderful career and many amazing opportunities. But now that I’m at the dreaming stage again, I wish I’d spent more time thinking big, trying hard things, and pushing past my perceived limitations. It’s weird to start it for real at 64.
Frankly, it’s not awful to be doing those things now at this age, but I feel as if I’ve come late to the party. I wish I’d let myself be scared more when I was younger, not waited for the perfect circumstances to try something new. I wish I'd let myself seriously consider some bigger dreams, or even prodded myself to just float into whatever came next rather than feeling as if I had to have it all sketched out first. I’m doing that now, gradually, and it’s spectacular on many levels. But I am shaky at best in this role, almost always leaning toward the sheltered and familiar shore. I feel ready now, but still wish like crazy that I was just a little more experienced and at ease out there in the middle of that big, blue sea.