This fall marks a momentous occasion. I’m proud to say that in a few short weeks I’ll be joining the ranks of baby boomers turning fifty.
If popular culture is any indication, I should find this particular milestone cause for great consternation. From the distress of new found wrinkles to the regrets of unrealized dreams to the reality of one’s mortality, they don’t call it “The Big 5-0” for nothing.
So why am I so unfazed? Maybe it’s because I feel happier, healthier, and in the ways that really count, more attractive than at any other time in my life. Mostly though, what I’ve noticed is a profound sense of clarity about who I am and what I want. And I have every intention of getting it.
Are You Settling?
When you’re younger, I find, you’re more apt to settle. We settle in relationships (“It’s better than being alone”), we settled for high-stress, low-satisfaction jobs (“It could be worse”), we settle for all kinds of things that later in life would be simply unacceptable. Now that I’m pushing 50, settling feels entirely, well, uninteresting.
Settling is not the same as compromise. Healthy relationships require a certain degree of compromise from both partners. And while I think you can get darned close, no job is perfect. There are times I’d rather curl up in the big chair in my living room and nap – or do just about anything else than hustle to meet some deadline. But life is all about trade-offs.
Settling is different. When you settle, you unwittingly or wittingly check your true needs, desires, feelings, and gifts at the door. By settling you’re essentially telling yourself, “This is the best I can do.” You don’t even try to get your needs met, or realize your true desires, or express your feelings, or bring your gifts into the world because you either don’t think a) it’s possible or b) that you deserve to get what you want.
The “pathological optimist” in me is here to tell you that far more is possible than you think and everyone – including you – deserves to go after what they want. (You’ll be hearing from the “pathological pragmatist” in me shortly.)
How to Get What You Want
In my experience, getting what you want is a three-step process that involves clarity, action, and hope. Here are some questions to help you navigate each step:
1. Getting clear.
The first and most obvious question to ask here is, “What do I really want and need?” You may be surprised at your own answers. For example, when I asked workshop participants to name the three things they absolutely had to have in their work life I expected to hear the big
three: Flexibility, balance, and satisfaction. Instead they cited a delightful range of wants and needs from having their pet by their side while they work to frequent travel to intellectual stimulation to the need to help make the world a better place.
Getting clear is not just about your work life. There’s no time like the present to clarify what you want in all realms of your life. For
- What do you need in terms of your physical surroundings… your home, your neighborhood, your community? (Me, I’m in hot pursuit of a house with a view.)
- What do you want and need in a relationship? (Or, perhaps what you really need right now is to have a relationship with yourself.)
- What do you need to achieve or maintain your well being – emotionally, physically, spiritually?
- What about financially? (Money is always a good place to be clear on the difference between wants and needs. You may want to make six figures but you need far less to meet your basic needs.)
Consider too the things that interfere with you getting what you want. One question that can help here is, “What am I tolerating?” It might be an unreasonable boss or workload, a stressful commute, a less than supportive family, the lack of alone time, a self-limiting belief, or a refusal to let yourself let go of the past and embrace what could be.
Once you get clear on what you want, do yourself a favor and put it in writing. That’s what Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams did. Adams desperately wanted to escape his corporate cubicle to become a syndicated cartoonist. To keep his goal front and center he wrote his goal not once, not twice, but 15 times – a day!
2. Take steps to get what you want.
Adams wasn’t just engaging in wishful thinking. The guy backed up his goal with action. Before heading off to his corporate cubicle, Adams would work on his cartoons from 5:00 to 7:00am until he had compiled enough to put in an envelope and send off to United Feature Syndicate.
The rest, as they say, is history. Today Adams is, in his words, “obscenely wealthy,” doing exactly what he loves, and using his gifts to make millions of other corporate drones laugh at the absurdities of modern organizational life.
Sometimes the action can be as simple as asking for what you want. Depending on what it is you want and need, you might ask for time, respect, information, resources, space, affection, validation, compensation, further explanation, assistance, understanding… the list can go on and on. The key is to ask!
3. Have hope.
I promised you’d hear from the “pathological pragmatist” in me, so here it is. Just because you know what you want and ask, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get it. You can ask your boss for a raise, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get that raise. In fact, the things you’re least likely to get are those that are solely dependent on someone else’s cooperation and needs.
If you’re feeling discouraged by the idea of not getting what you want, don’t be. Have you heard the expression “Be careful what you ask for”? Think about it. If you always got what you thought you wanted, you’d be “married” to your first youthful crush (now that’s a scary thought). You don’t necessarily get what you want, but as the Rolling Stones famously reminded us, you do always get what you need.
So where does hope come in? Noted playwright, poet, political dissident, and former president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, Vaclac Havel, once wrote:
“Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
What do Havel’s words mean to you? How can you develop an orientation of the heart that allows you to believe that no matter what happens, regardless of how things turn out – even if you are disappointed – that things have meaning?
If you are serious in your intention to change course, you must do so with a hopeful spirit. Expect bumps in the road. At the same time, have faith that there is a reason for everything and that, even if the reason is not clear at the time, everything really does makes sense.
You don’t have to wait to turn 50 to experience the serenity and the power that comes with knowing what you want. Life is just too short to settle for less.