The Aging Curse

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I sit here watching as Rob Lowe tells us in so many words of the highs and lows of the decade of the 1980s. As I view old news clips of thin ties and big bouncing perms with their constant fluttering curls, I sadly lament the innocence lost, the people lost, the dreams lost. I see in those once thin and optimistic faces the images of people I have known. Not all of them, but far too many.

In those faces I saw the hope for the future, a future that would never be. I lament those souls of time past. Perhaps it’s the need for the National Geographic Channel to turn every story – real or imagined – into a cathartic Greek tragedy. As I reflect, though, I come to realize that perhaps the Greeks were right after all. All life is hubris. And hubris leads to downfall. Catharsis becomes necessary to cleanse that hubris from our psyche.

Without this purification, dreams go unachieved. The temptations of everyday life divert us. They lure us from our critical path to success. They take us away from what we truly aspire to be. Instead, they have us accept the shallow trappings of a material world.

“Whoever dies with the most toys wins,” read a popular bumper sticker from the 1980s. Those who lived by this “Greed is Good” credo may have found success in the short-term. As I see the cavalcade of faces float across my television screen, however, I see faces that weren’t realizing their own dreams, but living the false siren of Madison Avenue. Rather than becoming the elite they so imagined themselves to be, they reduced themselves to that hoi polloi they so loathed.

And so I go on, listening to the serious voice of a dire Rob Lowe recount what I had lived through. I’m compelled by the desire to go back in time, grab the lapels attached to those buoyant yet naïve smiles, and shake them in hopes of breaking that evil spell.

Then I remember, that message was always there. Again, it was the hustle and bustle of the unyielding rat race that spoke in volumes loud enough to captivate so many. Those faces had to try very hard to hear the message that would lead them to their dreams. You can’t blame them if the distracting din proved too flashy. You shouldn’t blame them.

What you can do is learn from history, learn from the mistakes of others.

It begins with recognizing the trap wasn’t merely wanton materialism. That’s easy to identify. Most of us no longer idealize Madonna’s “Material Girl” and therefore don’t fall for the feckless lure of the material world.

Believe it or not, there’s a trap much sneakier than materialism. It is the antithesis of such flamboyance. It is mundane. It is routine. It is the run-of-the-mill activity you experience each and every day: that omnipresent “to-do” list that governs your very being. That’s what keeps you from achieving your dreams.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” You’ve probably heard this quote many times. In 1957, Reader’s Digest attributed the adage to Allen Saunders, a cartoonist of such serials as “Steve Roper,” “Mary Worth,” and “Kerry Drake.” If you think about it, the quote fits perfectly in the “organization man” era of post-World War II America (William Whyte’s bestselling book by that name came out in 1956). In the 1950s, it wasn’t so much Madison Avenue that called the shots as it was the corporate boardroom.

Although the anti-establishment mandate of the 1960s and the entrepreneurial era of the 1980s effectively muted the stultifying bondage of the organization man, the feeling never quite left us. Two major recessions (1991 and 2008/2009) curbed our economic enthusiasm. Those events caused us to fall back into the familiar comfort of the organizational cocoon. So we make plans on how to survive from day-to-day.

Today, we subordinate our long-term dreams for the perceived imperatives of the short-term. Go back to that to-do list for a moment. Image the delight you feel when you cross off an item. It pleases you. It inspires you to take the action required to cross off another item.

This is quite natural behavior. It’s the basis of most games. It’s what leads to success. It’s what makes us achieve our dreams.

So, what’s holding us back?

It’s the composition of that to-do list. If the tasks consist only of day-to-day “needs,” then when it’s all said and done, you’ll look back sorrowfully at a life spent merely spinning wheels.

On the other hand, take a moment and consider your long-term dreams. What is the sequence of milestones you need to accomplish to make that dream a reality? Now, imagine your to-do list consists of a healthy mixture of your daily tasks and your long-term tasks (hint: start small with the latter). This allows you to use the immediate gratification of crossing off those short-term tasks to motivate you to begin crossing off those long-term tasks. Doing this will propel you towards your lifetime dreams.

It’s the curse of getting older that you see with sadness the lost dreams of so many. In contrast, it’s a blessing that age permits you to learn from the success of others, from those who have achieved their dreams.

It’s not rocket science. It’s discipline.

The kind of discipline we are all capable of.

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