“Former Rays’ pitcher Joe Kennedy, dead at 28.”
This was the headline I woke up to on the morning of my 28th birthday. Didn’t help any that the next story was about how “Today in 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald was shot.”
Happy birthday to me. Talk about a frightful omen, but I intend to make it to 29, thanks.
Last night I found myself thinking about life, about my road to 28, after the local news ran a story about happiness, saying that most of us have been decreasingly happy since the 1950’s. Of course, by that standard, my life started out bad and it’s gone from that to miserable ever since.
Then again, according to the test, which asked question such as “If you would live life over again, would it be considerably different?”, I was unhappy with my life. Honestly, how do you answer a question like this without defining whether you knew what you know today, or whether you were to be the person you are today instead of the person you were then? If the answer to any of these were “Yes”, then by golly, my entire life would be considerably different. But were I to simply relive my life, with no knowledge of the future, with no knowledge of what had happened before — and who’s to say I haven’t and simply don’t know it? — then I probably would end up doing the same thing I did. After all, how would I know to do any different?
Come to think about it, that’s a good way to think about life: how do you know that this isn’t your do-over? How do you know you haven’t already lived, already died, and been given a second chance to live life?
Presume for a second that this is the case, that this is your second time around, and that sometime in the “past” you lived exactly the same life you’ve lived until today. Given the choices that you’ve made up to this point in your life, and the reasons for those choices, where do you see yourself going? What choices do you see yourself making? Is this were you want to go? I know that we can’t know the future, but if you’re reading this, you probably have enough brains in your head that you can probably spot patterns in your life after, well, a lifetime of observation. Based on these these questions, based on your observations, where do you see your life going?
If you want to comment on this and tell me that your life is going exactly where you want to go, then that’s awesome. I’ll believe you. But if you’re honestly not sure, and if you decide to lie to me about it, that’s fine: lie to me all you want to, but for the love of life, don’t lie to yourself.
Here’s a little challenge: presume that this is indeed your do-over. Presume that up to this point in your life, you’ve made the same decisions you made the first time around. Knowing that, how would you like your life to be different from the first time around, starting now? Take out a sheet of paper and start writing your answers down, and let yourself get totally crazy. What to make a billion dollars? Want to woo that girl you met in college, but didn’t have the guts to ask out? Want to join the circus? Want to become a dancer, or a football coach, or a dog breeder, or a politician?
If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking that what you’d really, really, really like to do you can’t, probably because those things you’d like to do — become a famous athlete or backpack around Europe — you’re too old for, or have too many responsibilities weighing you down. For example, if you’re 38 and have never played sports in your life, you’re probably not going to become a star linebacker for the St. Louis Rams, no matter how bad they are this year. The Miami Dolphins maybe, but not the Rams. Likewise, if you have kids and are living from paycheck to paycheck, leaving your family to backpack around India probably isn’t something you should be doing just yet. But write all this stuff down anyway. Here’s why:
Suppose there’s something you really, really want to do, but which right now sounds totally crazy and irresponsible (like backpacking around India). Write it down anyway. After you write it down, ask yourself whether it looks as crazy on paper as it sounded in your head. The fact is that it probably won’t, that there are already people who have done what you’ve just written down. In other words, what you thought was crazy might not be as crazy as you thought it was.
Once you’ve written it down, play a little mental game with yourself, and pretend that think is your number one goal in life. What would you need to do, starting today, to make it happen? Again, allow yourself to get crazy: if the goal is to backpack around India then write down “Buy a plane ticket to India.” If you have a family, but want to backpack around, write down what you’d have to take care of before you went. Take some time for this, and let your imagination run wild. After all, you’re only writing it down, right?
After you’ve gone through all those, take a look at them and ask yourself if they look as crazy as they did when you started writing them. Probably not, right? Realize that you’ve written your plan to take any course of action with your life you might desire. Why not take the plunge with one of those? And if you’re thinking “Well, that just wouldn’t be responsible,” then you didn’t think about it hard enough. Rethink your strategy for that item and make it meet your standards of responsibility. Remember: whatever you are now took years of decisions based on your natural mode of operation. Whatever you want to do, whatever you want to become will take a number of decisions based on the mode of operation required by that destination.
Here’s a small, somewhat-sensical parable: suppose your life is a road you’re walking on. Every time you have to make a decision — to go to school, to take a job, to get married, to move to another country — that’s a fork in the road. What direction you take is determined by the paths you took before and where you wanted to go. You took the turns that you expected would give you the best possible outcome (even if it wasn’t all that good, the proverbial “lesser of two evils”). But for a long time, you’ve been eying the road that runs parallel to yours. For one reason or another, you can’t — or believe you can’t — just run across to that other road. Maybe there’s a big river between you and it and you don’t know how to swim. Maybe there’s a big fence, or maybe you’re just afraid to leave your road for a road you don’t really know because not too many people have gone down that road (the proverbial “road less traveled”). The point is that once you spot that road, once you decide you want it bad enough, you’ll do what you have to so that you can get to it. Most of the time you’ll be able to do it responsibly, by taking turns in your road which will lead you to that other road. Sometimes you’ll have to do it seemingly irresponsibly: swimming across that river, running across that grass, or jumping over that fence. Extreme though they might be, if that’s the life you believe you want, then why let fear stop you?
Suppose you want to be a famous football player, but you’re 38 (and don’t want to play for the Dolphins). What then? How about becoming a coach?
Want to go back to school to get a degree? Start by signing up for one course, even if it inconveniences you in the short run!
Feel like backpacking across India? Ask yourself this question: What would I have to do to make this happen? And interview people who’ve done what you want to do.
Remember: all of this is easier said than done, but better written than not, and the first step to any worthwhile goal is to not only decide to do it, but to write it down and plan your work (then work your plan).
So back to my life: am I unhappy with it? No, although I’m unhappy with a lot of my previous decisions: I never wanted to be as fat as I was, and I wanted to make a lot more money by this time, and I wanted to travel more. While I can’t go back and change the past, I can make a new future, starting today. My health goal for this year is very simple: to lose 100 pounds (I’m currently at around 280) and increase my overall health, and I’m already working hard towards it. Additionally, my wife and I are increasing our savings and investments and working to protect what we have in order to meet our financial goals. And we’ve started to take time to do a bit of travel, starting with our trip Puerto Rico a few weeks ago, and continuing with our cross-country trip next summer. I’m also working on my fiction writing — one of my goals is to become a well known writer — and so I might actually be going back to college for a few extra courses. (Believe it or not, I took a grand total of two writing-related courses during college: Freshman English 1 and Freshman English 2.)
And here I am, 28 years old, and thinking about the future. Where will this future take me? Wherever I want, really, at least insofar as things are within my control.