I turned 50 years old today. I volunteered for this posting, thinking it would be a good time to share whatever wisdom I may have gained, maybe after a proper, Samuel Pepys-style accounting of how things have gone so far.
But the more I think about it, the more I think those things—the wisdom of age and a backward-looking accounting—are in tension. Looking back has its uses, of course, and it’s a natural thing to do at the high and low points of life, but it can also be a distraction—and even counterproductive—if it keeps us from dealing with what we’re facing, and getting on with things.
This view came out of watching my father’s decline and death over three years, and watching how other people I admire deal with adversity or good fortune. What I remember most about Dad is his good humor and his quiet willingness to plug away at whatever care or rehab he was assigned, even as things piled up and he got weaker. Little complaint, if not always great enthusiasm, and steady effort as he sought to get back on track and make improvement. Simple, unpretentious work. Plugging away.
Because when you have a setback or a windfall, what does it matter what you used to be? Comparing how you are now to how you were only sets you up for despair (if you’re worse off now) or hubris (if you’ve been fortunate). Just start, or resume, plugging away. Maybe best of all, the short-term gains will be reinforcing, helping to keep or improve your focus when longer-term goals seem so far off that they’re irrelevant.
I’ve had some health issues of my own the past couple of years, and this has been the approach I’ve tried to take, sometimes more successfully than others. I’ve since realized, though, that this principle applies to everything: work, hobbies, relationships, habits you are trying to change, and maybe even spirituality and your outlook.