I decided when I was nine years old that I was going to be an old lady one day. I just knew it. I was reading a book of fantasy short stories, and one of them had a character who got to choose whether he wanted to know how he would die. I thought about that a lot. I didn’t really want to know how I would die, exactly, although I understood by that point that there was no opting out of mortality. I did sort of want to know whether I would die young, old, or medium. OLD! It turns out that the very elderly among us do tend to operate on the assumption that they will/would live to be old. This is good because it helps us plan.
What will Old Me do with her time?
There are a bunch of things on my bucket list that I have no interest in doing, not quite yet. In a full lifetime, there were simply things that were less appropriate for a young woman in her twenties and thirties than for an older version of the same person. Put it this way. If I assumed at twenty that I would live to be 100, there would be, count them, eight decades to spend. The dancing, dating, staying up late partying decades ought to be at the front. If Future Me were going to study calculus, write her memoirs, or learn to paint, those could go toward the back.
This train of thought continued down the track. What if I planned my later decades in advance? Past Me is absolutely notorious for trying to schedule all my time. She likes to leave me dirty dishes and laundry, because she thinks I like doing that stuff for her, and she likes to leave receipts and unsorted papers for the same reason. Past Me! Knock it off! I do NOT enjoy washing your socks! She also wants to tell me what movies to watch, what books to read, and even what magazine articles - you wouldn’t believe the bookmarks. They’re like passive-aggressive little notes. Knowing this, I don’t want to do the same thing to Future Me. I don’t want to leave her bogus chores and I don’t want to micromanage her leisure time. I do, though, want to send her gifts and good ideas.
I used to talk to Future Me all the time on the Future Phone. I would call her up to see what she was doing. Immediately she would start shouting down the line at me. I can hear you just fine, Future Me, you know full well that phone reception is much better in your time than it is now! The first time I called her, when I was about 19, she knew it was me all right. She told me that if I didn’t start saving money she was going to have to eat cat food. She started telling me off about my spending habits, and darned if she didn’t know exactly where our money was going, to the penny. That was the most urgent thing on her mind. Not forgiving people or traveling more or going for promotions - all she could talk about was savings, savings, savings.
It took ten or twelve years before I quit being sullen about this and started seeing it as little gift envelopes I could send to Future Me. Like burying a jar of gold coins in the back yard. Come to think of it, Future Me would adore a gift like that. I started feeling very tender toward her, she of the creaky old bones. I wanted her to be a crazy rich lady, known for tipping extravagantly and having loads of young friends who loved her jaunty cackle. Auntie Me.
Sometimes I’m jealous of Future Me. She gets to watch the best movies and read the best books, some by authors who haven’t even been born yet. She knows every word to songs that haven’t been written. Her phone, O her phone… She knows the mysteries behind world events, major archaeological finds that are still in the ground, medical innovations and inventions that Present Me can scarcely imagine. If only she could ship me some of that stuff, or at least email me some drawings…
She can’t send me anything other than querulous phone calls, but I can send Future Me anything I want. I can send her boxes of stuff. I can send her a house. I could send her a tattoo or a pair of earrings or a long heartfelt letter. I can send her a million photographs. I could send her a Twinkie and she would get to find out whether it was still edible. There are four things she wants, though:
I’m doing what I can, Future Me. I’m trying.
Sixty is the birthday I’m looking forward to the most, followed by eighty. I feel like my life will really begin at sixty. That’s when I feel like I’ll finally have some gravitas. I’m hoping my hair will be completely silver by then, although it depends on which grandmother I take after. I’ll have a certain freedom through the social invisibility that is granted to old crones. (I’m 42; can I be a crone yet?). I’ll travel and I’ll be a great public speaker and my posture will speak for itself. I’ve never been an impressive athlete, especially since I didn’t start until age 35, but beginning at sixty I’ll start to close in on the front of the pack. Senior Olympics, here I come!
In my twenties, I used to think I had missed my chance to go to Europe, live overseas, or become fluent in a foreign language. I had a fantasy that I should have been a translator of books, and that I had somehow blown my opportunity. Now I realize that once I turn sixty, I’ll have FORTY YEARS before I turn 100. I could spend ten years becoming fluent in a language and then have vast leisure to translate to my heart’s content.
Future Me could learn to identify bird calls, do a hundred yoga poses, travel to every country in the world, photobomb so many people, crash weddings, read an encyclopedia, finally learn to draw, and perhaps even walk down the street wearing nothing but purple rain boots and a tutu.
When I’m 100, I’ll look back at all the amazing things that have happened as long ago as 2049, when I was a sprightly 74. I’ll mull over the thousands of books I’ve read. I’ll spend a few months looking through the hundreds of thousands of photos I’ve taken, plus all the others of my old friends and loved ones who have gone before. I’m sure I’ll have regrets over all the apologies I never made and the friendships I let lapse, the people I never held quite close enough. Hopefully I will have done some good in the world and made a difference in someone’s life. Most of all, I hope I will still be able to sit on the floor and get back up again.
It’s not accountability that we need. It’s consequences. We think we would reach our goals and adopt new habits if only someone else would come along and hold us accountable. The truth is, if we’re in a situation in which we can get away with breaking our commitments, then there are no consequences. At least, there aren’t any consequences that we believe in.
Certain things we do automatically. We do things because we know how, it’s not a big deal, we can do them without thinking about them, or we actively enjoy them. We take showers, brush our teeth, feed the cat, and buy snacks. Nobody has to hold us accountable, although some of the death glares from the cat might count.
Other things we do without accountability are to: put gas in the car, buy groceries, deposit our paychecks, pay attention when we drive, text our friends, follow celebrity gossip, squash bugs and spiders, play games, and really actually tons of other activities. These are things we would never procrastinate. We wouldn’t procrastinate even if they’re disgusting or scary, like spider detail, or time-consuming, like gaming or waiting in the checkout line. We understand that these actions lead immediately to results that we want. We also understand that not doing these things leads to results we do not want, like missing a must-see TV episode or not knowing whether the newest royal pregnancy will produce a boy or a girl. Well, okay, we won’t be able to avoid that last one even if we try.
The trouble is that there actually are consequences to everything, but they usually don’t make themselves known in the short term.
It’s not that we don’t believe in these consequences. We know full well that we should be “saving for retirement,” for example. The problem is that we don’t really truly believe that the day will come when we’ll personally feel these consequences because we don’t believe in a Future Me. Who is that crazy old coot to tell me how to spend my money? The Me who exists on this continuum in the time dimension, that Future Me who has white hair and sun spots, is not a real person! I’m much too smart to grow old! Oh, sure, I mean, I’m going to be rich and famous and have a maid and a butler and a chauffeur, but that version of me will be young and fit and sexy. We spend more time planning what we would do if we Won a Million Dollars in the Lottery than we do planning how much we should put aside for retirement and whether we should buy long-term care insurance.
We want accountability to help us keep the commitment to work out because we know that otherwise, we’ll never do it. We won’t do it because we don’t like it and we don’t want to. We won’t do it because we don’t believe in a time when our mobility will be limited. We don’t believe we’ll ever have a harder time climbing stairs or sitting down than we do today.
Is there any other habit that we even want as much as we claim to want the habit of exercise? Not that I’ve noticed. I don’t hear people asking for an accountability partner to help them pay off debt, save money, wear sunscreen, stop driving while distracted, or get more sleep. We don’t actually want to save money - we want to win it. We don’t actually want to get more sleep, at least not if it means going to bed any earlier. We don’t even think that distracted driving is a problem, at least not the way we do it, because we can totally text and drive, unlike that other guy weaving between lanes. The lack of sunscreen we immediately regret when our skin burns, not that that helps us remember the next time.
We think we want accountability because we think we can delegate a sense of responsibility. If we haven’t developed new habits, if we haven’t reached our goals, it’s because other people are too inconsiderate to nag us into living our values. Other people have let us down! How could it be our fault, if we can’t find any examples of people so inspiring that we Finally Feel Motivated?
The only way we can change is if we change our minds. If I want something different in my life, then it’s up to me to change my behavior. If I want to change my behavior in the short term or the long term, I have to tell myself a different story. I have to talk myself into it. I have to convince myself that the consequences are real. When I believe in the consequences, I don’t need accountability, because nothing can stop me. I’ll keep my commitments to myself and others because I understand what will happen if I don’t.
When it comes to stuff, most of us have more that we don’t use regularly than stuff that we do. Our vital, infrastructural stuff such as keys and forks tends to speak for itself. It’s obvious why we have it and how we use it. The other stuff tends to sit around, waiting for us to notice it and bodily protect it, acting as its defense lawyer. We keep it because we intend to use it. One day. When we change our lives in the way we fantasized we would when we bought the darn thing, that’s when we’ll use it. This is when it helps to ask ourselves whether that day will ever come. There it is, sitting there, staring beseechingly at you, because of course it has a soul and a personality. Ah, but... how long have you had it?
The stuff we don’t use can be readily divided into Past and Future. The Past stuff, we keep to represent memories, heritage, legacy, and what we think of as our identity. Without my stuff, who would I even be? I still have my Self-Manager badges from the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. If I throw them away, how will anyone know I was a self-manager?? (Nobody knows about them but me, or likely cares). The Future stuff is anything we’ve bought and carried around that we haven’t yet used. There’s no way to prove that we never will! Future Self just called and says we’re going to! Totally! One day!
Future stuff falls into categories.
Supplies. We are CONVINCED that we need to stock up on stuff, to keep certain levels of supplies on hand. I used to be, too, until I wound up downsizing from a house with a two-car garage to an apartment about a quarter of the size. Now we don’t even stock up on toilet paper! We live a quarter-mile from the grocery store, and there’s a pharmacy in the same strip mall. When we get down to the last roll of paper towels, last sliver of soap, or last serving of dishwasher detergent, et cetera, we just pick up a replacement later that day. We’re at the store three times a week anyway. It’s easier than figuring out what we could get rid of to make room for something. Most Americans have more than one closet and significantly more kitchen storage than we do, so they fail to recognize that we literally, actually, factually do not need to “stock up” on household supplies.
Craft supplies. Now this is different. It’s different because we crafty types are viscerally certain that our yarn, fabric, paint, scrapbooking, or whatever supplies are more vital than the cleansers, canned foods, and other pantry staples. Those supplies are optional. Craft supplies are NEEDS. They are! If I don’t have at least an entire closet filled with completely unused, untouched craft supplies, I might physically die. We’re never going to admit that our true hobbies are 1. Shopping for it and 2. Stroking it.
Reading material. Guilty as charged. There are nearly 1600 books and audio books currently on my library wish list. I have thirty-four unread physical books on my shelves, although I’ve been consciously trying to read through and cull my collection for the last eight years. I typically have at least two hundred news articles bookmarked, even though I am constantly reading through that queue. What does it mean when my “to be read” list represents more than a quarter of the amount of books I have read in my entire life? That I’ve marked out my next ten years’ reading already? Or that I think I can suddenly start reading 10x faster?
Aspirational. The category of aspirational items has no limits. We can decide that Future Self is totally going to want this particular item about absolutely anything. Future Self is going to want to read this! Future Self is going to want to cook this! Future Self is going to want to try this complicated recipe! Future Self is going to decorate in this way, dress that way, and behave in this way. Future Self will act differently than me, exercise differently, eat differently, and do all the cool stuff I’m not actually willing to do today. It’s like we think Future Self wants to do Present Me’s scutwork (washing dishes, creating a filing system, organizing photographs, etc) while also somehow finding time for the awesome stuff. Future Me is going to file those tax papers while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Future Me is going to clean out the pantry while learning to speak French. Future Me is going to lose the weight and be delighted to wear these ten-year-old unstylish jeans I’ve saved for so long.
The reason it’s relevant to ask how long you’ve had something is that it’s a check on those aspirations. Aspirations are great. They make life interesting. They pull us forward into being better people than we are today. Yet - if these aspirations are so meaningful to us, why don’t we start on them today? This very hour? Are the aspirations actually better than the way we’ve currently dedicated our time?
How long have I had this skein of yarn?
When did I buy this unread book?
What is the date on this unread magazine?
(UGH! If I have three pet peeves in this line of work, one of them is the stacks of unread magazines that people insist on saving). (The other two are anything with DNA, like old teeth or cat whiskers, and anything at all that a parent has hoarded in a child’s bedroom).
Picking up an item and really asking how long you’ve had it can be really enlightening. Sometimes the question answers itself; for instance, I often use bookstore receipts as bookmarks. Magazines have dates, and food packaging has dates, and unused purchases are often still in the original shopping bag, complete with receipt. It’s archaeological.
Another aspect of this sorting technique is to ask yourself how long the item takes to use. I can knit up a skein of yarn in two or three nights. A complicated cross stitch might take me three months of working for three hours a night. I read about 50 pages an hour, or I can read an issue of a particular magazine title in 40 minutes. A bag of flour is enough for X number of cakes, batches of muffins, or loaves of bread, which I might prepare X number of times per month. Other than decorative items, which I usually tire of after several years, I’ve found that everything in my home has a natural expiration date. Almost everything is consumable, in that it’s designed to be used. Clothes, linens, reading material, toothpaste, dog food... it’s all created to be here, to be used, and eventually to be gone.
When we keep things that were designed to be used up within a week or a month or a season, and they’re still in the closet or on the shelf ten years later, what does that say? Do we really prefer having our lives mapped out that far in advance? What’s our track record here? Have we actually done a good job of predicting what Future Self was going to want?
What would you do if you knew you only had twenty-four hours to live? This question is right up there with “What would you do if you won the lottery?” and “If you could only bring one thing to a deserted island, what would it be?” What we should probably be asking are the opposites: “What would you do if you knew you would never have any money you didn’t earn at work?” and “If you could be happy with only one thing on a deserted island, why do you have so much stuff?” And, of course, “What would you do if you realized you were going to live to be at least 95-100 years old?” Suddenly the questions about money and possessions start to look less frivolous and more literally relevant. The 100-Year Life makes the extremely provocative case that human longevity has been stealthily increasing on us, and that we need to reckon on it in our future plans.
People do not want to believe that they will live to be very elderly. This seems surprising. We always complain that we don’t have enough time to do what we want. Yet my clients are all convinced that they’ll die young. They resist any suggestion to the contrary, refuting it by proclaiming the ages their various relatives were when they died. As The 100-Year Life makes abundantly clear, this is irrelevant. Lifespans are increasing across the board. An example of this is that in only the past decade, the number of UK citizens living to their 100th birthday increased 70%.
Oh, no no no. Surely this doesn’t apply to me. Why should I care? I am absolutely stone-cold certain that I’m not going to live past… Um… past… ?
We have to care about our extended lifespans because we have to plan on how we’re going to take care of ourselves when we’re too old to work. Generally people roll their eyes in resignation and “joke” that they’ll just have to keep working, but in reality, 55% of Americans quit working sooner than planned. Either our health collapses, or we aren’t able to find work. We pin our mental “retirement” age at 65, but if we actually live to be 95, that’s THIRTY YEARS of retirement we’ll need to fund. Surely we don’t think we’ll still have jobs at 90? If we hate what we do for income now, how much more are we going to like it after being in the workforce for seventy years or more?
The picture of advanced aging presented in The 100-Year Life is only bleak for those who have zero intention of either preserving their health and fitness or of saving money. (That’s what procrastination is for; the two most commonly procrastinated goals are saving money and getting healthier). A cool feature of the book is that it offers three separate models of aging, one for Boomers, one for GenXers, and one for Millennials. These models show a few pitfalls, yes; mostly, they envision lives with more time. Time for education, time for leisure, time for more interesting career arcs, time for more involved intergenerational family models.
The average 40-year-old has a 50/50 chance of living to be 95. I just turned 42 this summer, and I believe it would be foolhardy to assume I’m in the bottom half of that distribution. Sure, maybe I die later today, and that’s why I do my best to tell people I love them and avoid leaving loose ends in my life. The bigger risk is to outlive my expectations, my teeth, my health, and my money. Assuming we’ll live to be 100 isn’t optimistic (if anything, it might be pessimistic!). It’s simply an objective part of our baseline reality now.
This book is an incredible, fascinating, even mind-bending read. I really kind of want everyone I know to drop everything and read it as fast as possible, so we can start having a prolonged conversation about it.
Okay, come on, admit it: we live in the future. We have a space station, robots, self-driving cars, and special glasses for color-blindness. That's why I want to know why everything so far available for an automated home is irrelevant to my interests, and why I can't buy any of the stuff I really want in a smart home.
I didn't have a dishwasher as a kid. My husband had to teach me how to use one: how to load it properly, how to choose cycles, and what was this mysterious substance known as "rinse aid." When I was a child, we visited my grandparents, and I asked my mom where to put the quarters in their washer and dryer. I've come a long way since those days. We have not just a dishwasher and a microwave and a washer and dryer, but also a robotic vacuum and a robotic mop and a battery-powered hand-held scrubber. I've already decided that anything fully automated that hits the market is coming home with me straightaway. Maybe I'll order it by drone and it can let itself in while I'm out.
What's on the market in smart homes right now? It looks like you can automate your door locks, security system, thermostat, fans, window treatments, lights, coffee maker, and entertainment system. You can set up a video doorbell and a nanny cam. You can buy a pet feeder with a timer. You can buy a virtual assistant in a "talking can" like the Amazon Echo.
I just watched the commercial for the Apple HomeKit (disclosure: I not only own some Apple stock but also a metric load of Apple products. Oh, and some iRobot). The actor in the commercial is clearly a smart, successful single woman. All the features of the HomeKit revolve around her preparing for her workday and relaxing afterward. Awesome!
Where is the stuff for a family, though?
My husband and I were cracking up laughing the other day about this tweet saying that 90% of marriage is checking whether the dishwasher is clean. SO TRUE. Dishwashers come in all ages and levels of technological sophistication. Wouldn't it be great if there were a sensor that could be installed on an existing, analog dishwasher and keep our phones informed of its status?
Likewise, what I need the most is a sensor telling me whether one of us (*cough*) has left a load of wet laundry in the washing machine. There are all-in-one machines that wash and dry in the same barrel, without the need to switch machines, but apparently they take at least three hours and the dryer load can't be as big as the washer load, because that makes perfect sense. Can we fix this? Maybe we should focus on building a Martian colony first. Wait, what am I saying? What does humanity really need the most?
Take your flying car and... I dunno, go fly it somewhere. I'm not leaving until I get a robot that folds laundry.
Another really awesome thing would be if new products came with some sort of RFID tag or other type of sensor, so their location could be tracked anywhere in the home. The signal would only need to transmit for a few yards if there was a receiver in every room. You could find out whether your missing shirt was hanging in the closet, buried in the bottom of the hamper, or quietly stewing in a musty washing machine. You would always know where your reading glasses or scissors were, or if the remote got wedged in between the sofa cushions, or if the dog buried your cell phone battery in the yard. The tricky part would be retrofitting and trying to stick these tags on the 10,000 things you already own. Lost LEGO? You're on your own, kid.
There totally needs to be an automated LEGO vacuum. It could have sort of horizontal windshield wipers that sweep small toys into its maw and spit them into a container in the back. Be scared if they come out built into something, like, say, a ray gun.
A refrigerator that reads your body fat percentage when you grasp the handle, and opens or locks down particular drawers based on your personal settings. It should also know the insert date of every item you put in it, so it can tell you not to eat the leftovers that are about to pop spores, or to remove the old lettuce before it turns into that special brown pudding.
Can there be a sensor that tracks every time a dog barks and reports it directly to Animal Control if it reaches a certain frequency? Asking for a friend.
Out of all the things we need in a smart home, what we need the most is the ability to check hot things and turn them off remotely. I'm talking about stove burners and irons. Every type of iron: steam iron, curling iron, flat iron, pumping iron, Iron Fist, whatever you may have left lying around. Anything from the Mad Science laborrrratory, anything like that.
I need to get pinged on my phone if the power goes off in my fridge or freezer. It would be great if I could also get a notification about burst pipes or dripping faucets. Once a large terra cotta tile fell off our roof while we were away, and if it had been a solar cell, that would be good to track remotely. Once we came back from vacation and our neighbor had backed a van over our mailbox, but maybe asking for a mailbox inbox is one reach too far.
Could there be any kind of vermin detector? It would be interesting if the house knew it had termites...
We live a pretty easy, futuristic life. My husband and I refer to housekeeping as "starting the robots." We find it amusing to take the dog for a walk while running the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, and having one of the robots clean our floors. Perfection would be if we could also have a robot wiping down countertops, crawling around vertically and scrubbing the shower surround, or washing windows. Being able to control the stove and the dog door remotely would be amazing. Knowing with one glance at an app whether there was anything in the dishwasher or washer, you know what? Knowing that could save some marriages. I'm sure it could.
The toy vacuum could save a life. At least the lives of a few little action figures.
I firmly believe that all innovation starts as the wacky idea of a science fiction writer or futurist. I also believe that good ideas come from the same place as bad ideas, except that all the bad ideas are always packed on top. I'm an idea-generating machine, and I share my futuristic fantasies in the hope that someone will read one and invent it for me. I'll be your best beta tester ever, I swear! It also is not wrong to spend a little time appreciating the futuristic modern conveniences that we already have. An electric box that washes dishes? Get out of here, you whack-a-toon! Twenty years from now, we'll look back and ask ourselves how we ever managed without these laundry-folding robots.
If there's a report card, I want to get an A on it. My ego needs this. The teacher's pet inside me can't accept anything less. I really want the approval of my dental hygienist, for example. Maybe I'm not good at anything else, but "my home care is excellent!" Yay! I feel the same way about getting lab work done. When my blood work results come in, I rush to compare them to the normal range and congratulate myself when everything is on target. This is what it's like to open those results and feel relieved and proud.
I realize fully and well that having good health is a luxury and a privilege. My mom couldn't bring me home from the hospital for three days after I was born because I had infant jaundice. I had a thyroid nodule at age 23 that was so big, I couldn't speak while lying on my back. They thought it was cancer. I had a respiratory infection for my college graduation, age 28, and it took my lung capacity down to 52%. Have you ever coughed up blood? I have. This is by no means a complete list of every scary or mysterious health problem I have ever had. My laundry list of health issues is the primary reason why I am so obsessed with being as healthy as possible.
Also, for the majority of my life between 18 and 30, I had no health insurance. That includes the coughing up blood, and the time I had to go to the emergency room and wound up being sent to collections for an amount under forty dollars. Health is cheaper.
Everyone thinks everything is genetic these days. By 'genetic,' we mean that "it was my fate to be born into a cursed family and nothing I ever do will ever affect anything in any way." We decide that we have no power or control. Thus, anything that goes wrong with our health is the will of the gods. Saying otherwise is a deep and dire insult, judging and criticizing others for things they can't help. Okay. Who comes from a pure and perfect genetic heritage in which nobody has any health issues thought to be hereditary? Not me!
Diabetes. Heart disease. Alzheimer's. Arthritis. Glaucoma. Cancer. Good times, yay. Let's throw in 'died of brain aneurysm' just to keep things interesting. I can wave the family banner of genetic tendencies just as hard and just as high as anyone else. This is the second reason why I pay so much attention to my health.
The third reason is that it pays off. Being healthy is its own reward. It is seriously awesome in every way.
Why not gloat a bit about it? I'm doing what very few people of my age (42 in July) have managed to do. I'm maintaining satisfactory health metrics without the use of pharmaceuticals. This is the result of tons of research on my part. This includes reading hundreds of articles and dozens of books on health, nutrition, and fitness; wearing health devices like a pedometer or a sports watch; tracking my health metrics with a food log, exercise log, and sleep log; learning to identify, cook, and eat dozens of vegetables I never tasted as a child; and pushing my physical abilities to the limit for years on end. I WORKED for this. My nice lovely lab results come from figuring out how to do it, and then doing it, meal after meal after meal and day after day.
I have had bone fractures and severe muscle strain and sprains and a dislocated hip and a dislocated rib and impacted wisdom teeth and nerve damage and chronic pain and fatigue and migraine and some wacky medical mysteries, including pavor nocturnus. Sometimes unfortunate stuff really does happen, and much of the time, doctors have no real idea of what went wrong or how to fix it. The bulk of my positive health results have come from my own persistent experimentation on myself, refusing to accept "just deal with it" as a valid medical response. I've learned that physical therapy, sleep, and nutritional inputs can do more than most people realize.
I haven't met my new doctor yet; I chose her out of a directory based on location, availability, and her photo and credentials. I don't know anything about her personal style or academic focus in medical school. What I do know is that the kind of health advice I get from a doctor depends a great deal on how I present myself at my visits. I want to walk in demonstrating that I am that teacher's pet, A+ student who will take vigorous notes and follow advice scrupulously. I want my doctor, whoever she may be, to feel that I am committed to taking care of myself and learning as much as I can. When I'm a "good patient" and "cooperative" it makes me seem more worth the time to give a doctor's full focus and attention. I say, "I really try to take care of myself, and whenever I learn about something positive I can do for my health, I add it in to my routine."
The last physician I had for a long period of time started taking health advice from me. She took up triathlon and made a point of telling me that I had inspired her to do it.
I have, in the past, felt helpless and confused and deeply sad about my health. I have had incredible frustration with dismissive doctors, and white-knuckled rage when I later learned something that helped me when a doctor said it wouldn't. (For instance, saying there was nothing I could do about my thyroid disease, which cost me years of ill health. Thanks for nothing, Dr. C). I have cried tears into my ears from the grief and powerlessness of having no idea what to do about a health problem. I feel younger and more energetic in my forties than I did in my twenties, almost entirely because of health issues I didn't understand at the time. I can say with certitude that my fixation with my physical health has paid off over the years. To me, if I had to choose between feeling healthy and fit or being a millionaire, well, naturally I'd choose all three, but having a strong body feels like a million dollars. Maybe ten million.
I don't let my A+ lab work get too much to my head. I look forward and ask my Future Self what I will want for myself ten years from now. The answer is more muscle and more bone density. I'd like to be a little stronger in ten years than I am today. That will come from giving myself the gift of more physical activity and more nutritional support. I do these things so that I can feel better today and tomorrow, and also so that Old Me will maintain mobility and independence as long as possible. We're in this for the long haul and until they make a full body transplant, I'm stuck doing it in the body I have.
My clients have weird things in common. I've worked with single people and with families, with pre-kindergarten kids and retirees, with bachelors and parents, PhDs and people with various mental health conditions. What they all tend to have in common are the tendency to put fruit stickers on their fridge, collections of old magazines, scattered coins... and the belief that they will die prematurely. They all think that. (Well, except the little kids). They're pessimists, and they think that dying young is the saddest thing that can happen to them. The real pessimism, though, is that they'll live to a ripe old age and that they will outlive their savings.
How long are you going to live?
No, I'm serious. What's your best guess as to the age you will be when you die? You knew this post was going to be dark when you started reading, so stay with me, here. Write down your number.
Mine is 96, but I'm pretty sure that if I get that far, I'll keep on keepin' on and shoot for centenarian. Why not?
Understand that this is not an optimistic thought for me. I know something you do not know. I know the balance in my retirement account. Right now I think I have enough to retire for... one year. Maybe two if I can spend part of it hiding in my brother's garage while he's at work. I hope he's not reading this or he'll change the code on his security alarm. Dang it. I hope my backpacking tent lasts that long. Sorry, I got distracted there. Back to planning for old age.
Well, my first plan is not to be old.
If that doesn't work, well, then, I'll just keep working. Never mind the fact that almost nobody actually pulls this off. Usually, our health fails us and we just can't hold down a job anymore. There's also no guarantee that we'll be able to get and keep jobs that pay enough to make our nut. My grandmother worked until she was 75, because her company loved her and she enjoyed her job. But then she got Alzheimer's. The gap between 75 and 86 was something I won't discuss here. Just say that I know it can happen to me and I know it's expensive. An expensive eleven years of being unable to operate a microwave safely, much less drive to work, much less actually work. Don't plan on it.
How's that for pessimism?
Unfortunately, I'm a health nut. I had the lack of foresight to never start smoking. I don't drink, either; it just gives me the spins and makes my mouth sour. Oh, and also I don't drink coffee. I ran a marathon two years ago. I'm at the healthy weight for my height. I eat more than the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables every day. I drink green juice because (shh) I actually like it. Do you have any idea how dumb all this is? My great-grandmother lived to be 75, and she smoked until her last day. Just imagine how much she would have had to save if she never smoked! My family tree on both sides is almost entirely made up of people who lived to a ripe old age, people who ate red meat and smoked cigars and drank hard liquor and didn't have seat belts and inhaled asbestos and all that fun stuff.
When my grandmother was born, life expectancy for women was 56. Her mother lived longer than that, so she probably assumed that she would also make it into her early 60s. My grandparents were frugal savers and they had multiple streams of retirement income set up. I am positive it never once crossed their minds that Nana would live to be 86. THIRTY YEARS longer than the average life expectancy at the time of her birth. We don't think it's possible.
We just don't think we'll live to be that old. We have no connection to Future Self. Old Me is a complete stranger to whom I will bequeath dirty dishes, bills, and wads of crumpled receipts. You're welcome. Now, I have two neighbors within fifty yards who are over 90 years old. My grandmother-in-law lived to be 96. It's just not that uncommon anymore. It would be nice to think of it in a cool way, that we'll be here to see so many amazing technological advances, to read more books by our favorite authors and hear new albums by our favorite musicians. Ah, but pessimistically, what will really happen is that we'll spend all our time grumbling about our aches and pains and trying to remember whether we took our pills.
Seriously, I hope everyone reading this lives a long and full life. If you have the misfortune for that to happen to you, I hope you had the good sense to save money and make sure you can take care of yourself. Remember that number I asked you to write down at the beginning of this post, which you absolutely did not do even though I made a big fuss over it? Take that non-existent number you refused to imagine. Now add fifteen years to it.
There's the real pessimism for you. I think I'll live 31 years past what I think of as retirement age, and I'll need to save enough money for that, but in reality, it might be 46 years. I'm only 41 now, so that's completely unimaginable. To try to sum it up, all I can do is to imagine my scariest and saddest day of being young and broke, but then try to add in my most tired feeling on top of it. This is why I prefer optimism. I prefer the idea that I'll be a lively old spitfire, writing my memoirs on safari somewhere. I'll pull out my gold Future Phone and call Present Me all the time, demanding that I save more money.
I am so tired that I am sitting on the couch and I just realized I was staring into space with my mouth hanging open. It's after 10 PM. Now commences the battle between self-care for Present Me versus compassion for Future Me: Stardate: Tomorrow Morning.
Now Me: I schleepy
Tomorrow Me: Get up off your lazy butt.
Now Me: I ti-ewed
Tomorrow Me: Do you really want to get up at 6 AM?
Now Me: I go bed now
Tomorrow Me: Landlord is coming at noon and you haven't even done the floors yet.
Now Me: It's NOT FAIR!
Sometimes Future Me sounds like a cross grandparent. Future Me has this annoying tendency to be right, though. I fully recognize that I will be much happier tomorrow morning if I work for another hour tonight before I go to bed.
My house right now is a strong argument in favor of minimalism and good organizing skills. What that means is that it's a total disaster. There are open boxes in three out of five rooms; there'd be one in the bathroom as well but our bathroom is too small for those kinds of shenanigans. The kitchen cabinets are 95% empty, packed up, and wiped down, but you can't tell because the counters are covered with packing materials, rolls of tape, cleansers, and the last few scattered items that need to be put in boxes. All that's left are decisions.
As we all know, quality decisions are much harder to make in a state of physical exhaustion. Physical fatigue and decision fatigue chase each other around, like a squirrel teasing a dog until they both collapse.
The decisions before me right now are as simple as this:
Pick up item
Put item in remaining space at top of open box
Tape box shut
Write label on box
Each item that is waiting to be packed would take at most 60 seconds. There is nothing difficult about it. It's not physically taxing, it's not mentally taxing, it's not emotionally taxing. Not in itself. Even a tall kindergartener could come in here and accomplish this, and probably with better handwriting than I am demonstrating right now. It's not the task, it's THE TIRED.
I think about this and I remember what it was like to fight chronic pain and fatigue every day. When cooking dinner or washing dishes or folding a load of towels seemed like swimming across the Pacific Ocean. Can't be done. Nope. Sorry. I did it, though. I can't stand being surrounded by dirt and mess. It's depressing. It amplifies those feelings of hopelessness and weariness. From where I am sitting right now, it feels like there will ALWAYS be scattered boxes and I will NEVER be done. Just like it felt like I would ALWAYS be ill and in pain and I would NEVER be free.
I am free, though.
I'm a marathon runner and backpacker!
In my defense, though, I've been on my feet for 26 out of the last 48 hours, which is much more than I did during the marathon, not to mention a through hike.
I have it in me to stay the course. I have it in me to stand up and finish the work I set out to do. I will do it for my husband, who has done twice as much as I have today. I will do it for Future Me, because I have a perfect record for always getting my cleaning deposit back, and I intend to carry that streak forward. I will do it for Future Me, who can go to bed early tomorrow night if I push a little harder tonight. I will do it for Future Me, who can sleep in until 7 AM if I just try. I will do what I have always done, which is to remind myself that it's easier to work hard in the present moment and reap the benefits later, because 'later' starts with tomorrow morning.
This is going to be a busy, weird weekend. We're taking a Lyft to drop our animals off at boarding, picking up and loading the van, cleaning the house, doing the final walk-through with our landlord, driving to a new city, staying in an Airbnb, and looking for an apartment. The room is booked through the following weekend. Technically we'll be...homeless! We are entering The Place of Uncertainty. This level of detail management is taxing our combined mental bandwidth somewhat, and I recognize that this contributes to my exhaustion and confusion right now. By this time tomorrow, though, I'll be snug in (a) bed, thanking Past Me for working her caboose off today.
It took $40,000 before I finally believed that investing actually works. It was something I knew in my mind, but not something I really understood or felt to be true. As with most things, we don't understand until long after we've taken action. We have to see it to believe it.
When I started investing, I was a broke student with a quarter-time job. I was living in a dorm that was exactly nine feet across - three feet for my bed, a three-foot gap, and then three feet for my roommate's bed. I'd say I had nothing, but I had a lot less than that. I was generating a student loan debt that I am still paying off sixteen years later. I didn't own a car; I didn't even have a driver's license. Everything I owned fit into that tiny dorm room, either in the built-in closet or under my bed. I was 26, divorced, and owned no appliances, no furniture, no housewares, no tools. I didn't even own my own sheets. The only thing about investing that made any sense in my situation was that I had nothing to lose.
I never would have done it on my own, because I was still deep in scarcity mindset and investing for the future does not fit with that. I owe my start in investing to an older mentor who looked out for me. The rules changed at my job, and my job classification was suddenly required to contribute to the retirement plan. Unbeknownst to me, my mentor realized that this mandatory contribution would eat a huge chunk of my paycheck, and she negotiated a raise for me that would cover the difference. I barely knew this woman. She did for me what she would have done for herself or for her own daughter. I would love to pay this forward and know that anything I said helped one single person to start preparing for retirement.
The first time I got a retirement statement, I didn't even have a hundred dollars in my account. The next quarter, I called out, "Three figures, woo hoo!" I joked that I now had enough to retire for a full day.
Fast forward a few years. I was working at my first post-college job. I was sleeping on an air mattress in a rented room. I had two maxed-out credit cards, two student loans, a couple of personal debts, and about twelve hundred dollars in my retirement account. My net worth was about negative $25,000. The first thing I did at my job was to sign the forms for the maximum contribution to my 401(k). The second thing I did was to make a spreadsheet with one tab for my monthly expenses and another tab for my debts. Then I set about hustling.
My priority was to work as hard as I could every single day, learn as much as I could, get allies, and become indispensable. I needed a rock-solid reference and I wanted a promotion and a raise. Check, check, and check. That was my hobby, my entertainment, and my recreation. Tiny sums of money trickled into my investment account, while I went home, read library books, went to bed early, and finally paid off all my personal and consumer debts. I paid off one of the student loans six years early. No concerts, no alcohol, no coffee, no hair coloring, no tattoos, no piercings. I was too busy sawing the shackle of debt off my ankle.
I'm ascetic by nature. I will routinely go a month without spending on myself, just to keep my self-discipline up and running. I've never had a professional manicure or pedicure. Saving money is no big deal. Investing, on the other hand, was never a part of my world. I didn't know anyone who did it. I associated it with stockbrokers in 1929 jumping out of their office windows. I thought it was exactly like going to a casino. I had developed the habit, though, of reading personal finance books, and they always discussed investing. I went on to read several investment books. I saw that these wealthy, famous investors had different philosophies and that they sometimes gave completely contrary advice. Above my pay grade, I thought. Better stick to what I know.
There was this 401(k) money, though. In my mind, I was forcing myself to save part of my paycheck in a way that would keep me away from it. I really, really wanted to get out from under my debt load. I hated owing personal debts, and I hated having this student loan that was more than my annual salary, and I hated credit card debt most of all. It made me break out in hives just thinking about it. I mean, actual literal physical hives. If I hadn't put the 401(k) money aside, it would have vanished down the drain of debt. As soon as I was debt-free, I would have relaxed and spent it on lifestyle upgrades like moving to a safer neighborhood.
I didn't really believe that the pre-tax money going into that 401(k) account meant anything. There sure wasn't much in there. I'm a serious student, though. I had read so, so much about how investing works. I scoffed at it, I thought that almost everyone got duped and lost all their money, but I figured I might as well perform due diligence. I would pick some investments, move my money, and wait and see. I spent a couple of days reading prospectuses (brochures explaining what a fund does) and reviewing advice on how to allocate my money. Then I spent maybe an hour filling out forms, and I took the emotionally challenging step of sending them in.
One fine day, my $1200 had somehow magically turned into $40,000. That was the day I truly realized that investing is different from saving.
I get "advice" all the time. Financial "advisors" want to take over my accounts and plan my investments for me - for a fee... My husband offered to do the same at one point, until he realized that I seem to know what I'm doing and started buying some of the same stocks that I do. Various acquaintances have tried to explain that my investment strategy is "how people go bankrupt." Um, I'm not buying futures! Show me your portfolio and then I'll be happy to sit through your advice.
To tell the truth, I'm really not very good at math. I can't even calculate a tip unless I have total silence. Investing isn't about math skills; it's about trend analysis. I only buy when I understand how the company makes its money and what its future plans are. I read a lot of business news, biographies and memoirs, and various business books. I find them entertaining, so sue me. I don't take other people's advice on investing because I understand how other people make their decisions. There are few things that make me smile quite as sincerely as when I look at my accounts and see that I've doubled my money on a pick that someone tried to talk me out of.
A correction will come soon. In fact, I'll bet you a shiny new nickel that a major crash will also come at least once in the next 25 years. Possibly three or four crashes. My accounts will decrease, and all my little dead presidents will have tiny copper and zinc tears trickling down their noses. Well, I assume so. During the last crash I made a quarter of a percent. I know that the performance of the market is stochastic, meaning that there are no predictable trends or patterns. I know better than to think that my rows of green ink are enough for me to relax and stop fussing over Future Me. What I also know is that I have a better understanding of how investing works than at least eighty percent of the adult population. My experience has convinced me that if I study hard and work hard, I can learn everything I need to know. That has been great for my self-confidence. My personal power bubble is much larger than it used to be.
The major difference between me and the average person is that I think about Future Self every single day. I *am* the Future Me that Past Self 2001 was thinking about when she moved into that tiny dorm. Past Me was willing to deprive herself so she could take care of me, knowing that she would be me one day. I carry that torch. I know that Future Me 2050 is going to need all the help I can give her. She would want me to keep learning and challenging myself, and she most especially would rather I eat the ramen than force her to. You're welcome, Future Self.
Whenever a choice point comes up, it can be regarded as a crossroads. The options are either to continue forward, or make a turn. Turn right or turn left, and the turn will be in the exact opposite direction as the other turn. Which is the right direction? This is where most people tend to get hung up, unable to make a decision, and that's because they think there is a right answer. There isn't. Every turn leads somewhere. It's always prudent to pull over and look at a map. Most choices are even better documented than most maps, with more predictable results.
Let's go over some typical crossroads moments.
Relationship drama. The three options are to stay together, break up and be alone, or break up and wind up with someone else.
Job drama. Similar story, because dating and job hunting are almost perfectly identical in every respect. The three options are to stay put, quit and work for yourself, or quit and get another job somewhere else.
Not enough space. The options are to continue to live in cramped quarters, get more space (bigger house or storage unit), or get rid of a bunch of stuff.
Body image drama. Keep doing what you're doing, decline, or grow stronger.
Where does this road go? If I make one turn, where will I wind up? If I make the other turn, does it go anywhere interesting?
These are challenging questions when we're caught up in it. It's hard to read a map when you're driving through life at freeway speed. There are a lot of tired old jokes about people who refuse to stop and ask for directions, but we don't like to do this in a metaphorical way either. The problems and choices that seem to torment us are usually simple and obvious to everyone else.
Break up with him! Apply for another job! Have a yard sale! Love it or change it!
Of course, we always think other people's problems are easy to solve, while having a tough time with our own. We don't like thinking that there are clear patterns to our behavior. We generally don't like thinking that our behavior is the root cause of anything, preferring to lay the blame on fate or the machinations of others.
I've come to regard choice points and crossroads as triggers for automatic strategic planning breaks. I have left the city limits and I am about to cross another border. This is why we get rid of more stuff and get a smaller house every time we move. This is why every time I hit a snag in my workout plan, such as an injury or a long trip, I come back aiming at a more intense level. This is why I now believe that a change in management at work signals a time to revamp my resume. When something changes, it's time to ask, Would I get into this situation if I had to do it over again right now?
Would I date someone who acted the way my partner is behaving these days? Would I have taken this job under these conditions? Would I plan to make a new house look this way? Did I plan to look this way? Did I plan to wind up here, doing this? Was this intentional?
It's a mystery to me why most people seem to do the opposite. Start quarreling with someone you used to love, and then fight more and more often, being nastier and meaner to each other, until nobody can figure out why you would live with someone like that. Hate your job and then just stay there, miserable, with no plans to leave and no plans to increase your job skills. Hate your body and then just become more passive and gain more weight, even when the health problems start to show up. Hate housework and then make your life harder by leaving everything to pile up. It's like pulling up to the crossroads and parking there. Keep moving and leave this town in your rear view.
This analogy works well for me because I've moved so many times. I can associate any given street address with a particular job or relationship or haircut.
Learning to recognize choice points as crossroads can start to make a lot more choices a lot more obvious. Do I move in the direction of a bigger life or do I retreat? Do I move in the direction of improvement or decline? Strength or weakness? More options or fewer options? Debt or financial freedom? Mess or order? Creativity or stasis? Am I passing up awesomeness in favor of imagined security? Am I simply nervous about going somewhere I've never been before, even though I heard it's great? Moving in the direction of greater awesomeness is always recommended.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.