In five years’ time

Don’t stop trying to surprise yourself. You’re middle-aged, not dead.

Fiona Tay’s story on career projection is about a familiar thought process in young people who are trying to decide what path they should take. Twenty-five is a good time to stop flailing around and start planning ahead, and asking where you see yourself in the medium term is an excellent way to focus your efforts. While I was reading I caught myself thinking: “Where do I want to be in five years?”

Except I’m not twenty-one. I’ll be forty-three next week. Wherever it is that I want to be in five years, I should already be there.

The thing that kills you as you approach middle age is that nobody asks you where you’re going to be in five years, or even two. Worse: you stop asking yourself. You hit forty and bang, your life is done, it is what it is, rien ne va plus. This is particularly true if you’re mostly happy with the person you’ve become: try as you might, change doesn’t stick. This should be immensely relieving, right?

Then why does it feel like you’re slowly being suffocated with a soft pillow that has your date of birth printed all over it?

The reason nobody likes aging is not so much that your whole body gives way to gravity, although it does; and short of remaking yourself through cosmetic surgery there is nothing you can do about it. Yes, your body ages, but it’s not like you’re going to do a Dorian Gray and go from young whippet to old codger overnight. What is really bad about age is that everybody, yourself included, assumes you’re not going anywhere new, and this gets increasingly worse with each birthday. Forty-plus is the age at which you look at the road ahead of you and all you see is a stretch of asphalt with no milestones on it. With no new goals to reach, all you can do is trudge ahead and eventually stop.

That’s grim, I know.

That’s basically what middle age is: the end of first times. Love, sex, travel, food, you’ve tried most of these things at least once, and now it’s all variations of the same thing. You’ll never fly again for the first time, feel the airplane take off the ground and watch the world shrink to a detailed mock-up. You cannot have two first kisses and you can only get drunk for the first time once. By the time you’re middle-aged, you’ll have run the gamut of emotions: the resulting perspective takes the edge off everything, which is good in a lot of ways — you just keep finding new things not to break a sweat about — but where’s the magic?

Nothing’s new anymore. But with this comes a new ease, too. When emotions are no longer as shocking as they used to be, you can take your time to savour each new experience. You’re also a lot more aware of who you are and what you want, and a lot less likely to let yourself be pushed around. You can find ways to surprise yourself, too, because you know your boundaries and how to nudge or downright kick them a little further away. Once you’ve established your comfort zone, getting out of it as often as you can is a great way to get the adrenaline flowing. It can drive you a little crazy, ok? It will. But it’s good for you. It’s like jumping into icy water after a sauna. You won’t like it, but you’ll feel amazing afterwards.

You’re getting old. But you don’t have to stop being adventurous.

So where will you be in five years? Ask yourself. Refocus. Ask yourself again. Where will you be? What will you be doing? How will you get there? Go on: you know you can.

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