I had a chat today with a colleague and friend. We’re about the same age, and have been working for about the same number of years (30+ for me, close to the same for her plus school and family). She said, “When does all this hard work start to pay off?”
We talked about it for a few minutes. I said that I felt that we’d been sold a lie: work hard, be smart and responsible, and you’ll be generously rewarded later in life. The easy life, freedom 55, the golden years. That pot-of-gold life of leisure.
I’ve been thinking about it all day, and perhaps it’s not so much a lie as an exaggeration (a shade-of-gray difference, I know, like every politician or fisherperson getting caught in a fib). Those ambitious American-dream types of promises are allegorical, aspirational, inspirational, metaphors. They’re not intended to be real.
They do provide some meaning and purpose. Those dreams of what you could be or have provide incentive and motivation. Without them, most jobs or careers would have very little to offer beyond a paycheque. For some, that paycheque is the motivation. The work provides the means to pursue other things; think those who wait tables to support an artistic career, or the kid with a paper route saving for a new bike.
They also promise things that are familiar. We’ve read about or seen in films the fun, easy, glamorous, comfortable lives of others. During school and early careers, we’re encouraged to save our money and “pay our dues” in scut work or low-paying roles, investing in our future. At the same time, we get opportunities to indenture ourselves to student loans and credit cards and mortgages, all part of the path to that life of ease.
Age and experience wear off the shiny coating of those dreams. The shinier ones stay perpetually in the future, always just five years away, tantalizing. Like a jar at the back of a high shelf, just out of reach – you can feel it, but can’t quite grab it. But the more realistic among us change what we want, to fit what we might actually do.
What those aspirational dreams cannot do is provide a formula. Not everyone dreams of or wants exactly the same thing. What I want for my future is different than what other people want (and even from what I wanted ten years ago, and ten years before that). Good thing, too, because if we all worked towards the same thing, that tropical paradise would be very crowded.
We also each take different paths, make different choices, throughout our lives. My dream can’t be the same as someone who has children; the motivations for parents include those instant priorities of their kids. And the reverse is true – the opportunities I have and will have to pursue things will be different than those with bigger families. Our lives and our selves are the result of the choices we make along the way (even in those times when we feel we have no choice), and so our outcomes will naturally be different, too.
Overall, I think the lie is in the notion that there’s some big payoff that happens. That as you move through middle age things get easier, the rewards will outweigh the costs, and that you’ll wake up on your 55th birthday to find that you’re living the life of Riley. When in reality, the payoff is happening all the time. Things that used to be daunting or challenging are now easier. Stuff that used to scare us, we can now do without even thinking. We experience rewards on an ongoing basis: more creature comforts, stronger relationships, a lifetime of experiences, and, if we have kids, watching them grow into little people and then grown-ups.
I think this is captured in the recent trends encouraging gratitude and mindfulness. Others smarter than me have figured out this reward-in-pieces formula, and they encourage us to pay attention and recognize the good things in the now instead of always looking towards that big payoff later. This isn’t a recent trend, just those specific words are; people have been writing about it for eons, from Shakespeare to Sondheim.
So that big reward does happen, just in pieces. Like the work and effort takes place throughout our whole lives, so too do the rewards. Perhaps sometimes we’re just working too hard to see them.