Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Counting Backwards

There's a thought-provoking post over at Lesboprof's about career goals, timing, and the importance (and shock!) of counting backwards. It's about the shock of recognition when you say “I want to be in place x by year y. To do that, I'd have to get to x-1 by year y-5, which means...” and suddenly realizing that the seemingly endless expanse of time before you is, in fact, quite brief.

Counting backwards can be revelatory in other aspects of life, too. I remember vividly the conversation The Wife and I had when we were about a year into our marriage, and we started talking about when to start trying to have kids. When we counted backwards, we realized that 'someday' had somehow and quite without warning become 'right now.' Catching up to the math emotionally took a little more time than just doing the math did.

I'll leave it to the psychologists to explain just how it works, but somehow the exercise of counting backwards turns the very fuzzy future into something emotionally concrete. Suddenly there are boundaries. And those boundaries are both limiting and – weirdly – clarifying. They make the vast expanse of forever somehow more legible, and therefore easier to handle. Suddenly there's urgency, and the excitement of working towards something displaces the vague ennui and angst of just drifting.

(As a parent of two young children, I have only a distant recollection of angst. Who has time? I haven't had angst since the 90's. And ennui requires free time, too. There's a temporal imbalance in the academic career path. In my twenties, in grad school, I had endless time and no money, and the big questions were about whether I'd eventually find an employer that wanted my time badly enough to pay for it. Now I have no time, a demanding job, and a family of four depending on my salary. A little 'evening-out' over time would contribute to greater sanity generally, I suspect.)

(The catch is that the habits of mind learned in an earlier environment linger into the next one. Every so often my old cultural-studies side pops up, and I mull over writing an article like “Towards A Unified Theory of Ty Wigginton,” which would start with something like “Although the enigmatic utility infielder for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays has called into question, through his combination of power hitting and just-good-enough fielding, the very definition of “utility infielder,” Ty Wigginton remains oddly undertheorized.” Then I don't.)

There's a cliché to the effect that if you want to make God laugh, make a plan, and I'll grant the basic truth of that. But there's also a basic truth to the fact that, barring death, I'll be ten years older ten years from now, whether I plan for it or not.

Mentally, age isn't Newtonian; it's quantum. You're one age for a long time, than blammo!, you're a markedly older one, without ever having passed in-between. (I believe “blammo!” is the technical term, from the Latin “blammus,” meaning, loosely, “what the #%#$?”.) In my case, I was 22 until TB was born, at which point I was suddenly 32. Then TG was born, and I was officially middle-aged. When the first boy shows up at my door to ask TG out, I will officially become Scary Crotchety Old Guy. (“Son, I have no problem going back to prison...”)

The quantum leaps usually occur without warning, and are legible only in retrospect. You'll realize you made one when you find yourself thinking “wow, I used to care about that.” (True example: I stopped going to a certain kind of concert when I caught myself at one of them thinking “those kids in the mosh pit are gonna hurt themselves!”) They're liberating in some ways. “Cool” was a major stretch for me in the best of times; now I don't even try. It means that some elements of pop culture become obscure – I have no idea who that stoner redhead snowboarder guy is in the AmEx ads, nor do I care. But if you're doing it right, you can also gain confidence in your own judgment. I'm no longer paralyzed by the adolescent fear that everybody else knows something that I don't. At this point, I've seen enough to know that if my instincts tell me that something is crap, then it's crap, regardless of the standing of the person saying it. Contradiction used to instill paralyzing self-doubt; now I'm willing to discount it if I think I know what I'm doing.

Counting backwards can also help you (okay, me) get past the hand-wringing “am I really ready for that?” stage and get on with it. If you look at some of the major figures in your field and count backwards, you'll be struck at how young some of them were when they made their first major splash.

The trick is to use counting backwards as a prod to action and a wake-up call, rather than an attempt to control the future. I can plan all I want for the next thirty years of my career, then get hit by a truck tomorrow. Stuff happens. But to avoid planning for the future in the name of “keeping your options open” is to deny the passage of time. As my four-foot-four six-year-old reminds me every single time I look at him, time passes whether we give it permission or not.

I like the term:

"punctuated equilibrium"
Ahhhhh - my first day of grad school and you post this! I'm rapidly approaching 40.. I have four kids and a grandson..

and I still don't feel like a grown-up.

Should I count backwards or just run screaming in the other direction.
Yeah, my partner and I have been FRANTICALLY counting backwards since she's been laid off. She's in her 60s, whist I'm in my 40s. So, while she is toying with retirement, I'm quite a ways off.

Soo...I've now become, literally, the financial head of household. And while I swore up and down I would NOT become an administrator... well...

Serving as a Department Chair is in my near future. We can't afford me NOT to serve. Bleh.

*SIGH* It's been a good exercise, but I wish we had had a bit more time. We've also clarified what is needed (term life insurance for my partner, roll her multiple 401Ks to TIAA-CREF, cover her on my insurances, etc), and what we don't need (disability insurance--selling the house will cover that nasty if slim possibility).

Counting backwards is a terrific exericse--even when you're FORCED to do it.
This post reminds me of a very vivid moment. My wife and I were working together at the law library on a Sunday afternoon spring semester of her 2L year, me grading my students' essays and prepping for and her studying. We took a break together and started walking around and talking about when to start having kids, which was not an entirely new conversation for us but somehow this time it was more concrete. We decided that aiming for winter break of her third year of law school would be an ideal time. Then we counted back ten months and realized that landed us on Right Now. As in, let's go home and start trying immediately. My head was spinning trying to figure out how "sometime in the middle of next school year" became "today" but it had.
Brilliant post. God's laughed at my plans a lot. And, just for your information, the stoner redhead guy in the AmEx commercial is "The Flying Tomato," and though I remember that from being an Olympics junkie, and him being the darling of Torino in 2006, I had to use Google to find out that his name is Shaun White. Of course, my version of TB is 10 1/2 weeks old, so we'll see whether or not I watch the 2008 games.
I loved this post. So true about the quantum quality of aging - and the quick and nauseating leap from one age to the next. I'm coming up on 38 this year and celebrating the half-way point of my public service career: caught between the equally strong pull of my 20-year-old bright-eyed and painfully naive self and the 55 year old retiree waiting for her first grandchild. Oy!
Interesting post. As an unmarried and childless man somehwere in his ... 40's, counting backwards is a different exercise. I've never had much of a plan; instead, as many an ex has pointed out, I 'live almost entirely in the present', albeit with an occasional nod to the past. I never wanted kids, and as someone not fortunate enough to have ever been able to find that minority segment of the female population that feels similarly, I measure the past by break-ups over the issue of wanting children. See, I used to think I could talk myself into it, but I couldn't. Doesn't matter, though. I'm still at the same numerical point as the others. I may be a little less harried, and have more freedom, but the milestones, which for me were defined differently, are still there. The bummer is they were experienced alone rather than with someone. Oh well.
I believe “blammo!” is the technical term, from the Latin “blammus,” meaning, loosely, “what the #%#$?”.

You're absolutely correct!

I'm going to give your technique of counting backwards a whirl as I prepare for my longterm goal of applying for promotion. Given that I have to get a substantial publication between here and there, it will hopefully help keep me focused.
I believe “blammo!” is the technical term, from the Latin “blammus,” meaning, loosely, “what the #%#$?”.
This almost made me choke on my morning coffee!

And God has a stomach ache from all the laughing at my expense. Good to know that, apparently, I am not alone.

Great post (as always).

I was going to comment but Second Line took my thunder. I measure my life by engagements that don't work out and job changes. Maybe not as "darling" as kids but life has still been quite the ride so far. Wonder what god will laugh about next...
Ahh, lovely post. I'm going to steal your "quantum time" metaphor.

And I feel exactly the same way --- I am still 22 and time has not passed since I started grad school. Maybe if I just don't have kids, I will remain 22 for ever! Mwahahahaha!
When I was hired, jobs were scarce, and I spent the first ten years of my (second) career on the verge of being declared surplus. Then people started retiring, and suddenly I went from being second youngest to second oldest in the department in a couple of years.

That was wierd. As was going from "no openings for promotion" to "they're looking for someone who won't be retiring so soon". Generation X all over again, marooned between the Boomers and the Entitlement Kids…
I think the corporate world calls this "strategic planning". It can be a frustrating experience to do, though the alternative ("no planning") has its drawbacks.
Now I have no time, a demanding job, and a family of four depending on my salary. A little 'evening-out' over time would contribute to greater sanity generally

...catch a movie, maybe have dessert...
This type of insurance policy is one type of permanent life insurance. With a permanent policy, the insurance is designed to last as long as you pay the premiums. Whole life insurance guarantees this lifetime protection. Universal life does not have these guarantees but there is now a term life insurance quote where you can add a feature that guarantees that the insurance will last the rest of your life.
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