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.