What Are You Working Toward?

What are you working toward?

What Are You Working Toward?

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Friends, authors…kids (I feel like I can call you that as I am edging gently into the realm of the elders)—lately I’m noticing that a bunch of my friends have been moving toward retirement.

I’m a bit younger than they are, but watching them frolic at their leisure as I continue to keep my regular work schedule is starting to feel a bit like seeing all your friends in the neighborhood playing outside during summer vacation while you’re in summer school.

To combat this, I’ve been doing something that for some reason it took me thirty years of freelancing to implement: taking advantage of the flexible schedule being self-employed allows me to play hooky on weekdays with friends, when activities are less crowded.

And it’s been great. I can work-shift and swap out a weekend day or make up the time in other ways, or just occasionally schedule myself a little more lightly to allow myself a four-day workweek.

Read more: “Prioritizing Your Life”

It was on just such an excursion recently, at the Lady Bird Wildflower Center one uncrowded Tuesday to see the finest display of Texas wildflowers I’ve seen since moving here 17 years ago, that one of the friends we were with, retired for several years, started pressing me to do more of this kind of thing: working less and playing more.

“Right now my business is in strong growth mode,” I countered. “While I have the momentum and all the energy I currently have, I need to keep building it.”

“For what?” she asked as we trekked up the stairs of the center’s turret to get a panoramic view of the surrounding fields of flowers and the Texas hill country and the stunning array of clouds at the horizon.

Friends, authors…kids (I feel I can call you that as a Gen Xer, which I suddenly realize no longer connotes the plucky, independent youth that it did when I once was one, but the middle-aged)—I was floored. I stopped right on the step where I was and realized I had no answer for her question.

What Are Your Goals?

For most of my life I’ve been an ambitious little thing, whether I was pursuing acting or journalism or my editing career. No lie, when I was in middle school my favorite game to play with my best friend was what we loosely called Corporations, where we created imaginary companies and all of their branding, correspondence, and made-up transactions and employees. When most kids were playing Barbies or cowboys or house, I was playing entrepreneur.

And in some ways my career still feels like play to me. I love almost every aspect of running my business and continuing to look for ways to expand it. It’s not unlike how many writers begin writing for fun, as a game or play, long before they decide to pursue it as a career.

But my friend’s question made me try to concretely define a clear endpoint I hadn’t really thought about. I’ve been building for building’s sake, just taking every next step and opportunity that opens up as long as it seemed fun and helped expand my career, my business, my reach.

I don’t have some overarching master plan for world domination or to build a dynasty or leave a legacy. I have no children to whom I want to leave a family business, nor even any intellectual heirs who might be interested in assuming mine when I’m gone. As my husband and I begin reexamining and updating our estate planning documents, I’m actually looking at how to disperse (and disburse) my intellectual property after my death.

Read more: “Reassessing Your Writing Career”

If you ask me what motivates me and my career, it’s how much I enjoy the process, and that it helps allow us to live the lifestyle we want to live.

And this last point is what my friend’s question made me think more deeply about.

Living versus Legacy

I just finished reading a book called Die with Zero, by Bill Perkins, whose basic premise is that rather than the common mindset of socking away savings and building a fortune you can leave behind after your death, why not do as much as possible with all the money we work so hard to earn, so that we enjoy the fruits of our labors while we’re alive?

The book’s theme can feel a little privileged in the sense that not everyone has the luxury to rack up savings, retire early, or disburse accumulated wealth.

But the central nut of it has had me thinking a lot, in line with my friend’s question that stopped me in my tracks: What eventual reality am I working so hard toward…as opposed to fully enjoying the reality I’m in?

Among many goals writers may have for their writing is often one about becoming part of the literary canon, creating a classic that lives on after we’re gone, that leaves our words and our mark in the world.

Leaving aside the unlikeliness of this outcome—of the hundreds of millions of books published throughout the course of history, only a tiny fraction of those endure—it also feels to me like it keeps the author focused on an unknowable, uncontrollable future for their writing, rather than the part that is within their power to affect: the doing of it. I wonder if worrying about our artistic legacy may rob us of the simple joy we take in making our art.

Read more:  “Norman Lear and Your Artistic Legacy

Or maybe your goal is about amassing that fortune you can “die with zero” on, get to the point in your career where your whopping book advances allow you the travel and adventure, leisure and pleasure you dream of having “one day.”

Friends, even if that were a likely outcome (spoiler: It’s not), “one day” may be a lot closer than you think. One exercise in the book that also shifted my paradigm—and may be a primary reason for all these thoughts cropping up lately—is what Perkins calls “time bucketing.”

“One day” isn’t just right around the corner. It’s now. It has to be.

Basically, using average life expectancies for your health and demographic, you divide your expected remaining time to live into five-year buckets, and then figure out which of your goals and dreams need to happen in which buckets, based on your age, ability, health, cognition, ability to afford each item, etc.

For me and the hubs, it was sobering to realize that we probably have just two or maybe three time buckets left to do some of the highly active or ambitious items on our list before our age and health may preclude them. Our “one day” isn’t just right around the corner. It’s now. It has to be.

I often cite palliative-care nurse Bronnie Ware’s beautiful list of the top five regrets of the dying that she compiled from years of working with those in the process of doing so. The whole list is worth reading (and returning to time and again), but number two is the oft-cited, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

I may never fully retire, I’ve told my husband. I love my work and derive enormous satisfaction, enjoyment, and purpose from it. I will likely work, in some fashion, as long as I am constitutionally able to do it.

But I’m going to try hard to do it less, starting right now, in this time bucket, when I am fortunate to be healthy and financially stable and fully compos mentis, so that I can more deeply enjoy what I’m lucky enough to have.

Let me leave you with the most William Shatner of William Shatner quotes—Billy the Shat, the Shatster, B-Shat, the OC—who seems to have life all figured out: “I’m surfing the giant life wave.”

Read more: “Life Lessons from William Shatner

Don’t waste a moment of your wild and precious lives, authors. Write for joy and fulfillment and delicious artistic challenge that brings value to your now. Worry less about the result.  

Talk to me, my friends. Do you have stretch goals you think of having time and opportunity for “one day”? Do you feel you’re “earning” them now, working toward being able to make them happen? If you never get to that point, will what you’re doing right now, day to day, in your writing, your work, your life, have been enough? Will it all have been worth it?

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30 Comments. Leave new

  • Patricia Casey
    May 2, 2024 10:28 am

    I’m 65, studying for my MFA in creative writing at SNHU, and just beginning my writing career. I have spent many years living for the day without achieving long-term goals. Now I consider what I’m doing in the present and set goals for the next 20 years. Even if I reach 100, I still want goals for the next 20 years. When I die, I will have reached every goal that I was given time to complete.

  • What a wonderful post (as always) thanks so much for sharing.

    I have also read that book and liked the premise.

    Earlier this year I decided I am going to go all out because frankly, one day I will be dead.

    I’ve just bought my dream house. My OH wasn’t impressed, he said we didn’t need the extra space (no kids and no plan to have), we have no pets, it’s just me and him.

    But, I had a dream.

    I had no idea how I was realistically going to pay the extra mortgage every month but I *knew* like no other time before that I MUST make it happen.

    Tiffany, with a motivation I can only tell you was spurred on by my desire to have that house I ramped up my writing. I now have so much writing work (and for big nationals here in the UK) I am on fire!

    You know what else? I dug out a book I wrote 5 years ago which got so many rejections I can’t even count.

    Guess what: I now signed with a top agent who’s a massive superfan and has already had lunch with a publisher to discuss.

    I have been writing for years. I never ever dreamed what is happening now was going to happen to me. I had given up. I was just writing for me and joy and that’s it.

    I credit all my current success with my dream to own my new house (which I now do).

    I have never ever experienced fire or motivation like it. I know it sounds a bit ‘money-orientated’ but I can assure you it’s more about the *BIG DREAM* and saying: you know what, I really, really want that so much!

    I truly cannot believe the way my life has changed in the last two months.

    I want to share with you, and your wonderful writing community, that dreams DO come true.

    So…keep the faith (As BJB would say!)

    • Syl, what a fantastic story this is–congrats to you on all your success, and on the determination and fortitude and resiliency that kept you holding on to faith in yourself and your work. I do think we send good messages to ourselves when we listen to what matters to us and take it seriously, as you sound like you did. I’m so happy to hear how it’s been followed by so many good things, in addition to attaining your dream house. Thanks for sharing.

  • Sharon Wagner
    May 2, 2024 1:20 pm

    Advanced age has fueled my drive to write. I feel like there’s no time to waste. I want to tell as many stories as possible before the end and disperse the books to the winds. Leaving copies of my book on our travels brings me so much joy. I just left a copy at a restaurant book exchange in Bluff, Utah, but missed out on the tiny Moab airport’s four-shelf book exchange because I didn’t have an extra copy. Who knows where it may have ended up?

    • What a lovely way to share your writing and put it out into the world, Sharon–and I love the joy it gives you not just to write your stories, but to share them. Thanks for the comment!

  • Christina Anne Hawthorne
    May 2, 2024 1:31 pm

    Next week, I turn 65. Maybe I would travel extensively, but that isn’t financially possible. I also live alone. In fact, I walk each morning alone and most often hike alone. As an INFJ, I’m mostly okay with that, though not always.

    What I value above all else right now, is each moment I spend writing, or refining what I’ve already written. In my otherworld fantasy are friends and found families. At least, that’s how they feel to me. I never tire of spending time there.

    I don’t mean to make this sound sad, because I don’t view it that way. If I was told I had ten more minutes to live—I’d write faster.

    Maybe that’ll change. Maybe the love of my life will magically appear and change everything. Never say never. In the meantime, I’ll continue to do what provides me the most comfort and fulfillment.

    • I think the key to a fulfilling life is to find the joy and satisfaction in whatever path you’re on, Christina–it sounds like you very much do that. I think it can be easy to look at our lives and see the lack, overlooking all the good things we do have. I love that you find community and joy in your writing. And I’m glad you’re part of our little writing community all of you help create here. Thanks for being here, and thanks for sharing.

  • Christine DeSmet
    May 2, 2024 3:07 pm

    What a great post. I’ve been trying to support important writing groups as much as I can with some volunteering and donations. I put local groups first as a priority, particularly for scholarships for writers of any age to be able to afford to attend workshops and conferences. The saying is “You can’t take it with you.” As for my own work as a coach and writer, I’m always chiding myself to keep a balance and cut back on saying “Yes.” I’ve worked as an instructor and coach all my life, much as you have, and now I’ve put my own writing first. I still coach writers and answer questions; I’m always available for the quick help a writer might need for a free look at a few pages or a query letter, but I book far fewer paying clients now for a better balance in my life. And I’m writing picture books for the first time and loving that as well as my new mystery novel series!

    • What a lovely way to contribute to the writing community, Christine–and lift others up. And yes, I hear you on trying not to say yes to everything–it’s tempting, at least for me, because I want to be open to all opportunities, I want to grow in my craft and community, and I LOVE being the “get it done” person. But I also am learning the value of a well-chosen no. It’s always a process for me, but little reminders like my friend’s question help me make sure my priorities always suit what I actually value. Thank you for sharing this. Congrats on your new picture-book venture, and your new series!

  • Barb Kasten
    May 2, 2024 4:25 pm

    Another great post, Tiffany! I’m only two months into my post-corporate-writing-tutor-at-a-small-university gig, but I am LOVING helping students find their writing chops! It’s a part-time job and I’m paid primarily in smiles and sometimes hugs, but life is short and I don’t want my legacy to be measured in bank account balances. Next up for me is becoming a certified book coach to help aspiring authors find their footing. After that, who knows? Like you, I can’t imagine not doing something when there’s joy to be had!

    • Barb, I love this: “life is short and I don’t want my legacy to be measured in bank account balances.” Amen to that. I love that you’ve found such joy in the teaching and sharing of what you love to do, and apparently are good at (since you’re teaching at the university level). Like you, I get a lot of reward in helping others access and hone their creativity–it feels like a gift to me. Hope you continue to find joy where you are.

  • Jo Anne Burgh
    May 2, 2024 4:32 pm

    I love this post!

    I started writing seriously in 2013. I was 53, and after 25 years of not writing (long story), followed by seven years of learning how to write again in a supportive environment (fan fiction, which is a wonderful place to learn since you have a built-in audience), I took the plunge. My main motivator: the recognition that Someday had arrived.

    Like so many of my fellow fanfic writers, I’d always said I would write a book “someday.” For years, I’d been playing occasionally with the story that ultimately became my first novel, but I figured I had time.

    It was during this period that I found a quote by Anne Lamott in which she said, “Oh my God, what if you wake up someday, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written . . . It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen.”

    Then, on a summer afternoon when my freelance work had (temporarily) dried up and I had nothing but time, I said aloud, “It’s time to pass or play.” Either write the book, or stop pretending it’s going to happen.

    I played.

    I started writing short stories that weren’t fan fiction. I started getting those stories published. I started getting paid for those stories. I started entering stories in contests, and I started placing in–and then winning–those contests. After a few years of this, I started working seriously on my novel, putting in the time, an hour a day nearly every day, because Someday was here. Now, at age 64, I’m deep into the first draft of my third novel.

    There’s still a lot I’d love to do in this life, including traveling to places I’m writing about (anybody been to Svalbard lately?). Alas, finances and other commitments aren’t presently allowing for this. But Someday. . . . 😉

    • Wow, Jo Anne, I love that you never let go of your desire or determination to write. It really never is too late for us to pursue our creative desires. That Anne Lamott quote is a powerful one, and the older I get the more I think about the finitude of life and how we want to spend whatever time we all have left. We let fear stop us so often–but when you put it in that scope, you start to see how small and meaningless those fears really are, against this limited, precious time we have to really live, to do what we dream of and long to do. Congrats to you on all your hard work and success at your writing–and I hope you continue to enjoy it and reap its many inherent rewards. Thanks for sharing.

  • Oh my, could I relate to this as a Gen-Xer! And I’m shocked at how many friends are already talking retirement. But I also don’t manage my time as well as I’d like for all the years I’ve practiced. Thank you for this post (and all of them!).

    • Thanks, Charlotte…fellow Gen-Xer–remember when we were the renegade upstarts? 🙂 Yeah, retirement feels premature for me right now too–I still feel (and probably act) about 12. May we both enjoy what we’re doing, for as long as we are doing it!

  • Barb Ristine
    May 2, 2024 8:23 pm

    Waving to you from the other side of the hill💗 I love this thoughtful post.

    We decided early in our marriage to to live frugally to build a nest egg, but we still managed to have a good life and adventures while raising our twins. As a result, we “retired” early, when most of our friends were still head-down in the work world.

    My cancer diagnosis four years ago led us to do more to enjoy life. I’m grateful that I came through that health crisis, and I’m grateful that we can do most of what we want, and still support local charities and non-profits, and assist our adult children as needed.

    I write with the intent to get published, but I accept the reality that may not happen. I still enjoy the process. Maybe I don’t time-manage my life as efficiently as I could, but we are happy!

    It’s important to take time to play and to appreciate the life we are given.

    • Hello, Barb! I think I’m within shouting distance, at least, on that same hill! What a gift that you came through such a daunting diagnosis. I can’t think of a greater validation of your and your spouse’s choice to focus more on your lives than your work than to have a too-early brush with mortality. It sounds like you bring that equanimity to your writing too, enjoying the process without getting hung up on the results. I thikn that’s the main ingredient in a fulfilling life and writing career. Thanks for sharing this–and I’m so glad you came through your health crisis.

  • I’m a Boomer, so seriously ancient. I was a freelance graphic designer for 35 years, and one day had the epiphany that I didn’t have to hang out in my studio every day waiting for a call. And I had the luxury to turn down some work I didn’t want. It took me about 32 years to figure that out. I loved what I did— until I grew tired of it. I have a portfolio of printed pieces, but I’m thinking about tossing them all. I turned to writing and walking with friends and volunteering for causes. Writing is my “job,” and it’s such a challenge—fun, frustrating, and so instructional

    • Man, Leslie, this resonates–I’ve freelanced for 30-plus years as well, and it feels like it’s taken me most of them to figure out something similar. And I still work at it–it’s easy to fall into the nose-to-the-grindstone trap, and I do have to stay mindful of creating conscious priorities and allowing myself to say no to some things.

      FWIW…I hope you don’t toss your portfolio just yet. Even if you’re letting go of that work, I always think that one day, when we are very old, it might be rewarding to look back over our creative work with the objective eye of age and distance and letting go of striving and judgment and fear, and just enjoy what we brought into the world. Thanks for the comment.

    • Kassie Ritman
      May 3, 2024 9:43 pm

      I’m 63, and pretty much free to do as I please. I think career-wise, there are still a few diddys in the current bucket — but I think I’ll take my lead from a friend who recently passed. He died just after the new year, a whisker shy of 92. He was a longtime writer with some big successes. And he was a great speaker before a crowd, or across the table while enjoying a cocktail and just hanging out and cracking jokes. He wrote his last book in his 90th year– a bio of his Friend Kurt Vonnegut, and he stayed relevant and approachable to the end. That’s what I want out of this. I know I won’t be Dan Wakefield, but I want to live like he did and “Go All the Way” 😉

      • How wonderful–I agree that we’re so lucky in this field that we can generally pursue it as long as we like. There’s no expiration date on creativity. Thanks for sharing this, Kassie.

  • I share some of your background (theater) and some of your values (I knew there was something I liked about you!) I respect those quotes about life and retirement, but I have gotten everything out of life that I knew how, and if I could think of anything better to do than write, I’d do it.

  • Donna Barten
    May 3, 2024 12:18 pm

    Well said! After an unexpected early retirement, it took me years to get over the “working as hard as possible” mentality. I was devastated losing my career at the time, but so happy now that I have been able to explore other aspects of myself. I now have time to develop my craft of writing and experience all the pleasure of that without anyone’s deadline. I play hooky with my friends and husband on weekdays too. A life threatening car accident focused me even further on what I really want to do with the rest of my life… and I made even more adjustments. It’s a good idea to regularly take stock of where you spend your time and whether it’s what you’d look back on and feel satisfied about. Thanks for a satisfying article.

    • Thanks for a satisfying comment, Donna! 🙂 I love the way you recast your thinking about involuntary retirement (an epidemic these days, it seems)–and also used the crisis of your car accident (so glad you’re okay) to keep a healthy perspective too on what you want your life to be. I realize as I get older how easy it is to think of our lives as an endless span of possibility–and yet it’s not endless, and being mindful of that helps us savor the time we have, I think. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Susanne Dunlap
    May 3, 2024 12:35 pm

    As always, such a thoughtful post and such great advice. After a series of losses, the importance of living fully and doing what you love has been brought home to me in spades. I guess that’s part of why I decided to stop trying to write something IMPORTANT and start writing for the sheer joy of it.

  • Leslie Budewitz
    May 3, 2024 2:45 pm

    Thanks for this piece, Tiffany. I love seeing the comments from writers pursuing their dream and goals with such passion, especially those who have come to writing later in life.
    I started writing in my late 30s, while practicing law, and while it took years to get my first book published, I was determined. Gradually, my time allocation shifted and I’ve been writing fulltime for several years now. I’m 65, with 16 published books and 3 more under contract, and at a crossroads with my career — a time for some decision making. Your essay and question — well, your hiking buddy’s question! — was exactly what I needed to hear right now. I don’t have to keep proposing more books and writing on contract to deadline; I can let a much-loved series go if I want — I don’t have to decide just yet — and write only what I want, what only I can write. (The back-burner passion projects.) More time for travel with my husband, maybe volunteer work outside of writing groups, and more painting.
    You’ve prompted a real shift in the possibilities I see — thank you.

    • These are great comments, aren’t they? Inspiring. 🙂 How impressive that you’ve found such success in your writing career–congratulations. That takes a lot of resilience and persistence and fortitude–not to mention talent and hard work. Glad to hear this post hit the right chord at the right time as you decide how you want to move forward from here in your writing!


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