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Michele Willens Headshot

FACE IT: Aging May Mean Setting More Focused Goals

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I was struck by what 17-year-old Beau Hossler had to say during his impressive performance in the U.S. Open golf tournament last week. Before it began, he said his goal was simple: He wanted to make the cut. By the third day, as the high schooler found himself on par with pros like Tiger Woods, he amended that goal: Now he wanted to win the tournament. In the end he did not, but his reversal from caution to bravado flies in the face of what I had been thinking about lately.

It seems we start our adult lives with big goals -- we are energetic and brash enough to aim far and wide (think Steven Spielberg conning his way onto the Universal lot as a young lad). As we hit our prime, we truly believe we are going to make a great film about sharks, write a great novel, find the cure, win the U.S. Open or the Grand Slam. Some of us do, most of us do not.

Hopefully, we learn to live with disappointment, dial down the dreams and keep engaged through the long (and increasingly longer) midsection. But as we hit the fragility of the latter years, the goals often become diminutive, even depressing. It may be a day without constipation. A call to a relative. A walk to the corner newsstand. I was waiting for a friend inside an apartment building in Manhattan on a particularly blustery day, when an elderly woman emerged from the elevator. Holding an envelope in her hand, she asked the doorman, "Is it still blowing out there?" When he nodded, she turned back toward the elevator. "Oh well," she said. "I'll mail it tomorrow." I felt incredibly sad for her -- but hey, it was a plan.

As was, perhaps for her, just getting up and primed for the outing, insignificant as it may seem to those rushing unconsciously by. I recall sitting in the hospital waiting room, while our dying mother lay inside, when my brothers and I noticed the nattily dressed older woman who came every day. We complimented her on looking so fine (we were in sweats) as she was awaiting the next visit with her ailing husband. She said, "Well, someone has to dress for the occasion."

I prefer to think that as we move on in years, our goals need not be considered smaller so much as more focused. Lofty ones like becoming the fastest runner in the world necessarily go by the wayside. But running a marathon -- or a mini one -- need not. Getting down to a size four may seem insurmountable to one who has let the body go with the years. But somehow, two pounds a month seems doable and even a weird kind of challenging fun. I have let go of writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, but I can see my one act performed in August. And I can write a poem for a friend's birthday.

If even those occasionally feel like a stretch, maybe it's just getting out a few less-than-hasty emails to people with whom you have not spoken to lately. Maybe it's NOT getting that prescription for Ambien renewed. Maybe it's just getting that letter in the mailbox or getting dressed to bring momentary pleasure to a longtime companion.

With more focused goal-tending, life just may get more enjoyable, more -- pardon the expression -- mindful, and frankly, less depressing. I can look at all the events at the nearby 92nd Street Y and easily become upset that I haven't partaken enough, not to mention overwhelmed by the choices. But then I think, "Okay, I am going to do one lecture and one musical event a month."

Likewise, to try to keep abreast of technological changes can be dispiriting. Face it, our minds just don't click as fast as we'd like, so by the time you figured out texting, there came Twitter. (I still celebrate mastering Tivo.) Yes, I can throw the Business section in the trash and accept that one part of contemporary life is beyond me. Or I can set a baby goal of finally learning one app. My personal best yesterday -- I kid you not -- was figuring out how to put my new phone on vibrate rather than lazily asking my son to do it for me.

At this point in our lives, all of this is so much happier than looking back at all the roads not taken. I highly recommend breaking goals into time frames, seeing the immediate moments and hours rather than the dwindling years. Suddenly, my summer ahead is to be filled with a wish list of 20 books, the two final seasons of The Wire, and one new place to visit. I am not talking about a difficult, costly trip to India, but rather three days in Portland, Oregon.

This is not to say that as one reaches senior status, long-term aspirations must go. Roaming the halls of Columbia University, I don't think about the B.A. that hopefully will be mine after 40 gap years. I think with excitement about my Fall classes and wonder what the reading will be, if the teacher will be older than me (whoops) and whether the final will be a take-home. The joy is truly not in the anticipation of a delayed diploma but in the steps along the way.

Longer lives are ahead and that can be great for the healthy and perennially motivated. I also understand that for many, just finding an hour without chronic pain, or remembering something you spent all night trying not to forget, is a feat. The great challenge is to reach beyond the pains and the pulls of old age and still aim upward -- or at least forward. The results can be especially rewarding. I am sure Mike Nichols dreamed of winning a Tony when he began directing Broadway 50 years ago, which he did almost immediately. But I'll bet the one he just won at the age of 80 meant even more.

Maybe the young golfer is the perfect combination of the macro-turned-micro way to approach goals. First, he thought to play it safe, almost like an old pro. Then, realizing he really could do this, he allowed himself to think micro. A lifetime of micro goals is not a bad way for us all to live. In the end, they add up.