The Future without Me

futureOne of the really great things about my job is that I am continually challenged to think about my own life in new ways.

I started this blog almost exactly a year ago as a result of a bicycle accident that caused me to change in some significant ways my thoughts and feelings about the future.  It was a wake-up call to me to face my own aging and mortality.

But for about that long I have known that something has been missing from my life.

Today, talking with a CEO who is facing ongoing hostile questioning from the press about his role in leading his company, I noticed a shift that had taken place in his thinking and in what we had been talking about over the last few months.

When I first met him he was very much immersed in the task of providing ethical and responsible leadership to his organization.  He was future oriented and had a clear sense of values and a vision for his organization.

As the result of the hostile press coverage, he has shifted his focus. Now he talks about challenges in a defensive way. Instead of saying, in response to criticism about how his organization handles ethical issues, let’s make sure that we create a system that is at the forefront of ethical practices in business, now he wonders how he can “hang in there” for a bit longer.  He has started to “count the days,” until his planned retirement.

Whereas I think that his plan to retire is a good one, I realized that one of the things that happened as he developed his plan to retire is that he lost his future orientation.  Now his thoughts about the role he will play in the organization is limited to those things that have to take place before his planned retirement.  He has a vague sense that he should think of his organization’s future beyond his retirement, but he really is not engaged in imagining or planning for that future. He has had a big loss of satisfaction and direction as a result.

After my conversation with him, and after I tried, without success, to point out this shift, I started to think about what happened to me as a result of my bicycle accident. I realized that something similar had taken place.

It’s not that I made a retirement plan – far from it, I see myself engaged in my professional life for a long time to come – but all of a sudden I found myself feeling that my vision for the future was bounded by my death. And that meant a significant shift in how I thought about our country’s future, about the future of my children, and about the future in general.

Reflecting about this change, I realized that the barrier that I had constructed psychologically as a reaction to my accident was no more sensible now than it would have been in the past.

All of us have a finite amount of time on this world. When we feel young it’s much easier for us to engage with a sense of an indefinite future.  When we get older it becomes harder. We have to re-create our view of the future, but still the ability to think about the long term future is important. It is part of what engages us in mentorship, in being a good parents, and in the ever more challenging task of keeping up with the changing world, and it is part of what makes life exciting and fun.