I don’t know about you, but I am a work-in-progress. When I was young, I’d tell myself I’d have it all figured out when I was in my 20s. In my twenties I passed the buck to my thirties. You get the picture. Still, I’d absolutely have “it” figured out by the time I turned fifty. Here I am at the half-century mark and I am still trying to figure things out. I have an idea now that maybe, just maybe, I’ll never quite figure it out.
There is something odd that turning fifty has done to me. I am still compulsively trying to improve in almost everything I do. On the one hand, “fifty” acts as a kind of shot-clock. Its countdown says, you better figure things out soon. On the other hand, “fifty” gives me an impatient look, rolls its eyes, and says, I can’t believe you haven’t figured this out yet.
What is there to figure out? Well everything. I don’t know when it started, but I am constantly telling myself I can improve at this thing or that. I should work out more, I tell myself. I’m only fifty, and if I come up with the right regimen, I could still have a chance at playing shortstop for the New York Yankees, right?
The books I read are filled with marginal notes (holographic1 and digital) with ways I can improve things based on the example of others. For the last year I’ve been thinking I could organize my day better, but how? Then, last week I came across this passage while reading H. W. Brands’s biography of Franklin Roosevelt, A Traitor to His Class:
Roosevelt’s White House day typically began a bit past eight in the morning…
“Too late for me,” I noted. I prefer to be up with the sun. “Arthur Prettman would,” it continues,
bring breakfast and a stack of morning newspapers. Roosevelt scanned the front pages and read the editorials of the papers which generally included The New York Times and Herald Tribute, the Washington Post and Times-Herald, the Baltimore Sun, and the Chicago Tribune.
“What can I learn from this?” I noted. I read three papers: the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. I tend to start with the Post’s metro section and I never skip an obituary for someone who lived to at least 100 years old. Then I skim the front pages of all three, and finally, tackle the editorials. Often the obituaries are the most interesting part of the news, which I why I start with them.
I have a ton of print magazine subscriptions and I try to read one feature article a day, jotting notes about what I can learn from it.
I have notes sitting around with titles like “Rules to Live By” and “Ideas for a Daily Workout Routine.” They are works-in-progress, much like me.
I am constantly looking for ways to improve. Big ways and small ways. When three loads of laundry are piled on our bed, as I fold it I wonder: is there a better way to do this? Doing the dishes I wonder: is there a more efficient way to get the kitchen cleaned up after dinner? At work I’ll iterate through several versions of slides looking for the best possible way to present information.
Drifting off to sleep at night I wonder: did I learn any new words today? When interacting with the kids, could I have done anything better? Been more empathetic about the complicated story they told me about what happened at school? Could I have helped out more with the various activities that go on during the day? If the answer is yes, then how?
I used to let these thoughts keep me up at night. Now, I’ll jot them down so that I can think about them in the morning. In that sense, I have improved a little. I fall asleep much faster than I used to.
Now, if I could only figure out how to stay asleep through the night. But I’ll save that for another time. Maybe when I am sixty and fully retired, I’ll sleep through the night. That gives me about ten years to work on it.
This is what I mean. I am a work-in-progress.
Written on April 22, 2022.
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- I’m using the term in its less common definition, “written entirely in the handwriting of its author.” ↩