Milestones, while temporally predictable, are nonetheless arbitrary as they concern the arc of one’s life. Reaching a benchmark is theoretically an opportune moment to take stock, to assess accomplishments, to debrief failures, to plan for the future. In practice, these anniversaries are often convenient excuses to celebrate, regardless of whether they arrive at a time when such is appropriate or warranted. Usually loath to self-congratulate, probably to the point of dysfunction, I just crossed two Rubicons of note and am allowing myself to mark their passing. The publication of the paper version of this article coincides with my 40th birthday and the occasion of my 200th Open Bar column.
These are big, round numbers, to be sure, but bear only fleeting importance. Physically and mentally more youthful and joyful than fifteen years prior, I am choosing to embrace rather than fear the silvery heathering of my sideburns. While I have become more practiced in the art and science of writing, the process excites and confounds me more than ever. As a father, I have been granted the gift of seeing this world with the inquisitiveness and naïveté of a child, despite my advancing age. As a writer and thinker and speaker and counselor, I am constantly meeting new and unexpected challenges, showing the limitless potential of my chosen vocations; no work is ever truly done. Today marks not the end of any era, but a roving spot on the continuum.
Although turning forty or writing a lot of columns does not make me inherently wise, I have amassed certain wisdom. Much of it is either comically esoteric or overly specific, but there is one nugget that pervades, that informs much of my decision-making, that is the bedrock of the advice that I render to others. Faced with any choice, I consider the impact that it will have on my future self. This frame of reference is amazingly revelatory; it takes the immediate moment and places it within a larger context.
This vantage point inspires me to actions that I would rather not take at that specific time, but which will ease the burdens of future T.J. This can be something as simple as making Violet’s lunch the night before, so that the morning is less harried and breakfast with that sweet girl that much more enjoyable. Certainly, it wasn’t always pleasurable to buckle down in all of those AP classes, to test myself in high-level college courses, to pore over tomes in the law library, to put in late nights at the office as a young associate. Yet, those years of endeavoring paid off handsomely: now I can better control my own destiny.
Treating your future self properly does not always require delaying gratification. Indeed, many of the most important ways that I secured my future happiness seemed irresponsible, even in the present. Chief among them was the decision to leave a prestigious job, and the entire workforce, for two years in my late twenties in order to travel the world and embrace the simplicity of dirtbag living. While it had a deleterious effect on my retirement savings, it also imbued me with experiences and values that made me the man, father, son, and friend that I am today.
Future T.J.’s bones may ache from a litany of hard landings, his joints may be inflamed by too many psychotic adventures, his eyes may be crossed from reading tons of tomes, his heart may be burdened by the weight of solving multitudes of other people’s problems, but he will be happy. By drinking straight from the elixir of life, I have forestalled the possibility that sixty-year-old T.J. will lament the lameness of his antecedents. It is a birthday gift to myself, two decades early.