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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

The 10-Year Test: The Best Way to See if You're on the Right Career Track

Picture this: You wake up (perhaps from a minor head injury or a very deep sleep) and forget everything from the past 10 years. In your world, it’s 2004: George W. has won a second term, Martha Stewart has been convicted, Apple just introduced the iPod Mini, and you cried your head off at The Notebook.

This also means that you also believe you’re 10 years younger than you actually are, having (at least for now) borne none of the scars, disappointments, or joys of the recent decade. You must now set about collecting clues about who you’ve become.

This is the plot of Liane Moriarty’s popular 2010 novel What Alice Forgot, and while it makes for an entertaining read, it’s also a valuable tool for introspection: After all, what would you think of the life you’re living now if you could view it with a cold eye? If you had to figure out who you are now based not on memory, but empirical evidence?

I’ve thought about this long after (spoiler alert) Alice gets her memory back. Reason being that so much of what we’re fed (be it in the self-help, career, or otherwise success-oriented literature) tells us to fixate on the future: Set goals, draw up vision boards; picture yourself five, 10, 20 years from now.

In other words, keep your eye on the horizon. There’s an optimism to that, and a danger, too—the temptation to assume that things will be better “when,” or simply better then; that all of life is designed to sweep infinitely upward, with more and more to come if we can just manifest it, Secret-style.

Instead of imagining and envisioning what hasn’t happened, look at what has. If you could see your life (your job, your home, the people in it) as a stranger would, what would you think of it—and yourself?

Alice looks with wonder at her lovely home, her swimming pool, her impeccable clothes, her once plump body now lithe and muscular. She’s aghast at her hectic schedule, her foolish friends, the way people treat her—including her daughter, whom she doesn’t know, and the husband she’s in the midst of divorcing, but has no idea why.

The clues and the cues reveal that while she is by all accounts beautiful and admirable and organized, she has also become regimented, hard, and unforgiving—the very kind of woman she used to loathe.

I call this the 10-Year Test, and I encourage you to take it. I’ll go first:
Ten years ago, I had recently turned 30 and was living in a spacious one-bed in a suburb of Boston. I was dating a former boss, whom I adored, and had just gotten my first publishing job as an editor at a magazine. I was thrilled beyond belief, but also insecure that I had a bit of catch-up to do. I remember crying one night because a younger editor knew more websites than me (it was 2004, after all.)

In accepting that magazine job, I had also taken a $15,000 pay cut and was working nights and weekends selling jewelry at home parties to fill the gaping hole in my income.

I surprised myself by being very good at sales and wondered how or if I’d use that skill later. My sisters were both pharma reps making close to six figures and I worried (at the very nice pool in my very boring apartment complex in Waltham) that I’d never earn enough, and would ultimately be forced to take up some rich stranger on his offer of $1 million dollars to sleep with me for the night. Not that I had said offer, but if I did, I warned my family, I would very seriously consider it.

So, if you told me that, 10 years hence, I would earn enough working for myself to rent my own studio apartment in Manhattan, write for major publications, including my own column (ta da!), appear regularly on TV, and have enough cash left over to eat sushi once a week and get regular pedicures, I would have thought the reason was because I’d died and gone to heaven.

I would have also been tickled pink at the fact that I was dating an attractive, talented young musician from Brooklyn or that I could expertly navigate the NYC subway system. I would be surprised by my long hair (which I always used to keep short), my tall boots, the body that I kept in shape thanks to regular runs through Central Park. (Central Park! I would have said. Isn’t that dangerous?)

In other words, if somehow the universe folded back on itself and I could have had coffee with this older version of myself, I would have been impressed. I would have wanted to be me. Now, that’s saying something.

What my younger self doesn’t yet know is that the flipside to that freedom is isolation. That I’m not as sure about what I want as I assumed I’d be at this point. The only thing she and I know well is the familiar sting of that punishing inner voice that hasn’t changed, even when everything else has. But in taking a tour of my life through younger eyes, the day-to-day falls away for a moment, and I realize how good I have it, and how the decisions I made have paid off.

Ok, your turn.

Look around—at your job, your home, your handbag. What do you do all day, and do you like it? What do you carry around with you and do you need it? What’s in your fridge, your bathroom cabinet, your bank account? Chances are, you may be worth more (perhaps quite a bit more) than you were 10 years ago.

But weighing the money against your mood, what is it worth, and what is it costing you?

Look at your body: How has it changed, grown, worsened, improved? How would you describe it if it belonged to someone else (in fact, I bet you’d be a lot kinder)? What do you love or admire about it?

What about the people in your life? Who are they—and can you say that you’re glad they’re there? If you’re partnered, is this the kind of person you wanted to be with back then, and if not, why are you with that person now?

And now the big question: Is the person you are now the one you hoped you would be?

I’m all for goal-setting, for thinking, dreaming, and envisioning a fantabulous future. Keeping the twin engines of hope and ambition running is what gets me out of bed in the morning. But rather than try to just get ahead of or be better than you are now, you’d be wise to stop every so often and check yourself against what a younger you would think.

Here’s why: You owe it to her. The younger you had big plans and dreams, and quite frankly worked her butt off to get you to where you are now. With your 20/20 hindsight, it’s easy to look back and see how everything fell into place—but she didn’t know that! She had to do it blindly, with no idea how it’d turn out. You may think she owes you a debt of gratitude, but in fact, you owe her.

Because in many ways, she’s braver. Maybe she was naive and optimistic or perhaps pessimistic to a fault, and there’s a lot of things you would tell her if you could, but she expected the best of you, and still does.

Now as you look ahead to the next 10 years, you too have big dreams and sketched-out plans. You’re doing what you can to get there. The future you, the one looking back from the precipice of 2025, is well aware. And she already owes everything to you.

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