At lunch the other day, someone was marveling how uber-editor Tina Brown keeps taking on new endeavors, every one of which would be a full time profession for most people. Just hearing the list made me go home and take a nap.
When I awoke, I began seriously thinking about not what makes Tina (only a few years younger than me) run, but about why some of us are having an increasingly difficult time getting up to a sprint. Does our ambition necessarily wane with the years? Do our professional and creative drives go the way of our sexual? (That one we can at least blame on hormones) And is it all that different for women than for men?
Regardless of age, ambition is clearly something most women consider carefully. In the new biography of Jane Fonda, the actress claims she lost the lead in Splendor In the Grass because when asked by director Elia Kazan if she was ambitious, she automatically said no. A writer friend who has interviewed the most famous women in the world for decades says the only one who ever admitted to being overtly ambitious was Catherine Zeta Jones (determined to match her husband Oscar for Oscar). The word is loaded and steeped in the long-held belief that too much power just can't be all that feminine.
Ambition, furthermore, has to do with goals. God bless those women like Tina Brown and Hillary Clinton, who see a magazine they could save or an office they could hold better than the incumbent and go for it. They seem able to think and dream long term even as the time ahead gets shorter. (Either that or they can never stop wondering if they could have arrived without such esteemed husbands.) I am sure I stand with the majority of those at midlife and beyond who simply no longer see our names in lights, or hungrily target the next hurdle.
Oh, I make myself a list of goals every week: but they tend to be not of the "run for president" or "take over Newsweek" variety: more along the lines of "finish reading that damn book already" or "call the picture framer." Ambition was for my younger years, but that does not mean I don't want to continue to feel stimulated and invigorated and even challenged.
But even those take effort, and the more accurate characteristic I wonder about these days is motivation. Surely, this need not droop along with the body parts. Yet, I can sometimes literally feel it exiting my body. I may get momentarily excited about taking on a new project -- be it writing or buying tickets to a new play or planning a dinner party -- and whoops, there it goes. "Oh, someone has already written it better." "They are going to ask me to "login" and who the hell remembers all the passwords of our lives?" "All those phone calls or emails to find the right date."
To paraphrase the old line, every time I get the urge to do it, I lie down till the urge goes away.
I sometimes wonder: Is this slow-mo what aging feels like in its most primal form? As former passions -- I haven't played tennis or danced all year! -- go by the wayside one by one? Clearly, some of this is a question of sheer energy. Most of us -- Tina aside -- simply have a finite amount of it, and can only do so much as bodies become more brittle and minds become a tad less sharp. We watch our kids start their nights at eleven p.m. and wonder if we were ever that young. (Which is a good time to remind ourselves they woke up at noon while we were in the gym by seven.)
I prefer to think that motivation and drive may simply take a different form as we get older: priorities become clearer (health, fitness, friendships) and there is more perspective about what in fact brought us the most pleasure in the past. (My best bylines were my kids, etc.) Even though Boomers have long life expectancies and we intend to remain un-retired and look and stay fit all the way, we do begin to edit what we do with our time and who we spend it with.
"Ambition is often determined by higher titles, more money, more people working for you," says psychologist Dr. Vivian Diller. "But at a certain age, we feel a different kind of motivation which is not necessarily about seeking an endgame. The outcome becomes inner satisfaction."
A good and positive outlook, indeed. I recently attended the semifinals of the U.S. Open during which Roger Federer was taken down by a considerably younger (tennis years being like dog years) Novak Djokovic. With heartfelt empathy, I sensed Federer experiencing what so many of us are experiencing in our own lives: bursts of drive followed by sustained periods of lassitude. At his press conference following the match, he remarked about the risky shot Djokovic took at the end -- which paid off in victory. It was considered ungracious sportsmanship but I felt his fatigue.
I do not disparage those who are younger for their boundless, even reckless energy. Nor do I begrudge Tina Brown her risk taking and whirlwind activities (or envy the stress that comes with them). Some believe we fight aging by slowing down, taking more time for the stuff that will matter most in the end: others obviously feel you fight it by speeding up. Like a lot of women -- and men, I should assume -- I waver between thinking "I'll have what she's having" to "has she thought of switching to decaf?"
My current antidote for the slow-mo? I take an un-safe course in the college I have returned to; I rejoin the dance class I attended for years; I call the travel agent about trips to India. I may not make the trip, I may cut out of dance before the difficult routine begins, and I may barely pass the class. But the sheer act of calling, trying, signing up makes me know I am not totally devoid of drive yet.