Why we should stop measuring success by our age
Once, in high school, my chemistry teacher had us write down where we thought we would be in 10 years as a first-day icebreaker activity. I was 15 at the time, but it has stuck with me ever since. My teenage brain calculated 25 to be a much more stable place in our life cycle, apparently, so I wrote that I would be married, have at least one child, own my own house, and be steadily employed in my dream career. YIKES. When I actually turned 25, I wasn’t even dating seriously. The thought of children scared me half to death and I was sharing a house with a friend. Also, I was working as a ninth-grade English teacher, a profession I found only tolerable at the time.
Nonetheless, I panicked. The anxiety started on my 24th birthday, because I knew I wasn’t even close to achieving the goals I’d set for myself in high school, and by 25, when I had none of the security I had promised myself I would, I felt like a failure. Clearly, at one time, I had determined what I wanted out of life, and I felt like I was letting down the young dreamer in me by being so unlike the version of herself that she imagined. Meanwhile every day, it seemed like someone I went to school back then with was posting engagement pictures and wedding pictures and pictures of their newborn children to social media. Why was I so behind?
I know I’m not alone in this. Most of my friends feel the same way. We’re 27 now, but a lot of us aren’t where we expected to be at this point in our lives. Obviously, we can’t all be failures. We’ve just been given, or perhaps given ourselves, a convoluted idea of what our lives are supposed to look like. Which is why I declare that it’s time to stop measuring success by age. Hear me out:
Age is arbitrary when it comes to life experience.
You know how some kids have their first kiss at 11 and others at 20? That’s because there is no set age for when a first kiss is supposed to happen. The same is true for every other experience in life. My best friend has a beautiful daughter, and she is a wonderful mom. I, on the other hand, have a graduate degree. We’re both proud of ourselves, but it does seem like she’s reached a level of maturity that I haven’t. That said, like the teenager who’s never been kissed, I’m just not ready yet. Still, I trust that I will have the things I want in life in my own time.
Obsessing over your age might force you into making choices you’ll regret just because you’re racing against an imaginary clock.
I rushed into buying a car in my early 20s. The car was a symbol of independence, and I thought owning one meant I was a grownup who had her life together. But I have always regretted buying that car. I wasn’t ready for the payments, I’m not even sure I like the car itself, and now I’m stuck with it just because I felt like I needed to move forward with my life. Imagine if that car had been a house or kids? Regret is sometimes inevitable no matter what, but you can spare yourself a large dose of it by asking what you really, truly want versus forcing yourself to do something because you think you should. Few people find happiness that way.
You’ll fail to see what you have accomplished.
You’ve probably done and will continue to do a lot of things in your life that weren’t on a to-do list. For example, I went to graduate school, and that was never in my life plan. I travelled all over France. And I was in a band that actually got paid for gigs. I’m so proud of all of those things, and not one of them was on that list I wrote when I was 15. If you only look at what you don’t have or what you failed to accomplish, you’re going to miss out on celebrating the many exciting things you’ve done instead.
You will inevitably compare yourself with others.
So what if Jane has her dream house by 30? You can go visit her. In the meantime, focus on you. People’s circumstances are different and they’re constantly changing. Some friends will earn more money than you, some friends will live in cheaper cities, some friends will have three kids before you have any, if you have any. Life changes pretty quickly. You never know when you’ll meet the right person or land the lucrative job. At 32, maybe. Or 52. Think about this: Julia Child didn’t enroll in culinary school until she was 37! Vera Wang didn’t start designing wedding gowns until she was 40! Mary Wesley was 70 when she published her first book! OK, if you haven’t achieved any of your goals by 75, I give you permission to start panicking, but not before. Don’t mistake envy of others for real ambition. It will wreak havoc on your priorities.
With age, comes experience.
Remember how much more you learned in college than in high school? Maybe you completely changed your major or your political affiliation or your opinion on Russian literature. You changed, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. We want everything right away, but we haven’t necessarily earned it yet. For example, very few people are fortunate enough to land a job they love right out of college because they don’t yet have the education or work experience to get those jobs. Everything can’t come at once. That’s why we keep going: To work, to learn, to anticipate the future.
Age anxiety keeps you from enjoying The Now.
Here’s an idea: How about we all just slow down and be thankful for what we have? If we constantly approach life like a to-do list, we will miss out on the actual living. I’m finally in a happy relationship. I live alone in a beautiful apartment and sing regularly at an open-mic night. I’ve lived in North Carolina next to the ocean and New York City, which is pretty huge for a small-town Indiana girl. I’ve lived a pretty fun life, despite the fact that I don’t have the incredibly domestic one I’d imagined for myself at 15. But am I proud of myself? Yes. Am I content? Yes, to the extent that I’m on the right track, even though I still have so many things that I want to do.
Here’s the thing: If we’re lucky, life is pretty long. And if we waste time obsessing over 25, 30, and 40, then what? We don’t enjoy our birthdays, and the last 40 years don’t count at all?! We have plenty of time. Let’s vow to enjoy it.
[Image via here]