Wisdom for accepting getting older? I’m still having a hard time accepting that I’m 30 and no where near where I expected to be in life. I feel so behind my peers and my own expectations, and I feel like time is slipping away before me.
This very real, very relatable question brings up three separate (but related!) anxieties:
-Expectations of life are different from the reality
-You feel you’re falling behind your peers
-You feel like time is slipping away
I have some good news to begin with: You’re a human! Welcome to being human! These three worries are absolute classics. This is how everybody feels. Yes, even her. Yep, even them. Oh yes, even him!! Your most put-together, externally-successful, dream-job-at-age-26, always-has-her-nails-done friend is also having a hard time accepting many parts of her life in comparison to others’. People tend to be really good at masking this insecurity, but everyone has it on some level. And if they don’t have it now, they’ll have it later, or maybe they had it before you did.
Let’s address the last one first: You feel like time is slipping away. My friend Jedidiah Jenkins has a great TED talk about this and it's really stuck with me. There are a couple easy ways to slow down time: put yourself in the way of challenge, and introduce your brain to something new. Our brains love ruts—including thought patterns—and they will go on autopilot if something is easy for us. Think about the first time you took a really tough exercise class or a training on something baffling: that was probably the longest hour of your life! If you want time to start slowing down, let yourself be new/bad at something.
Switch up the algorithm; give your brain a shock. This could mean moving to a foreign country, and it could mean committing to a twice-a-month cooking class. The world has many options available for those who want to shake things up a bit.
Okay, now: the falling behind your peers one. Let’s get this out of the way—we’re all falling behind our peers. If someone seems “ahead” of their current peers, it means that there’s a whole other set of new peers they feel they’re falling behind. Look up "hedonic treadmill." Okay great, now that we’ve acknowledged that, I’ll tell you about the last time I felt like I was falling behind all my peers.
I was 28, which, yes, is young—but so is 30. So is 55. You can feel “behind” at any age, and you can feel young at any age. I must say, I felt really old at 28. I didn’t have a boyfriend, I didn’t have a career, I felt stuck. I've only felt old when I've felt stuck. I was living in DC, which is a very career-focused city, and I worked for minimum wage in retail. My friends were making twice as much as me, and yet they were complaining about their salaries. I felt embarrassed about my job and didn’t have any cool side hustle. I would occasionally apply for a job that I just knew would permanently fulfill me, and when I didn’t get it, it felt like a miscarriage of a path--a potential life I'd never get to live.
I was lucky enough to hit rock bottom that year. Lucky, because rock bottom completely upends and transforms your life. When there’s nowhere to go but up, so many things stop mattering. Like rejection, for example. Like fear of putting myself out there. Everything that made me question whether I should send my work out for public scrutiny just stopped mattering. I was in survival-mode. So I made a goal: Post one illustration on Instagram every day for a year. Send my work out to agents, and start writing a book.
A few months into this goal, I had yet to gain any impressive number of followers, and I was still getting rejected. BUT, here’s what changed: I didn’t care that my job wasn’t fancy, and I wasn’t desperate for external validation. I had something I really loved and cared about, and I was so devoted to it that I would leave parties to run home and draw to make sure I got my Post of the Day up on Instagram. Not many people knew I had this hobby, and it felt like a thrilling secret to know that I was actually this somewhat creative person who had now amassed three months of daily illustrations—one of my longest relationships!
It wouldn’t have mattered if it ultimately turned into my career. I miss the days when it was such a motivator and joy for me to have this whole other life that people didn’t know about. I once heard that true self-esteem comes from the things we do in private, when no one’s looking. It gives you a quiet confidence at a dinner party to know that you climbed a mountain earlier that day, or that you have this whole other Instagram Illustration Life. People are constantly trying to prove so much to others, and when you stop doing that, it’s empowering and exciting.
And you know why I had so many ideas for illustrations that whole year? Because I’d lived a dang life before I started. If I’d gotten a job at the New Yorker when I was 22, that would have been somewhat cool, but I’d have nothing to say! By the time I was 28, with lots of relationships, an all-over-the-place resume, and plenty of embarrassing/funny/amusing stories, I actually had a lot of material. The growing season was long, and the harvest season was short.
If you’re not in a rock bottom place right now, you might have to do some DIY work: You might have to upend your life by yourself.
I’m not talking about a move across the ocean or even getting a tattoo sleeve. A really good way to upend your life is to think of a goal. Think about that one thing that you’ve always meant to get around to, but didn’t have the energy, discipline, or courage. Maybe you’ve wanted to learn how to salsa dance, or get into photography, or learn Russian, or, yes, run a marathon. Start saving for a big bold trip. Begin creating a garden on your fire escape. If it’s a measurable goal, all the better (i.e. “be a kinder person” is a lot harder to track than “become a competitive skateboarder”).
Make it a challenging goal, so that time moves slower. Make it an impressive goal, so you can brag to your peers. Make it a surprising goal, so that the reality of your life will definitely look different from expectations—but in a fun way.
Now, let’s talk about expectations vs. reality. Again, I cannot possibly begin to stress how much everyone feels this way, on some level. Even as someone with a full-time creative career—which I realize is the total jackpot for many people—it’s nothing like I ever would have anticipated. It’s challenging in ways that I’m sort of glad I didn’t know about before. I’m grateful every day for it, as I’m sure you’re grateful for parts of your life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t question it, or really struggle with certain aspects of it.
But let’s focus back on you: And that would be my #1 piece of advice for this particular worry. I don’t care about these peers you’re referencing, and I don’t care about all your expectations; I care about YOU. Right now. I care about how you feel. And I can guarantee that the people who love you also care about you right now, in this moment, and how you feel. Nobody’s actively comparing you to anyone else. Nobody’s wondering why your life didn’t follow the schedule you wrote out long ago, before you had the pleasure of getting to know yourself as a full person in this frustrating, surprising, intense time in history.
Your loved ones might be thinking about whether you ended up going to that event you wanted to, or if you’re planning a birthday party or not, or how your pet’s doing, how your weekend was, or what you’re going to be for Halloween. They’re not thinking about your expectations, nor are they thinking about your peers. They’re thinking about YOU. Right now. Today. Maybe tomorrow. They are fully aware that you are a different person than your peers, and they like that about you.
There’s a line from Little Women that I always regurgitate to friends who are wondering why their path seems so chaotic, so fractured, so different from other peoples’: “You have so many extraordinary gifts. How can you expect to lead an ordinary life?”
Whether or not you have extraordinary gifts, the sentiment remains: Original people have original lives. If you want something in this life that’s more rare, more difficult to attain, your journey is just going to be a lot trickier. It just is!! If you’re interested in settling, you can easily do that—but I don’t get the sense that you are...or you would have done it already.
Have you ever heard of “arrival fallacy?” I believe I first read about it in Rainesford Stauffer’s book, which I HIGHLY recommend to you: the false belief that “Once I get this thing,” “Once I do this thing”—then I’ll arrive and be happy forever. This is such a dangerous and funny belief, that I’ve only mitigated by seeing my life as a map rather than a ladder.
Instead of thinking about a linear path with levels to attain and coins to collect like a Super Mario Brother, start thinking about your life as a big map that you sprawl across an old-timey desk. Let your hands glide all over it--really feel those mountains and oceans--and think about where you’ve been: to this friend group, to this neighborhood, to that relationship, to that time you were really into jam bands.
Instead of thinking, “I’m on Level 5 and my friends are on Level 10,” take a look at your life map, and maybe consider “I’m in New Zealand right now, and my other friend is in Antarctica, and my other friend is in the Netherlands.” Different places, different joys, different challenges. Maybe you get jealous of one because she’s got some cool fuzzy insulated gear, but that’s because she lives in the Arctic and has to keep warm. Maybe she’s jealous of the sheep meadow you’ve found yourself in.
There’s no competition. There’s no end game. There’s no prize at the end. You’re simply in a different spot on the map, and the only thing in your control is to decide what to do while you’re there. An experience becomes completely yours when you realize you don't know the rules--so you have to make your own. You invent a new way of doing something just by virtue of not knowing what you're doing. This is the time to start making your life your own. Not your peers' lives, not the life your Past Self envisioned, but the life that belongs to you, right now, right here, wherever you find yourself on the map. May I suggest creating a goal, and imagine, by this time next year, you might find that you’ve traveled to a whole new part of yourself. And by then you’ll be 31, which rhymes with thirty-FUN, which is when the good part of life really gets started.