You get a wealth of advice in the time after college – from family, commencement speeches, blogs written from a 20-something perspective (you know the type). And while I value everything I’ve heard, somehow, this advice has resonated most.
The scene: a sticky summer’s day in New York City. I was a rising senior in college, ambitious but unsure about what, exactly, I wanted out of life.
At the time, I was an intern at a children’s publishing company, and an editor had agreed to sit with me for an informational interview. Over fancy lemonade, she told me about her circuitous career: she grew up in L.A., worked in women’s health advocacy after college, led creative writing workshops for youth, then finally came onto the New York City publishing scene.
I noted that it was a surprising trajectory from someone in publishing, an industry that has a notoriously linear ladder to climb. As we people-watched passersby, she took a sip and dispensed words that have stayed with me since:
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to do or be a certain thing by a certain age.
Maybe her advice was memorable because it compelled me to reconsider a norm that I had internalized and had never thought to challenge before.
Here’s what I mean: We live in a society that idealizes the Forbes “30 Under 30” list and others like it. A friend pointed out that when a 24-year-old debut novelist writes a bestseller, the publisher markets the author’s youth as much as they do her book. Somehow, when you accomplish something in your 20s, the accomplishment itself is sexier, more captivating, precocious.
While these individuals are great and accomplished in their own right, the media hype that surrounds them tacitly and problematically implies that somehow, accomplishments matter most in our 20s, then depreciate over time. Our culture of success, particularly in the arts and technology, is anxiously obsessed with youth.
Obviously, having high expectations and being goal-driven isn’t a bad thing at. The drive to learn and to create new things is amazing and something you should hold onto fiercely.
But arbitrary age-based expectations are toxic for everyone. Besides tacitly devaluing the achievements of older people, it pressures people under 30 themselves into thinking that if they haven’t reached a desired point in their careers, or if they are not married, or if they are not xyz by a certain age, then they’ve failed. While ambition is great, motivation shouldn’t come from feeling like you’re racing to meet a societally-imposed deadline.
As with most wisdom, living by this advice is far easier said than done. Believe me, I still get sucked into the allure of those wunderkind lists because they just seem so flippin’ glamorous.
In fact, this past weekend, a friend and I fretted about how desperately we wanted to make the most of our 20s. We’re both pretty ambitious people with a lot of goals and interests, and now that school no longer sets our agendas, our greatest fear was wasting time. We were afraid we’d waste our energies pursuing unimportant things, or that we’d make the wrong choices and have to backpedal. We would lament like, “Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at the age of 19! For fun! What have I been doing with my life?? Garhgiadakefsdf” and so on.
But the advice from the editor is a good self-check. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to stick to a timeline. It forces me to put this decade, and my life, into perspective. It forces me to reclaim my time, and reclaim my uncertainty as something that’s a part of my growth.
Especially if you (like me) only have a hazy outline of what you want right now, you shouldn’t feel pressure to have to define and accomplish your dreams before some age marker. For all we know, our dreams could take longer than we expect, or change radically, or be better than what we could have planned before. The exciting part is in defining, and continually redefining, your dreams – on your own terms.