Every year with the inevitable return of the '30 Under 30' headlines, my self-loathing resurfaces with a familiar jeer, you're another year closer to 30 without making something of yourself.
Not that I have nothing to be proud of, because I do—I own a house, I'm raising a child, and I have a loving relationship and a steady job. But these achievements haven’t landed my name on a Forbes people-to-watch list or garnered global fame. I haven’t invented an app churning out millions of dollars per year, I haven’t finished that bestselling novel I always told myself I’d write, and I haven’t disrupted any major industries. So my small personal achievements look a little flimsy when I compare myself to my more successful peers.
Maybe this internalized pressure to succeed early in life is just part of the Millennial zeitgeist, or maybe it’s been around longer than that. Have young people always pushed themselves to do it all? And to do it as soon as possible? I think of a line from the musical Hamilton: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”
I feel daily like I am running out of time. But three or four times per year that feeling comes to a head, the guilt rises inside me like bile, and I have a minor meltdown when I realize how far I am from accomplishing my goals. Life has a way of pulling you from your intentions. You go to college and think, When I’ve graduated I’ll write that novel. Then you graduate and get a job and it turns into, Once I feel more settled at work I’ll do it. You have a kid, you take on more responsibilities with each passing year, and eventually you think, That’s it, the opportunity has passed.
There’s an argument to be made for doing something right now instead of always waiting until life gets easier. After all, life will always be complicated. You can’t fall back on the same excuse forever. Yet certain things in life can wait while others feel more urgent to me now. Caring for my child and creating strong bonds for my family—these are worthy responsibilities that I should embrace while I can.
We forget sometimes that life is long. In other words, saying yes to modest achievements and responsibilities now does not prevent me from saying yes to other, more seemingly glamorous achievements later in life.
Julia Child was 39 years old when she published her first cookbook. Vera Wang decided to become a designer when she was 40. And Laura Ingalls Wilder published the first Little House on the Prairie book at 65. These women who became household names and major influences in their respective industries spent decades focused on other goals, other responsibilities. It took them years to realize their calling, and in every case there was failure on the road to huge success.
But their age doesn’t diminish their legacy when we think of them now. In some cases, I imagine having more time to accomplish something great actually helped them get there. With more life experience comes more wisdom and more skill.
So that’s why I’m giving myself permission to wait.
Of course I’ll do what I can, here and there, to put myself just a little bit closer to my big goals. That bestselling novel may not come for many years still, but in the meantime I’ll write articles and short stories. I’ll write letters to my kid. I’ll free write to clear my mind. In other words, I’ll practice my craft when I feel inspired or motivated.
But I refuse to give into that feeling that I’m not living up to my potential, that there's hundreds of more successful people around me. I have my whole life ahead of me to spend deciding what I actually want to achieve and the best way to achieve it. I’ll focus on the more urgent needs right now, like my child and my fledgling career. The other stuff can wait, and that’s OK.