Twenty-five is a weird year. It’s the first birthday since 20 that I’ve actually felt older — or at least felt that everyone else expects me to feel older. “You’re practically 30, because you round up now,” some joke. “You’re now mid- to late-20s, no going back!” others warn. “You’re past your prime, man, you’ll start to feel the body wearing down, just get used to it,” still more advise.
It seems to be the first year that, in the collective consciousness, truly marks the beginning of some inescapably steady decline through adulthood. As if all the best years are now behind me. As if it’s too late to change direction. Too late to do something unexpected or magnificent. Too late to improve. Too late to deep-dive into creative projects.
And part of me, deep down, can’t help but feel there’s real truth in that. Most of my musical idols accomplished something great before their 25th birthdays. Radiohead released Pablo Honey in ’93 before Thom Yorke turned 25. Led Zeppelin released Led Zeppelin I, II, III and IV and Houses of the Holy before Robert Plant turned 25, which is insanity. Muse released two albums before Matthew Bellamy turned 25 and one just after.
Not to mention, I’m already well past any hope of accomplishing something spectacular as an athlete. It’s a sober realization when professional athletes who now look like boys to you succeed in feats you used to only, and sadly can still now only, dream of.
More discouraging, even, is the fact that many of my collegiate athlete peers now have this dispassionate resignation about them when it comes to athletic aspirations. Though still, truly, in their primes, so begins that culturally ordained surrender to budding beer bellies and withering strength and agility. To me, this is clearly far more the consequence of the challenge of reconciling the modern full-time job with a rigorous workout schedule than of some inescapable physical decline. In college, it was easy to chalk this “challenge” up to laziness. And yet, here I am with a full-time job, an ex-college soccer player, only exercising vigorously twice a week, and feeling my flexibility and strength dwindling ever so slightly day by day.
Movies? Elijah Wood was 19 when The Fellowship of the Ring was filmed. Business leaders? Steve Jobs and Bill Gates co-founded Apple and Microsoft when they were 21 and 19, respectively. Artists and poets? Frida Khalo and Pablo Neruda were producing now-famous works well before their twenty-fifth birthdays.
I could go on and on. It’s overwhelming and inspiring and unthinkable, all of it.
But why do I spend any time at all comparing myself to these one in a million success stories? There’s nothing for it. And why do I keep looking back asking myself if I did something wrong, or should’ve done something differently? Why do I even have this presumption in the first place, that it’s glory or bust in your 20s? Illustrious achievements now or idling in a regretful daze through empty halls later?
Do I even hold these lofty expectations, sincerely, or do I just think that I’m supposed to hold them? Do I want them, or am I supposed to want them? Is it both?
Is it an arrogant sense of self-worth or our society’s demented definition of success that has burdened me with these expectations? Am I the one that’s crazy, with delusions of grandeur, or is our culture responsible for this festering supposition of inadequacy? Perhaps it’s both, once more, one feeding off the other, buoying the insidious virus of improbable aspiration.
And it’s not just the abstract expectation of prominence that’s a problem. It’s also the challenge of rejoicing in the little advances, the day-to-day, moment-by-moment: an answer to a troublesome query here, asking the right question there, a new job here, a short-term goal met there, starting a blog, joining a team, building a community, making a friend, spotting an eagle.
Spotting an eagle! I have literally been sitting with friends when an eagle flew over, I pointed it out with glee, and didn’t get so much as a knee slap or a giggle or a “Well I’ll be damned.” What is wrong with us?! Look at what we’ve become!
The joy of the journey is lost in the quest for the end. It’s an illness, thick and sick throughout society. And it pulls on me daily. I do my best to glue my eyes to the present, the aromas, sounds, laughter across the room, tidbits of knowledge gained, meals eaten, pages turned in my novel, steps taken across the street, my good health, the presence of my friends and companions.
And yet, my attention peels away, to the world scuttling toward an ever-retreating finish line. I try to re-center, succeed for a moment, even. But sometimes I can’t resist. I race up alongside, snatching for an advantage, patiently biding my time until an opening appears. I have to get there first. The front of the line is so close, it seems.
It’s both a blessing and a curse. The tick-tock of the Clock of Expectations provides a powerful motivation I cherish in many ways while tainting every triumph, however major or slight, with a sour scent, a whisper through curtains when I’m on the verge of sleep, echoing, “more, more, more, more…” It drives me toward greater learning and productivity, what has been a bottomless well of satisfaction and fulfillment, while simultaneously amplifying my neuroses and paralyzing indecisiveness and existential nihilism, a murky veil muting sunny afternoons. “I’m not enough, I’m not enough, I’m not enough…”
And I get the sense that it never stops. No matter how high we might climb, the ceiling only unfolds further, revealing new layers unforetold, new dreams to cloud out the old. One, two, three, four, five — never sufficient. “More, more, more, more…” We peel back the coating, greedy like bears in beehives, licking success for sweetness desperately while silent stings puff up with lumps, a last-ditch effort our soul sends forth to remind us of our mortal flesh, of the beauty in moments passing us by, but we choose to ignore. “This isn’t enough, this isn’t enough, this isn’t enough…”
I am now an old hand at grief. My father passed when I was 20. My grandmothers when I was 21 and 22. My grandfather when I was 24. I face death as an imminent reality every single day. It greets me through the window when I wake. It sidles up to me on the sidewalk. It slips between my fingers and the keyboard. It occupies that idle brain space in the shower. It taps me on the shoulder when I’m about to shoot on goal, causing a millisecond’s hesitation.
It seems the inevitability of my death is the one thing that grips my heart with certainty.
Though surely morbid — and unpleasant as that thought may be to most in a society that all but denies the reality of death, with no productive, shared dialogue surrounding the occurrence — that certainty could actually be a liberating force. But, to date, it’s served as a healthy incentive as much as it has been a source of frenetic, unstable urgency. An abstract pressure lingering imminently above me, always. “Now or never,” it says, compressing.
Now or never. It’s not a terrible motto, taken without baggage. Not dissimilarly, my brother and I like to remind each other, “Don’t wait.” A private motto. One of hope and light. Dispelling the indolence of fear, the false limitless of time.
A shame it’s all been tinged with the dread of never being enough, doing enough.
Conceit vs. societal compulsion.
Obsession with success vs. a fear of failure.
Internal definitions vs. external validation.
All creating a mishmash of contradiction wrapped inside my sorry head. I’m not sure who I am or what I want or what I will become.
But I think I’m approaching a threshold, 25 the tipping point. I spent 20 to 25 searching, hiding, proactive, inactive, overconfident, uncertain, proud, self-effacing, overachieving, getting by, unstoppable, passive. Slowly but surely, I’ve been coaxing out those actions and traits that comprise my true form, supporting my true happiness, purging those toxic thoughts and behaviors characteristic of an encumbered self.
And I’ve realized, those other stories, those one in a million successes, those 20-year-old prodigies — that’s not me. That’s not my process. I didn’t zero in on one talent early and pursue it to the exclusion of all else so that I could be a superhero in one field by the time I was 25. That never interested me. So it was never going to be me. It was a crazy expectation to flirt with in the first place, abstract or not, reasonable or not, and it could only cause me massive global anxiety because it isn’t who I am.
Why was I comparing myself to success stories that don’t represent my process and present interests? Why was I nourishing indecision by internalizing how others define success?
Such is the unhealthy force exerted by society.
The Age of the Internet has only exacerbated this tendency. We have become inundated with information, too much to consume in a million lifetimes, much of which is shared in its final form, which is a real misfortune. You don’t see the process. You don’t internalize the blood, sweat, and tears poured into creations you consume for maybe a minute, maybe two, three if the creator is lucky, before you’re onto the next meme, editorial, 30-second video, photo series, and on.
As a creative person, it spins me round and round like a turntable. I feel I should be producing volumes of work. I scold myself for lacking prolificacy. It never occurs to me that each tidbit of creation I consume was produced by separate individuals, perhaps even a team of people, a whole floor of staff. It never occurs to me that creatives are lucky if their work ever reaches more than their circle of friends and acquaintances. It never occurs to me that prolificacy is an achievement accomplished over great lengths of time, with no obligatory start date.
My brother said something recently that brought tears to my eyes — which goes to show you how close to the chest I’ve been holding these expectations, this sense of inadequacy: “You have to stop worrying about other people. Just stop. Your process needs to matter. It needs to matter, because you matter. You need to believe that. That you matter, and that your process matters. Or you’ll never get anywhere. You’ll never be satisfied.”
The only day that you ever truly have your hands around is this day, today. Twenty-five is when I let go of my tight grasp on the future, my desperate clinging to the past, and step boldly into the present.