Twenty-five is a strange birthday. It’s the first since 20 in which everyone expects me to feel older. “You’re practically 30, because you round up now,” some joke. “Ah, your mid- to late-20s, no going back!” others warn.
It seems society has decided that 25 marks the beginning of some inescapable decline through adulthood. As if all the best years are now behind me, too late to do something magnificent.
And part of me feels there’s real truth in that. For one, it’s a tremendous challenge reconciling work life with a rigorous workout schedule. Discouragingly, many of my collegiate athlete peers already appear resigned to budding beer bellies and withering strength. In college, this “challenge” came off as laziness. And yet, here I am, an ex-college soccer player, only exercising vigorously twice a week, my flexibility and brawn slowly waning.
Music is just as depressing. All my idols — Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, and Muse — released numerous albums before their leads turned 25.
Movies? Elijah Wood was 19 when The Fellowship of the Ring was filmed. Business? Steve Jobs founded Apple when he was 21. Artists? Frida Khalo produced famous works well before 25.
I could go on and on. It’s overwhelming and unthinkable, all of it.
But why do I have this presumption in the first place, that it’s glory or bust by 25? Do I sincerely hold these lofty expectations, or just feel I am supposed to hold them? Is it arrogance or society’s demented definition of success that burdens me?
Perhaps it’s both, one feeding off the other, buoying the insidious virus of improbable aspiration.
There’s also the challenge of rejoicing in even the little successes: answering a troublesome query, asking the right question, meeting an incremental goal, starting a blog, joining a team, spotting an eagle!
I have pointed out an eagle while chatting with friends and didn’t get so much as a knee slap or a giggle. What gives?!
The joy of the journey is lost in the quest for the end. It’s an illness, thick and sick throughout society. I do my best to glue my eyes to the present— the aromas, vibrations, laughter, the breeze, my good health.
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 the lure is irresistible. I race up alongside, snatching for an advantage, patiently waiting for an opening. The front of the line appears so close!
The tick-tock of the Clock of Expectations is a powerful motivator, but it taints every triumph with a sour scent, a whisper through curtains when I’m on the verge of sleep, echoing, “More, more, more…” It amplifies my neuroses, a murky veil muting sunny afternoons. “I’m not enough, I’m not enough…”
And however high we might climb, the ceiling only unfolds further, revealing new dreams to cloud out the old. 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 the beauty in moments passing us by.
I am now an old hand at grief. My father passed when I was 20. Three grandparents passed over the next 5 years. I face death every 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 seems death is the one thing that grips my heart with certainty.
That certainty could be a liberating force. But, to date, it’s been more a source of frenetic, unstable urgency, an abstract pressure lingering overhead. “Now or never,” it says, compressing.
This weight has the power to dispel the indolence of fear, the false limitless of time. A shame it’s all been tinged with the dread of never being 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 will become.
But I’m approaching a threshold. I spent 20 to 25 searching, hiding, proactive, inactive, overconfident, uncertain, proud, self-effacing. Steadily, I’ve been coaxing out those traits that comprise my actualized form, purging toxic thoughts characteristic of an encumbered self.
And I’ve realized, those one in a million successes, those 20-year-old prodigies — that’s not my process. I didn’t pursue one talent to the exclusion of all else so I could be a superhero in one field by 25. That never interested me, so it was never going to be me. It was an unrealistic expectation to flirt with, and it could only cause me massive global anxiety because it isn’t who I am.
Such is the unhealthy force exerted by society.
The Internet only exacerbates this ailment. We are inundated with information, much of which is shared in its final form. You never internalize the process, the tears poured into creations you consume for a minute at most.
It spins me round like a turntable. I scold myself for lacking prolificacy. It never occurs to me there’s a different individual behind each creation. It never occurs to me that we’re lucky to ever reach an audience beyond our circle of friends. It never occurs to me that prolificacy is rarely achieved.
My brother said something recently that brought me to tears, evidencing just how deep this sense of inadequacy runs: “You have to stop worrying about other people. Your process needs to matter, because you matter. You need to believe that. Or you’ll never get anywhere. You’ll never be satisfied.”
The only day that you ever truly have your hands around is 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.