This morning I was reading an article about how age affects women more harshly than it affects men because of societal expectations of a woman’s “prime”. It’s interesting, because I never think about my age in terms of when I’ll be past my prime, or when I’ll stop being able to have babies, or when I’ll not be able to get a man anymore. Those things are not in the least bit important to me. The concept that at some point I will stop being relevant or sexy or loved or wanted because I’m old seems like the stupidest thing ever and I just don’t think about it.
But still, as a 22 year old, I often feel past my prime. I feel like I have lost the opportunities that I had and squandered what potential people told me was there. I’m certain I’m not the only one who feels like this, because I’ve been told by others that they feel like they’re behind or they’ve missed out or they haven’t done enough and they’ll never be perfect enough to achieve their dreams.
This cuts across genders, although I’ve personally seen it more in females. What has this generation been told that they somehow feel if they haven’t won a Nobel Prize by the time they get out of college then they’re useless? Because that’s the overwhelming sense I get from my friends and peers: no matter what I accomplish it will never be enough and I should have done it sooner anyway because I was supposed to be a prodigy.
Let’s try to put this into perspective through a few choice anecdotes. I have a friend who’s brilliant. She retains facts like nobody’s business and will excitedly tell you EVERYTHING about her subject of choice. She knows what she likes and is passionate about it. She’s on her way to getting a degree in that subject, and ready for grad schools following. And yet. And yet. She hasn’t gotten straight As. She’s in a difficult program and sometimes she struggles. She has a hard time balancing school and friends and family and mental health. Just like any other normal human being on this planet, she isn’t perfect. And whenever these things face her, I can see her melt. It’s the saddest thing in the world. I can see the voices talking to her and telling her that despite her plans and her dreams, and the fact that she is ON TRACK to live out those dreams, she’s useless and she hasn’t accomplished anything.
I have another friend who graduated from a small liberal arts college with good grades, played in the orchestra, held a job the whole time, is fit and talented and intelligent, got a well-paying job out of college, and now feels that his life is going nowhere. He didn’t get an engineering job straight out of school and isn’t sure what he wants to do in grad school. And so his degree suddenly becomes useless, his grades suddenly aren’t good enough, and nothing he does is worth anything. Even though he spends his time doing things like building cars and making a bike for his girlfriend, and doing things that he clearly loves, he feels his life is not good enough and HE is not good enough because there is some unspoken expectation of greatness for him.
And finally (not to brag, but to illustrate that I know what I’m talking about): I graduated in 3 years from a small liberal arts school after being admitted to every school I applied to. I graduated magna cum laude with honors in both of my departments (I was a double major). I held multiple jobs all three years and participated in a wide variety of extracurriculars. I now have a job, and I’m biding my time trying to decide what to do next. But when I think about where I am in life, I feel as though I have already wasted the best years of my life. In high school, I was told so often that I was smart, that I would do great things, that I would accomplish. I didn’t do that in college. I didn’t get published in major journals, I was never recognized for any sort of brilliance. I didn’t come to any great discoveries. I was just a regular student who got through. I’m not working at an amazing job, thinking Big Thoughts or moving towards a Bright Future. I don’t know what I want to do in grad school, and when I think about it I’m fairly certain that when I go, I won’t be held up as the best of the best. I’ll probably do well, but I won’t be richly rewarded. I’m trying to do what I love through writing and editing, but a piece of me still holds on to the dream that someday a publisher will stumble upon my writing and hand me a contract and I’ll suddenly be the next J.K. Rowling.
Now I know that in each of these examples, none of us are brilliant shining stars. None of us are about to cure cancer or write the next great American novel. But each of us are doing pretty well for ourselves. We’re smart, we’re relatively accomplished, we haven’t screwed up majorly in any way, and we’re all kind of following the appropriate path for our age group: going to college and then kind of trying to figure things out for a while. For those of us who are out of college, we’ve got steady jobs that allow us the freedom to figure out what we want to do in the future.
So why is it that we’re all convinced we’ve failed? Why is it that we feel we have not lived up to expectations, or that we could have been so much more? Why is it that in my mind when people told me “you have a lot of potential” I heard “if you don’t achieve fame and success by the end of college you suck”? Why is it that for all of my generation I get the feeling that we expected ourselves to be child prodigies who would excel at something from the time of birth and blow past every other person in that field by the time we were 18?
I can’t answer these questions entirely on my own. I don’t have sociological research to back any of this up, but I do have suggestions and possibilities. When I was young, I was told over and over of my own potential. I grew up in an era when telling a kid they could do anything was the norm. Dreaming big was expected and encouraged. I was told that if I work hard, I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to. Now I have no problem with parents encouraging their kids to dream, but telling me over and over that I can accomplish anything is simply a lie. Things are out of our hands sometimes, and wishing and trying and working doesn’t change that. I was propped up all my life: told by teachers that I was so smart, told by parents that I was special and amazing. I don’t regret for a second the support that I had from these people, but I wish that I had a piece of reality thrown in there: that as talented as I am, as smart as I am, as loved and supported as I am, things will still not always go my way.
I think of Dr Seuss’ book The Places You’ll Go. For a kids’ book this fucker is remarkably insightful. Because despite being full of support and love and excitement, it acknowledges that even someone as brainsy and footsy as you can get in trouble sometimes. I don’t feel like I had that. Somewhere along the way, my generation go the message that we could control our futures if we just worked hard enough and did things right enough. Which means that if things didn’t go our way, we must have done something wrong. We must have failed.
I see this in the way that we talk about college (always about getting into a top school, not getting into a school you like), the way we talk about jobs (how much are you making out of college), the way we talk about degrees (how many things did you major in? what’s your GPA? How many jobs did you have?), the way we talk about grad school (can you get funding for it? How much more will it make you?)…we don’t ask people questions like “are you enjoying yourself? Do you have good friends? Are you doing something you love?” So despite the fact that I spent 3 years studying something that I find absolutely fascinating, I’m a failure because I have not gone on to start a Ph.D at Berkeley, or because I have not published, or because I have not…xyz.
I wish we could stop feeling like we’ve failed. I wish we could change the dialogue from “what are you accomplishing” to “what are you enjoying”. I wish we could stop feeling we need to be the best. If I have any hope for the next generation, it’s that they’re empowered to know they have opportunities and abilities unlike anyone else in the world, but that they also learn to accept. Change always comes first from acceptance.