“All you have to be by the time you’re 23 is yourself.”
– Troy Dyer, Reality Bites
Have you ever seen Reality Bites? It’s one of my favourite movies. It was released in 1994 and stars Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke. When I first saw it as a teen, all of the characters (in their early 20s) seemed so cool and mature and interesting with all of their existential angst.
Of course, they’re all dealing with a question that, I realize now, is one that people can struggle with at all ages:
How do you know you’re in “right” place in your life?
Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at an art college in western Canada. I’d been invited to talk about my writing, as part of a two-day symposium largely attended by students.
Between speaker sessions, everyone mingled over coffee and sandwiches, which gave the audience and presenters a chance to connect directly.
I’ve been lucky enough to have had the chance to speak at schools here and there through my writing, and one of the most common questions I hear is, “I really like what I’m studying, but how do I know it’s the right thing? How do I know it’s what I’m supposed to do?”
I remember this feeling well. I remember being 19 or 20 years old and feeling already, well…old.
And feeling like everything had to be decided already. And feeling like I was the one person responsible for engineering a smooth, straightforward, successful path for myself.
But why did I feel it had to be that way?
Because that’s the world we live in, where expectations and ambition reign. The message so many of live under is that we all need to “be” something by a certain age.
And that makes us only too aware of the passing of time, and takes away our ability to just enjoy our lives.
I remember all of my friends feeling pressured to know what their “thing” was going to be for the next 30 years of their lives, feeling pressured to accomplish something – anything – before the age of 30 (preferably before the age of 25).
And of course, this pressure might never actually leave. If you let it control you, it can follow you throughout your life, leaving you always wondering, “Am I far enough along now?”
And that’s something they don’t tell you in school. We are told to aspire to something, but we aren’t told how to loosen up, live our lives, or recognize when it’s time to just enjoy the ride. Everything has to be more, more, more.
This way of thinking comes with side effects, and they ain’t pretty.
When I was in high school, I started making lists of things I wanted to accomplish.
I had different lists for different reasons. Some were “summer” lists, full of goals that I wanted to check-off within the all-too-short eight weeks I had off before a new school year began. Recently, I came across an old journal entry from my teen years lamenting the fact that I hadn’t yet filled one of the two notebooks I’d put aside for my writing.
Yes, that’s right: I wanted to fill not one but two notebooks, front to back, with poetry in a two-month period. Which was a totally unreasonable expectation to put on myself.
Other lists stretched well past my teens. One of my favourite lists to look back on is one that outlined everything I would do by or before the age of 25. If everything had gone according to plan, I would have been living in London, England by the time I reached 25.
I also would have had two books published and traveled to Norway, Egypt, Ireland, Scotland, and Australia AND I would own my own store. (Hey, one can dream, right?)
Some of my lists were for a single, upcoming year alone would have 16 items that would have taken 12 months each to accomplish.
It was unrealistic, but I burned with the need to be something, somebody. I had bought into all of the hype that we hear from day one to aim high, focus well, and work hard.
I also felt completely, entirely wrapped up in other people’s successes. I would look at my favourite bands with awe at how young they were when they broke out, with some hitting it big at just 19 or 20 years old. (“I have so much catching up to do!”)
I would devour success stories about young authors with runaway careers, peaking at 27 years old. (“I only have a couple years left to do the same!”)
But of course, life has its own way of working things out. I did actually start going through the process of applying for a working visa overseas…but then fell in love with someone here at home and decided to stay.
I did write a few books…but the ideas for them all came from inspiration and experiences that I wouldn’t have had if some of my other plans had come about.
And sometimes, when I looked really long and hard at the things I thought I wanted, I realized that I don’t really need them to be happy.
But no matter what I accomplished, I struggled be satisfied with where I was at. (“Is this enough? Should I do more? Should I be more?”)
I would imagine myself reaching a certain finish line: “I’ll relax after that,” I thought, but I never let myself.
And now, I look back on my 20s and I wish I had taken more time to enjoy myself. I had an entire decade to enjoy that time in my life, after all, but spent a lot of it avoiding anything that looked like fun because I was afraid to stop working.
I wish I had learned how to relax more and strive less. I wish I had been able to understand that there is no dividing line from one age to the next, as though the day you hit a milestone birthday you’re suddenly a completely different person and any opportunity you might have had to “make something of yourself” is suddenly left behind.
“We don’t like being ‘here’. We want to be ‘there’…I wish more of us would ask ourselves, ‘What’s wrong with being where I am?’”
– Melissa Cassera
And so some students asked me for advice last week on what to focus on, my answer was, “Happiness.”
“But what if I don’t make any money after school? I really like creative writing, but I don’t know if it will pay.”
I told them to look at where they’re at now: What is the job they are being given right now, as students? Their job in school is to learn. That’s what is presenting itself for them.
“Enjoy it,” I said. “You are a few years away from graduating, and you have no idea how you’ll change or grow between now and then. If you like school, just enjoy the ride. Enjoy where you’re at. Don’t worry about having all the answers right now. But when it is time to figure out what’s next, make happiness your goal above all else.”
Because when happiness is a priority, it shows us a way forward by being a basis for our decisions.
That goes for any of us, at any age.
“Isn’t that bad advice?” An acquaintance asked me later, when I got home. “Happiness isn’t always practical.”
But I’m not saying that by focusing on happiness, everything else goes out the window. You will still have to show up and do the work within your life in all of its facets, from relationships to paying the bills to taking care of yourself.
Happiness itself is a responsibility, though, too.
We are conditioned to place the question, “What’s next?” as a key indicator of whether we’re on track in our lives.
What if the main thing we asked ourselves was, “Is this making me happy?”
Sometimes, happiness can be a scary place to live from because it can quite simple. Personally, I have caught myself feeling quite all right with much less than I thought I wanted, or needed.
And that can bring up all those same questions that we’re told to chase after: “Is this enough? Could there be more? Am I supposed to rest here, or over there?”
Happiness is highly underrated. We are so conditioned to feel like if we aren’t working hard, or keeping our eye on some kind of imaginary prize, then we must be doing something wrong.
And because our society is so future-oriented, all of the questioning we do as a result keeps us out of the moment. It prevents us from enjoying and appreciating where we’re at right here, right now.
Worse, this forward-thinking can become a hard habit to kick, and even when you want to slow yourself down, you find that guilt and doubt settle in, making you question everything all over again: “Am I where I want to be right now?”
So why not just say, “Yes. I want to be here, because I want to be present for all parts of my life – the good, the bad, and the in-between. It’s all mine to experience.”
Nothing ever stays the same. What you’re doing right now and who you are right now is going to be totally different in another 20 years.
Why make yourself choose just one life to live when you can have many new adventures for years to come? Why put an age limit on your experiences? Life doesn’t work like that – life will throw things at you year after year, whether you’re 25 or 65.
The paths we take are rarely linear. Often, they have so many twists and turns that we get lost in our own lives, and decide to throw away our maps and compasses more than once, realizing the directions we’ve written down for ourselves were totally wrong from the start.
And sometimes, when we get so focused on things that haven’t happened for us yet, it’s a lot easier to become unhappy, because we’re putting so much attention on everything that we feel is missing from our lives.
Instead of asking, “What’s next?” Why not ask, “What can I take from where I’m at right now? What can I appreciate about my life as it is right now?”
Time has a way of leading us toward change. Yes, we can accelerate our experiences and push ourselves to new heights along the way, but staying present counts for something, too.
Even the quietest, softest stretches of our lives – the ones that might sometimes seem mundane – can be of great importance, and it can take time to understand what they mean, or why they unfolded this way.
Don’t rush your own story. You never know where your experiences might lead you, or how they will transform you. This is all part of your history – it’s happening right here, right now, all you need to do is focus on where you’re at.
p.s. I’ve got some new things for you…
Readings and coaching sessions are all available via Skype, so you don’t have to be in Toronto if you want to book something. Interested but have questions before you purchase? I’m always happy to connect! firstname.lastname@example.org
And…don’t forget: My new writing program, the Call of the Word, begins on March 9, 2016, which means registration is going to be closing soon! If you’re on the fence about it, feel free to send any questions my way. This is a five-week mentorship program that promises tons of creative magic, support, and inspiration.
Ready to enrol? Head on over here.
Have a great day!