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Last week I celebrated my 29th birthday.
If you’re 21 and reading this, that probably sounds old. If you’re 55, that probably sounds young. And that’s exactly how I feel, too — definitely not old, but no longer a “young person,” either.
All in all, I’m excited to see what this last year of my 20s brings. And frankly, I doubt that I’ll be torn up about turning 30 a year from now.
Let’s be honest … for most of us, our 20s aren’t a walk in the park. I’ve been no exception to that rule.
Most of us spend our 20s being put through an emotional ringer. We spend an entire decade sloughing off our adolescence, trying to figure out what being an “adult” means, and becoming (sometimes harshly) acquainted with the “real world” … all while wondering who to love, what we want to do with our lives, and how to make a difference.
Not to mention there are a lot of boxes that we feel we “should” be checking by a certain age: marriage, kids, salary, job title, house, car, 401K, etc.
We may not be expected to have all of these things by the end of our 20s, but there’s a tacit expectation that we should be actively in pursuit of all of them.
And it’s hard not to think about how many (or few) boxes you’ve checked when you can so clearly look around and notice how many (more) boxes other people have checked.
Comparing yourself to other people’s “progress” in life is a risky business, and it’s one that usually leads to disappointment and self-criticism.
I’m not immune to comparison, and I can’t help but notice that there are plenty of things I haven’t achieved at 29 that I could have sworn I would have by now, if you’d asked me ten (or even five) years ago.
To be blunt, I thought I’d be further in life by now in some ways. And lately, I’ve been grappling with the difficulty of measuring my progress, given that there are many boxes I haven’t checked yet.
EVERY BOX I HAVEN’T CHECKED YET
When I was 19, I would have guaranteed you that I’d be married by 24, and certainly have a kid or two by 29.
Of course, when I turned 24 I moved the goalpost another five years. Certainly by the time I turned 29 I would be married and maybe even have one kid.
I feel bad for the 24-year-old me because I have to reality check her by saying that present-day me is not married, doesn’t have kids, and at this rate … I will be in my 30s before either of those boxes is checked.
To be clear — I’m not exactly disappointed by this. It’s not where I expected to be, but I can see the value of not having reached those milestones in my 20s.
I think by the time those things do roll around, I will have spent a LOT of time maturing, evolving, and generally becoming prepared. And on the whole, I think that’s going to pay dividends over the course of my life.
But still … it’s hard not to compare myself to others. Heck, by the time my mom was 29, she’d been married for 7 years and was done having children. And there are plenty of Millennials who can say the same. But more on that in a second.
Other boxes I haven’t checked include:
- Having a hefty 401K — I have one, but given the fact that I started a business five years ago, investing in it was VERY low on my priority list. It’s only in the past year that I’ve started to focus on it again.
- Owning my own home — Again, being a business owner (and riding the ups and downs of that) make home ownership a pricey, risky venture that just isn’t in the cards right now.
- Going on luxury vacations — I’ve done a bit of U.S.-based traveling in the past few years, but nothing to the scale of what I thought I’d be doing by now (extended European forays and the like).
- Buying a brand new car — I thought I’d be driving a sleek SUV by this point, but I’m still driving my 10-year-old car around. It still works fine, even if it isn’t as pretty on the eyes.
Again, the boxes I haven’t checked don’t bother me (most days) because I realize that I made a choice to leave them unchecked.
I quit my job and started my own business. There’s a lot of risk and instability in that, and for a long time any extra resources you have either go back into the business or into your savings (because you never know what’s going to happen).
I chose freedom and autonomy over having a lot of things that other people have by 29, and I’m OK with that.
So, here’s the ultimate question I’ve been pondering lately:
How do I measure my progress when I can’t use external things (like a spouse, kids, bank account, or house) as my metric?
HERE’S WHAT I’VE COME UP WITH
What I know to be true is that even though my external reality hasn’t changed as much as I would have thought by now, my internal reality has changed a LOT.
I feel like a very different person at 29 than I did at 24, and I hardly recognize who I was at 19. The progress I’ve made as a person far outweighs anything I could have attained in the material world.
But how do you measure that kind of progress when it’s so intangible?
Here are 5 big questions I’ve been asking myself, that you can ask yourself, too:
How much happier are you now? I used to be such an anxious, stressed-out control freak that for years I literally could not take a deep breath. Any therapist (had I been seeing one) would have likely prescribed me anti-anxiety meds. I’ve reached a point where now it’s weird if I’m ever that panicked. I’ve learned to relax and trust life to sort itself out, and that is a HUGE achievement for me.
How much healthier are you? For about 20 years of my life, I suffered from a chronic (not debilitating, but very frustrating and energy-draining) illness that doctors told me I would just have to “deal with” forever. In the past year, I’ve completely healed myself ONLY by changing my diet. I NEVER thought that would happen. I poured a lot of time, energy, and money into healing myself. It’s not a shiny new car that people can see, but it means infinitely more to me.
How are your relationships? There have been times in my life where I felt pretty lonely, like I didn’t have many people who really understood me or valued me for who I am. Today, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I have an incredibly solid, supportive group of friends and family who like me for exactly who I am, and who I can always be vulnerable with. Sometimes I forget how much of a luxury it is to be able to be yourself 24/7.
How much wiser are you? At 19, I thought I knew everything. At 29, I realize how little I actually know in the grand scheme of things. I’m far less convinced that I’m “right” these days, and way more open-minded to other peoples’ perspectives. I think long-term rather than short-term, and I’m learning the wisdom of letting life give me what I need, rather than what I think I want.
How much do you like yourself? If you’d asked me 5 or 10 years ago, I’m sure I wouldn’t have said that I disliked myself. But often the way you treat yourself, and the thoughts you have about yourself, unconsciously reveals the truth. I used to call myself names and be incredibly hard on myself. These days, I like who I am and I’ve found a good deal of self-acceptance. That doesn’t mean I don’t have room for improvement; it just means I have a lot more compassion and patience with myself than I used to, and I appreciate what’s great about me.
I’m sure I could come up with many more questions, but I’ll leave it at that. If you can answer these questions and realize how much has changed in the past year, two years, five years, ten years … then you’re making great progress.
If you can’t say you’ve made internal progress, that’s OK, too. It’s just shining a spotlight on a place you can choose to grow.
And hey, making external progress is also great! I fully intend to check a lot of the more “traditional” boxes in the next few years. But I think the external attainment matters less if we haven’t focused on the internal stuff, first.
So, what about you? Have you struggled with comparing yourself to other people’s progress? How have you progressed internally, instead of externally? Share with me in the comments!
IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN YOU’LL ALSO LOVE …
Rachel (& Kristen)
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