My 10th year college reunion celebration was a few weeks ago. Ten whole years since I was thrust into the world of adulthood, what a milestone!
To rejoice this remarkable achievement, I flew down to North Carolina, business class of course, and spent the weekend laughing and cheering with long lost college friends and acquaintances. Telling stories about how my business became so successful, what it felt like when I made my first million dollars, the moment I realized I was in love with my perfect husband, the penthouse apartment in NYC we were about to buy, and the world wide domination goals I had for the next 10 years. As I looked into the envious eyes of my college peers, I couldn’t help but, humbly of course, glisten with pride. And when I flew home on Sunday night to the arms of my (perfect) husband, I proclaimed: “Yes, I’ve successfully conquered the last 10 years and have proof that I’m ahead of the rat race! Now onto the next 10!”
Hah, if only. Needless to say, I didn’t attend the reunion and instead spent the weekend in pajamas on my couch, ruminating over my dwindling checking account balance while searching for a new job. Feeling quite the opposite of humbly proud.
To be fair, I’ve certainly had a number of successes over the past 10 years that are, in my opinion, noteworthy, and I am proud of what I have accomplished since my carefree college days. But if faced with a list of life’s milestones and asked to tick off the declarations of adulthood, I can attest to having achieved…well I’m, ahem, not too sure how well I’d score.
Let’s see here…Married? Nope. Kids? Um, I nurtured a plant. For two whole months. Well paying, high status job? No comment. Successful career? Depends how you look at it. A homeowner? Haha, that’s a joke right? Healthy retirement savings? Listen, $20 is considered healthy in NYC. Facebook albums depicting exotic vacations? Do my Spring Break vacations in college count?
Yup, not exactly envy-producing material here. Well, of course, no one expects people to achieve these milestones at a precise time in their lives. We’re all individuals navigating unique journeys, progressing at our own paces. Everybody knows that!
Really? Everybody? Because it merely took a five-minute Google search to find two very similar articles published in British newspapers1 last year, one of which reads:
“Researchers have revealed 25 major life milestones – and the ages by which we ‘should’ have achieved them… The comprehensive study…draws on the wisdom, life experience and regrets of almost 2,000 adults between the ages of 16 and 65.”2
Fascinating. So what are these all important milestones, and what ages should we have achieved them? According to these researchers:
1. First kiss – 15
2. First full time job – 19
3. Pass driving test – 20
4. Learner Driver
5. First holiday with friends – 21
6. Move out / rent with friends – 22
7. Buy first car – 22
8. First holiday with partner – 23
9. Be a bridesmaid /best man – 23
10. Rent on your own – 24
11. Get engaged – 25
12. Rent with partner – 25
13. Get married – 27
14. Buy first flat – 27
15. Have first child – 28
16. First house – 29
17. Start earning average wage – 30
18. Second child – 31
19. Buy a brand new car – 32
20. Become a manager at work – 34
21. Think about starting /start a business – 35
22. Move to second house – 36
23. Start enjoying two holidays per year – 36
24. So this is almost always packed
25. Start earning 40k – 37
26. Look at buying / buy property to let – 39
27.Retire – 60
Wow. This is worse than I thought. As a 31-year-old, I’m so blatantly lagging behind in life. In fact, just in case one needs further confirmation on where exactly they rank in the universal test of life, the researchers created a ‘Guide To Life’ online test3, where you can answer a couple of questions to receive your ‘Life Score’.
Ladies and gentlemen, according to science, my life score thus far is: (drum roll please)! 41 per cent!
“Well done. You’re 31 years old and you’ve achieved 41 per cent of your expected life milestones.”
Whoopee, I’ve achieved 41 per cent of my milestones in my life thus far!!! I’m sure my parents must be so, so proud. Do I at least get a gold star, or even a clap for simply being in attendance?
However, let’s not forget that for all intents and purposes, 41 per cent equals an F grade. In life. According to ‘science’. So, does this mean that I have to attend a remedial class? Or do I have to retake classes; that is, perhaps erasing the last six years of my life and pretending I’m a 25-year-old? Or maybe I should just have a complete do over, forge my birth certificate and actually go back to college as the innocent 18-year-old student I once was…
OK, so it goes without saying that I’m being dramatically facetious, and if you read the footnotes below it’s clear that this ‘research based’ study is to be taken with a heaping of salt. To reiterate, we all know that everyone’s life is a distinct journey, we all have our own destinies, comparing yourself to others’ accomplishments is futile (or at worst, self-destructive) and we’re all equal and worthy in God’s eyes, etc., etc.
But let’s seriously get real here for a moment.
Firstly, the clock is literally ticking. We’re not fairytale angels, able to float through this journey at ease, taking our time to ponder, search, relax and just breeze through life no matter how long it takes. Nope, this journey has an unknowable, absolutely absolute expiration date, and each second that goes by inches us closer to that terrifying buzzer. Whether that moment comes in an instant tomorrow morning while driving to work, or 50 years from now, heaving our final breaths in a hospice, the only indisputable truth that exists in our lives here on Earth is the finality of death.
To make things even crueler, we’re all hardwired to seek security, comfort, companionship, status, to reproduce, to devour pleasure, to want and keep wanting more and more. Hence, if we are to experience any of the wonderful facets of being human we have to run, no – sprint, towards the finish line. And the next one, and the one after that, before we run out of sacred time. And it’s not just external time we’re dealing with, we have to factor in our internal, biological ticking bomb. These fragile bodies we occupy that can inexplicably turn against us, and will inevitably, very painfully, fail us.
So while the milestones listed above may seem arbitrary, and though I can laugh in the face of my Failing score in life, if I am to be entirely honest, I simply can’t deny the anxiety, the envy, the doubt, the fears, the questioning of where I measure up on the existential scorecard of life and what it means, what it says about me to be subjectively, or worse objectively, lagging behind. Wasting time. Failing with a capital F, while the time limit of existence rapidly approaches.
And when I joke about having a do over and pretending I’m re-starting my life from my college days, I’m not entirely joking. Truth is, during this transitional period I’m currently in, I’ve been having dreams – vivid and sometimes lucid dreams – of being sent back to high school to repeat the last 15 years of my life. In my dreams I’m always protesting “Why am I here? I’m 31 years old! I’m an accomplished adult, why are you forcing me to go back to high school?”
It doesn’t take a trained therapist to know fully well that these dreams are a reflection of one’s feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness. And though my wakeful, rationale mind swiftly quashes such thoughts as nonsense, pushing me to resiliently disregard the lists of ‘shoulds’ and ‘must haves’, it would be irrational to ignore these recurring high school-torture dreams, to not even question what’s stimulating them.
In my quest to gain perspective on this transitional phase in my life, I dug up another, far more reputable article that talks about a 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US)4. The researchers sought to determine the association between numerical ages and self-reflection, and to show:
“How adults undertake a search for existential meaning as they approach a new decade in age, or imagine entering a new epoch, and its effects on their behavior.”5
Basically, they found that “those who have an age ending in nine — 29, 39, 49 — also known as ‘nine-enders’ are more likely to engage in productive behaviors like running a marathon and socially damaging behaviors like having an extramarital affair.” To be more precise:
18 per cent of men who cheat were more likely to do so the year before they enter a new decade in life.
Suicide rate were slightly higher, 2.4 per cent, among those whose age ended in a nine than among people whose ages ended in any other digit.
Marathon runners ran about two per cent faster at ages 29 and 39 than during the two years before and after those ages.
There were 25 per cent more first-time marathon runners whose ages ended in nine compared to any other digit.6
I may not be a ‘nine-ender’ but being in the midst of a transitional phase, while having to confront the fact that it’s been 10 years since I graduated from college, has clearly triggered some sort of existential crisis. In the world of social science, specifically anthropology7, there is a word for this state of being that occurs in transitional moments: liminality, from the Latin word limen, meaning “threshold.”
“At liminal times, we are moving out of “here” but are not yet “there.” From Maasai warriors marking a first hunt to American men at a stag party, when standing on a threshold we look back at the past as we prepare ourselves for an uncharted future. In the words of a proverb, “The most difficult mountain to cross is the threshold.”8
Clearly the mere acknowledgement of a decade of adult life gone by post-college will trigger moments of self-reflection in all of us, even those A+ scoring, gold medal earning ridiculously high achievers amongst you. Whether you find yourself alone during the last chapter of your youthful twenties, or hitting the pinnacle of 40 despondently childless, the depths of emotions that may be conjured up during these periods – be it joy, nostalgia, pride, excitement, regret, sadness or even shame – can be overwhelming or even debilitating.
The fact is that all of us, every single human being, will experience feeling inadequate, regret, like a failure, or deeply shameful multiple times in our lives, whether or not we have actually erred. And all of us do fail, are inadequate and don’t measure up to the ‘shoulds’ and ‘must haves’ on many, many things in life! And that is perfectly OK. That is called being human. Whether one received an F grade in class or is fired from a job, we will always be stamped and judged by the external world. We’re all winners and losers, simultaneously first and last in the multiple finish lines we’re so desperate to conquer during this treacherous marathon of life.
I was surprisingly at ease with my emotional conflicts after this research revealed to me that I was celebrating 10 years of adulthood with an F grade life score of 41 per cent. But the feelings of anxiety and inadequacy hadn’t at all vanished, but once I accepted their lingering presence in the pit of my stomach, once I stopped fighting or ignoring their existence, I found myself actually feeling peaceful.
I realized that I’m only able to experience this peaceful state in the midst of turmoil because of the past decade of hard, internally agonizing, soul-searching, and often crushing work that has enabled me to become a very self-aware, authentic individual. The work that allows me to acknowledge, confront, even publically admit to my embarrassing dreams and vulnerable feelings. The work that enables me to face petrifying thresholds of uncertainty with a calm sense of okay-ness. The work that makes me realize the true meaningful successes I’ve achieved in the past decade.
And y’know what? I think being a joyfully non-married, independent, peaceful, emotionally intelligent adult who is proudly ambitious, creative, compassionate, resilient and accomplished merely 10 years from graduating college, earns me a very well deserved A in the scorecard of life. So forget the research-based F score – that’s certainly not me!
1. Two caveats I must mention here:
1. The newspapers referred to are The Daily Mirror and The Daily Mail, both of which are tabloid publications. i.e. not exactly reputable sources of social science research.
2. The study at hand was commissioned by the UK based ‘Amigo Loans’. That’s right, a loan company. I think it’s safe to assume that research was not conducted by Harvard scientists, let alone actual scientists.
7. The study of humans, past and present.