Last year, at age 27, I decided to quit my corporate job in New York City, move across the country and focus on my true passion — writing. Although I had been journaling and writing short stories on my own time, I hadn't published an article for public consumption since I was a staff writer at my college's newspaper. (So, yeah, it had been awhile.) As proud as I was of myself for not "settling" for a career I didn't love and instead taking a somewhat risky leap of faith to follow my dreams, I also felt like a bit of a failure — social media was quick to remind me that many of my friends and college classmates were busy rising up the corporate ladder, while I was essentially about to start over from scratch.
And since I'm by nature an anxious person who worries about the future, I had another factor to consider besides building a life and career in a new city: I had a nagging fear that if I didn't accomplish enough by age 30, I would be considered a complete failure by society. I thought that if I didn't achieve it all by my 30th birthday, I might as well throw in the towel and apologize profusely to my parents about that wasted college tuition bill.
My leap of faith paid off, and a combination of hard work, networking, and hustling allowed me to land way more writing gigs than I had dreamed of. But my concern still simmered — getting my writing career off the ground was great and all, but I felt like I should have accomplished all of this by the time I was 22 if I was going to make anything of myself by 30.
Then, in November, I read an interview in Elle with one of my heroes, Gloria Steinem — and she had some strong words about the idea of accomplishing it all by age 30:
[Q.] There is tremendous pressure right now to get a lot done when you're still very young. It's given rise to a whole genre of journalism. It's created the 30-under-30 ...
[A.] That is such bullshit. Listen, I am 81-years-old. I never expected to be even busier at 81, and doing more of what I love, than when I was 30. And your generation is going to live even longer, statistically speaking. You have even more time! It's especially ridiculous to think you have to be successful when you're so young. You should be able to adventure and not worry so much about achievement.
To be clear, as much as I appreciate her sentiment, I would never dismiss the amazing accomplishments of the young men and women on those "30 Under 30" lists. Some people do find the right field immediately after college, work their butts off, and make huge strides in a short period of time. I certainly think that deserves recognition.
But comparing ourselves will get us nowhere — some of us don't have a straightforward path in our careers or our personal lives, and that's more than OK. It's brave to leave a high-status but unsatisfying job in search of something else that's more fulfilling — and we shouldn't feel fettered to a certain job or lifestyle just because the dreaded 3-0 is in sight.
Here's why it's so detrimental to think success is only meaningful if you achieve it by a certain age:
1. It Discourages Us From Trying New Things
As Steinem points out, there's a lot to be said for pursuing "adventure" rather than the next rung on the corporate ladder. In this context, I don't think "adventure" means wandering aimlessly and prioritizing short-lived fun over valuable learning experiences. But trying a variety of new things is both an adventure and a challenge — and it can be incredibly rewarding. Even if not everything we do fits neatly onto our CV, it shapes who we are and we can bring that wisdom and life experience to our personal and professional endeavors.
The bottom line is this: If you're rising up the corporate ladder, only to realize that this isn't the path you want, you should feel free to embrace the idea of a clean slate, rather than feel chained to your desk job because staying on that path is what's socially "admirable." And just because an experience doesn't directly relate to a future job, doesn't mean we can't apply the skills we've acquired along the way. Our careers will actually be richer and more interesting if we become creative thinkers who try to look back on every experience as a learning experience, and figure out ways to incorporate this knowledge into all our pursuits — both in and out of the workplace.
2. It Can Make Us Lose Perspective
As Dwight Schrute once wisely said: "Life is short? False. Life is the longest thing you will ever do." When you really think about it, 30 is a somewhat arbitrary number when it comes to making declarations about who's killing it at life and who's... not. The average life expectancy for American women is 81 years old — so we need to remember that we've barely scratched the surface at age 30. We have so much ahead of us, both personally and professionally. Sure, we should have learned a lot between the ages of 20 and 30 simply because 10 years have gone by — but, again, everyone's learning experiences are different and they can't be quantified by your job title or salary.
3. "Success" Is Different In Every Field
This is yet another reason comparing ourselves to our friends and former classmates is detrimental rather than productive. Certain professional endeavors have a more straightforward path than others. At age 30, J.K. Rowling was living off welfare while 12 publishers rejected Harry Potter — not because it wasn't an amazing book, but because it's pretty damn hard to get a book deal. Similarly, Matthew Weiner (of Mad Men and Sopranos fame) got his first paid writing gig at age 30. He didn't pen Mad Men until age 34 — but the show didn't hit our small screens until eight years later.
These types of stories are not unusual in creative fields, where people begin their careers at all different points in their lives — so if we're pursuing artistic endeavors, comparing our job titles and our salaries to our BFFs who work in finance or law makes zero sense.
And, yes, I realize these famous individuals are extreme examples — but plenty of people who live outside the spotlight (and without the multi-million-dollar net worth) find success at all different ages. Finding success in creative fields can be a long, meandering (but incredibly rewarding) process — and I worry that the idea of reaching huge success by age 30 may deter talented individuals from pursuing what they truly love and excel at.
4. It's Ageist
As Steinem points out in her Elle interview, she's 81 years old and doing more satisfying things with her life than she was at age 30. I have to think that part of this pressure to accomplish it all and "have it all" by age 30 is related to society's idealization of youth. Beauty and glamour are far too often equated with a young age, and perhaps sometimes we're subconsciously thinking that others will view our accomplishments more highly if we're fresh-faced and looking our best.
TV shows and movies love to depict young women who are killing it at their careers while they look fabulous and wear 5-inch heels. Meanwhile, successful older women in the media are often depicted as bitter and threatened by the young women who join their companies. (Think Meryl Streep in Devil Wears Prada and Glenn Close in Damages.) Although this can certainly happen, we're not giving enough recognition to the successful older women who are eager to mentor the next generation and are thrilled that women are making tremendous strides in the professional world. Not only should we embrace aging and the wisdom that comes with growing older, but we should put to rest the notion that success is more enjoyable if you happen to be young and beautiful.
I know myself, and I know that I'm going to experience some serious anxiety when my 30th birthday rolls around in a couple years. But we need to embrace the fact that life can be messy and that it's not always a straight line — and there's a lot of beauty in that, too. We learn so much by challenging ourselves, and by not being afraid to take risks or walk away from something that's not fulfilling. All of our paths are different — if you've found your dream job and have made a name for yourself by age 30, my hat goes off to you, because that's no easy feat. But the rest of us don't need to despair, either. Thirty is just another number, and we have plenty of time to accomplish great things. We've only failed if we've stopped trying.
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