This week, I am sharing a four-part series on turning and being 40. This is the second vignette.
Ten years ago when I turned 30, I figured the three big achievements an adult could obtain were being well-established and successful in a career, being in a long term committed relationship, and being a homeowner. In my mind, the early 30s were also a time for me to begin to get on the right track after muddling through the novelty of adulthood in my 20s. I considered that I had a decade to figure out how to achieve those goals and that 40 would be a reasonable deadline. Understandably when a person has such lofty and perhaps unrealistic goals, the pressure starts to build up and by the time I reached my mid-30s, 40 became a dreaded and feared symbol for the possibility of not succeeding. I can sum it up that I feared I would not amount to much and accomplish anything respectable.
I like to think that I was not alone in this fear and that many of my peers may at times also struggle with feelings of inferiority. The world is becoming more and more cut-throat and competitive and every time you turn around, someone has discovered the cure to cancer, or is single-handedly solving world peace. I myself used to dread receiving the alumnae magazines from my college which would have updates of fellow former classmates’ latest life happenings and achievements. For years I shirked away from sending in news of my own life because I just didn’t think I had any worthy accomplishments to share.
Recently, I found a class project I completed when I was 12 back in the seventh grade in 1987. The assignment was a chronicle of my life and I reflected on my past, my present and my future. For my future, I had predicted that I would swim in the 1996 Olympics, attend Julliard for my violin playing, marry my college sweetheart, be a swim coach at the YMCA, and be the mother of a three year old- all by the age of 27! I’m afraid my 12 year old self would be disappointed to learn that I didn’t achieve any of those goals- not even 13 years past the age 27 deadline. Of course I could say my sense of future accomplishments for myself were extremely warped, but I also can’t blame my younger self for predicting such ridiculous achievements. I was only extending on what I was familiar with and good at in my life at that time. Anything else would have been too abstract. It is also understandable that my younger self assumed that I would meet my future husband and start a family by 27 because it’s what my own parents and grandparents had done. At 12, my ideals of success and normalcy were based on those previous generations.
Similarly, in my late 20s and early 30s, my ideals of success began to be based on what I witnessed peers achieving. This included friends of mine, family, those fellow college classmates who wrote to the alumnae magazines, famous peers who had achieved notoriety for whatever achievements, and even fictional peers. Every time a peer would reach an achievement, whether it was purchasing a home, publishing a book or becoming director at a company, I would reexamine my own current life standing and successes.
Perhaps some of my fellow- new 40 somethings similarly have compared themselves to peers or have been doing that their whole life. My struggle of measuring myself to others is mostly a thing of the past now. At some point in my late thirties, I began determining my own markers for success and achievement. My goal of being a homeowner was dropped after actually being a homeowner in a situation over my head. My goal of being a success in a career was exchanged for achieving fulfillment not only through work but other pursuits as well as achieving a work-life balance. I am learning that the fulfillment I get from family, friends, community and even strangers brings me happiness, as does occasional solitude. This realization that I am essentially happy has allowed me to slowly let go of my unrealistic measures of achievement based on others’ successes and continue to reflect on and reexamine my own measures of success.
Oh, and I’m happy to say that a few months ago, I finally wrote to my college’s alumnae magazine for the first time to share my life’s events.
Next in this series on turning and being 40:
Part 3: The tragicomedy of the shelved woman
For further listening, viewing and reading: