This essay explores this modern day anxiety, the fear of being “old and unaccomplished”. I have fallen victim to it over the past few years and have only recently had the guts to rebel against it. Any fear is inherently self limiting. I am on the journey to remove these self-limiting thoughts and to genuinely set myself free to pursue what my heart desires.
I have been ~2 years older than my peers all these years for being stuck in kindergarten longer, changing continents during high school, and taking a gap in college. To some 18 year olds, that’s a big deal. I used to hate when people ask for my age. The response has always been “wow, you are old”, making my stomach turn. The implicit comment I heard was “wow, you are so much older than us but exactly where we are.’’
The American society, especially the Silicon Valley subculture, worships the young. If you read tech news, you always come across headlines such as “18-year-old founder raised X million”. The Thiel Fellowship and Rhodes scholars both have an age limit (23 and 24). Lists like Forbes 30 under 30 are pure intoxication. I have been to the celebration in Boston for two years in a row and all I have seen is a bunch of anxious young people hoping that one day they can make the list, and a bunch of honorees who feel like imposters. I see some inflated egos ready to burst any time.
As a college student then, the message I was getting is being “accomplished” is not good enough, you have to be “young and accomplished”. That’s what makes you really impressive. That’s what gets you on stage. That’s what earns people’s admiration. The result is people always feel they are running out of time. They need to hustle, move forward, get ahead, accomplish before they are “old”. They need to move on to what’s next, what’s bigger, what’s more impressive. They need to check the box, but just as they check one thing off, they add more to the list. At what point can they feel secure about who they are and that they have accomplished enough? At what point can they stop climbing “mountains” and enjoy the scenery around them?
I was one of those anxious kids in college. There was an implicit “success” profile that I was modeling myself after. I was getting good grades, taking hard classes, overloading myself with extracurricular, getting impressive internships, and trying to squeeze in social life in the last bit of free time. My life kind of sucked. I was not enjoying what I was doing because there is simply no time to enjoy anything. My eyes were always on the next thing. While at graduation the speaker was saying life was full of possibilities, I felt there was only one possibility — do the most impressive thing, climb the social ladder, make it big. I felt stuck.
1. Challenge the dimension of time
I realized I was “shoulding” myself a lot. In my mind, there is a timeline that at different points I am supposed to hit on certain goals. Not only do I put myself on this timeline, I put everyone else my age on this timeline as well. If they hit certain goals earlier than I do, I feel “unaccomplished”.
But why? There is no single timeline. We are creating our own journeys as we go. The single most interesting thing about humanity is that we are all different. We are not replicas of each other. We are brought up in different countries, cultures, social classes, religions, and political beliefs. We have gone through different education systems and interacted with different people in our lives. As a result, we have done various things with our time and have varied aspirations for life. Because of these differences, we might find certain things easier and certain things harder. The key here is to be patient and take our time. Remind ourselves that we are not “less than” but different. Whenever we feel we have taken a detour to get to where we are, we haven’t. We didn’t sleep through those years. Saying what we should do is putting ourselves in a box and walking someone else’s path. The point is not to hit someone else’s goals, but our own. We should celebrate our differences, especially when it takes hardships to get to where we are.
2. Challenge the definition of accomplishment
I see a lot of people trying to be “accomplished”, but not even knowing what they are trying to accomplish. To find out the answer, we need to slow down and look inside. When we are driven by anxiety and insecurity, our mind is clouded and our heart not genuine.
If you are like me and desire to make a big impact in the world, it’s important to ask if you genuinely care about that impact. Do I sincerely desire to make that impact, or do I think I should? For those who want to start a company, do you genuinely care about the problem the company is solving or you feel you should.
Confront your bad habit
When you feel the need to accomplish again, look closely. The accomplishment-driven mindset is an unhealthy habit, just like smoking. We have a fundamental need to be loved and respected. However, this love and respect doesn’t need to come from others. It can come from within. It’s usually those who have trouble loving and respecting themselves that rely on others to make them feel good. As a result, they constantly feel the need to prove themselves to earn love. To break free from this never ending circle, the only way is to learn to love ourselves. At the end of the day, there is no one who can make you happy, secure, respected other than yourself.
I am still on the journey to learn to love myself, an important lesson I did not learn growing up. How exactly to love ourselves is worth another essay, but what I have realized so far is that it comes from a non-judgmental, unconditional self-acceptance. It means to accept ourselves including all our flaws, while acknowledging that we can grow and change. It means taming our inner critics and nurturing own inner child. Smothering that child with love and not judge her when things don’t go as planned.
3. Challenge the societal “oppression”
If society imposes a certain way of thinking / way of living upon us, in some ways we are “oppressed” by this narrative. To free ourselves, we have to have the guts to challenge what we think is wrong. Instead of celebrating being “young and accomplished”, can we celebrate being “old and wise”? It takes time to savor life, to have clarity, to find inner peace, and to fully accept oneself. Perhaps that’s the ultimate “accomplishment” we are after.
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