I’m 24, and for some reason, I cannot shake the feeling that I’ve already fallen behind.
I’ve tried really hard to reason with myself. I’m not at my dream job yet (whatever that even is), but I’m able to support myself in one of the most expensive cities in the world. That’s something, right?
Wrong! My brain screams back at me. You’re totally f*cked. LOL.
Maybe it was the trashy magazines that messed me up. In middle school, my guilty pleasure was perusing the glossy pages of People and US Weekly, and as a result, I began obsessing over the ages of celebrities, which were always published next to their names. I committed to memory the ages at which Rihanna and Lady Gaga released their first hits (17 and 24) or when Hailee Steinfeld and Jennifer Lawrence got their first Oscar nominations (13 and 20).
As a teen, I began subconsciously using these ages as benchmarks for my own accomplishments, creating cushions of time in which I told myself I could still achieve great things. If I felt directionless at 17, it was okay—after all, Katy Perry didn’t sign with a record label until she was 24! I had time!
I’ve now sworn off tabloids, as well as the urge to directly compare my personal growth with Demi Lovato’s. But an existential pressure to succeed at a young age still remains. Celebrities have now been replaced by the CEOs, consultants, and columnists I see all over my feed—wunderkinds who have managed to craft killer careers and pristine LinkedIn profiles while still in their 20's. Is there any greater jewel in a young professional’s crown than being named as one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 (or better yet — one of Teen Vogue’s 21 Under 21)?
This anxiety is by no means unique to me. When I asked 60 of my peers, in a highly scientific Instagram poll, if they felt pressure to succeed young, 94% responded “Yes.” These are individuals pursuing careers as varied as filmmaking, museum curation, midwifery, education, music, acting, computer science, journalism, politics, design, and more.
If that doesn’t seem like a convincing enough sample size, I offer these two tweets, which have more cumulative likes and retweets than the city of Cleveland has people:
“Why does being in your early 20s feel so much like only having 5 years of your life left in which you need to achieve as much as possible? why do I feel like I have an approaching deadline for success?”
“youth culture is feeling like if you don't succeed by 25 someone will literally come kill you”
Maybe it’s fitting that these message arrived via social media, because in my opinion, it’s really on social platforms that early success become so fetishized. It’s two-pronged — one, it has become easier to share (*cough* brag about *cough*) your accomplishments, and two, it’s obscenely easy to stalk your peers’ precise career paths and compare exactly how you are or aren’t stacking up.
Social media has also created an odd perversion of the “pull yourself by your bootstraps” mentality of the boomers (who constantly deride millennials for their lack of work ethic and morals and values and, you know, common decency). It only takes one video, one tweet, one photo, or one article to go viral— which can create a career in and of itself, or at least increase visibility, which in our current culture can translate to financial success as much as a steady paycheck or an advanced degree can. If you can’t become successful given these technological advances and apparent democratization of resources, like, what are you even doing?
But I have hope. No, really. Because at the end of the day, I am young. We are young! The beauty of our lives and our careers is that we don’t have to know what we’re doing, or be wildly successful yet. We have the liberty of exploring and taking detours and fucking up. When I take a step back, I see that, in my lifetime, I could very well still find my dream job. I could rock a jewel-toned power suit on a daily basis. I could even become one of those people who say “Ciao” instead of “Goodbye,” even though they’re not remotely Italian. The possibilities are truly endless, and it’s for that reason that I keep pushing forward—not because of any list, or because of some arbitrary goal I set when I was in middle school. I’ve set a new goal: crafting a career I’m proud of, whether that happens at 25, 35, or 75.
In the words of Miley Cyrus (another fixation from my tabloid years): “Ain’t about how fast I get there/Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side/It’s the climb.”
Justine Goode is an Associate Editor and Freelance Writer at The Gramlist in NYC. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @social_justine or on her website.
If you or someone you know in the U.S. needs help with substance abuse or mental health issues, call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
Art used in this issue: "Susanna and the Elders" by Artemisia Gentileschi