Elusive happiness: On 27 and feeling like a failure
It seems to be a perpetual theme—one that you almost smile in recognition of. You see yourself in the meme, and you feel a certain sense of relief. Thank GOD, I’m not alone. I’m not the only one who thinks that at 2_, I have not achieved what I thought I could; my days are not what I imagined it might be; and I feel like I’ve failed at life.
Yet for all the comic relief, the reality is less rosy. Just because misery loves company doesn’t mean it’s any less miserable. The doubts creep in: was I ever as smart as I had always believed? Am I really that unique, that talented? Are my parents the only people who really believe in me… well, because they have to?
The doubts are further solidified by people who seem to be put on this earth just to make you feel bad, to ensure that in case, just in case, you thought you were smart, funny, valuable, here was hard proof that you are only mediocre.
How did we get here?
We expect extraordinary to be the baseline: We live in a culture where extraordinary is celebrated: the best athletes, the best singers, the smartest minds, etc. Accomplishing extraordinary things is aspirational, and it is the inspiration these stories spark for which they are featured in newspapers, books and films. There is nothing wrong with admiration. But, the problem is that particularly in American culture, we believe everyone should be extraordinary. Ordinary may as well mean dunce, and scoring average implies you’re the village idiot. We cannot come to terms with the fact that perhaps, we are simply ordinary. And this fights against every ounce of us that has been told since we were kids that we can be anything we want to be, if we just try hard enough. When the bar is unrealistic, dissatisfaction ensues.
Digital peer-to-peer transparency is killing our sanity: Illusory superiority would also have us think we’re better than those around us, which makes not being as successful/happy/liked as the next chick all the more painful. What’s changed in the hyper-transparent and insta-world in which we exist is that we are bombarded with constant reminders of how we are measuring up to our peer set: minute-by-minute, second-by-second. If societal expectations weren’t enough of a stress factor—because let’s be honest, society tells us there’s more social equity in being a consultant than being a street peddler—we now have constant access to/reminders of how our peers, who we shared the starting line with, have more success or better lives. We’ve forgotten to even remotely understand, define and make peace with what actually makes us feel whole.
Fragmentation is splitting our minds on the direction of happy: I would argue there are two schools of thoughts to this—that fragmentation, gamification, multitasking, etc., are broken down into:
- Those who believe that this is the future, and therefore we must all adapt to the new reality and embrace it; and
- Those who believe that we are doing ourselves a great disservice by undermining the focus and discipline of yesteryear
Those of the latter opinion might say that our education has been drilled by an Industrial Revolution system (it has) and the same laws of focus and concentration on a solitary direction no longer apply. We need to embrace the future more than hold nostalgia of the past. Then, the opposite point-of-view might indicate that multitasking does not make us more efficient, but rather more fragmented, with shorter attention spans and inability to really process and understand. It drives us in a million different directions, leading us down the path of being a successful doctor, no politician, no artist and dentist, no… Shallow spurts, no informed point-of-view, which leads me to my next point:
We are unrealistic and impatient: I remember rolling my eyes at an older generation who said that Millennials felt entitled to all the benefits of hard labor without having to put in the work. No, I don’t want to be a corporate cog for 30 years in the hopes of being a CEO one day. I don’t want to do the grunt work for Washington pundits for 20 years in the hopes that one day, I can become one. The external landscape is concurrently changing, of course, as the media highlight the extraordinaires: A brilliant programmer becomes a millionaire at 25; a backpacker with a dream starts a global NGO. That should be me right?
I’m not saying that my parents were wholly right. After all, I believe that unless corporations hyper-evolve to meet the demands of a new generation—one that values life over money and purpose over paycheck—they will undoubtedly lose the best and brightest who are already migrating onto an innovative and empathetic start-up world. But there is a point here. Life shifts don’t happen in a day; they take investment and vision. We still need to put forth the effort to reap the benefit, and we’re disappointed when the easy wins don’t come.
We don’t #JFDIN: I’ll leave this one short. We procrastinate. We think we’ll get started with re-shaping the rest of our lives tomorrow. And then we go to sleep and tomorrow becomes today.
We are in a system that is programmed for dissatisfaction: My friend Kora, who I source all my worthwhile reading from, sent me an article entitled, “Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed.” In it, the author writes: “We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have.” Truth.
From psyche to societal structures and systems, it seems we were always set up to self-doubt and fail. I’ve said all this, and ultimately, I do not feel like a failure after all. Awareness is a first step. Ownership of the things I can control and peace with the external things I cannot are a second. The best I can do is live each day asking if I’m doing everything I can to make my personal dreams come true. And if I can say I am investing in the days, living fully, and working towards my own definition of happiness—can I… can we—ask for more?