Strange things begin to happen to us in our late 20s. Some of us know where our careers are headed. A lot of our peers disappear into the abyss of marriage, never to be heard from again. Some, apparently lucky ones, have it worked out on both those fronts.
And then there is the group that I identify with; those stuck in an inexplicable time warp. Everyone else seems to be moving forward in one direction or the other, and whether we like it or not, we feel like we are falling behind. I still feel like a clueless, disoriented 21 year old, minus the superpower of being able to wake up without a hangover after a night of heavy drinking, which makes the feeling pretty pointless.
Slowly and steadily, the pressure we put on ourselves starts to reflect in the choices we begin to make. We lose our footing, and in an attempt to stretch ourselves to the maximum, we put ourselves in positions we should have never been in to begin with. Society has constructed and implanted this notion in our heads that time is not our friend. When we begin to internalize this, we are suddenly in a mad rush to reach the targets on our prescribed list in order to let the world know that we have, indeed, arrived in life.
We have arrived. In our own way. So, the life lesson I want to share is simply this: Stop selling yourself short.
I’ve spent a lot of time beating myself up for not knowing exactly what I want from my life. How could I not? When one is surrounded by extremely intelligent, driven and successful people it’s very easy to fall into a zone of low self esteem where we feel we’re not doing enough. To overcome that I tried to take on more and more things, for a while, and pretty soon I felt exhausted all the time. I was finally cognizant of the fact that my expectations from myself, and how I should be as an individual, are pretty up there. I want to be able to write something weekly, travel, work 70 hours a week, learn yoga and still have time to unwind, read, cook, watch plays and be with my family and friends. What I probably am in desperate need of is the time turner Hermione had in the third Harry Potter book.
I’ve been the person who’d stretch herself too thin at work, thinking that’s the only way to prove my worth. But here’s what no one tells us about careers. People work very hard and over incredibly long periods of time to get where they do and, more often than not, it takes time to get there. Everyone doesn’t need to wake up at 25 being CEOs of their own enterprises. If everyone joins a startup, do we leave it to the stupid people (unfortunately, they do exist) to run the existing empires set up decades ago? While all of social media now pushes us to believe that we should love what we do or quit our job, it is okay to not love what we do. It’s just important to not hate it. Sometimes it’s okay, and enough, to have a job which pays for the things we love doing.
With relationships, I have a somewhat similar story. The conclusion a normal person would derive from the description above is that while choosing who to spend my time with, I would hold the same ridiculous standard for them. This is however, almost entirely untrue.
I have spent a large part of my adult life rationalizing everyone’s behaviour, because I think it’s unfair for anyone to match my expectations. There have been relationships which I’ve held on to for years on end justifying the insensitive, thoughtless and terrible things people have done. When it was a lack of communication and affection from their end, I rationalized it to be an inability to express themselves or that something must be keeping them extremely busy. Every time a friendship or a murky relationship failed I rationalized it to the extent where the other person was completely faultless. In my own brain, I stripped down every flaw and idiosyncrasy of mine that I was aware of and tried to map it to how every time someone behaved badly with me, it was something I had triggered.
What I am now ashamed to admit is that in this headless chicken dance to conform to societal norms and to find “my person”, I have allowed people who were perhaps wrong for me from the very start, to enter my life and trample all over me . In my mind, this has nothing to do with them and everything to do with me because I let them. And I let them because for most of my life I’ve wanted people to like me as universally as a spoon of Nutella. But unlike the Nutella, which is really what everyone should thank for existing, I placed no value on myself.
A recent trip to Dubai helped me understand all this a little better. Dubai has reclaimed land, and no one can deny that in itself it is an engineering marvel. The roads are wide and sprawling. The city is spotless. There are high-rises everywhere and the beaches are sublime and beyond beautiful. Everything is organized and runs in a clockwork fashion.Yet it felt unreal, as if I was in the SimCity video game. A friend who was showing me around was filling me in on how the sheikhs woke up every Sunday (which is their Monday) and decided they wanted to push their engineering marvel a little further. We had a little laugh about it because neither of us could see any scope for improvement, at least, infrastructurally.
My epiphany came in that car drive. Driving past the perfect artificial landscapes, I realized that life was a process; one of constantly evolving, not simply of being a flawless high achiever. I am still pushing at my rough edges, still sorting out things in my workplace and still constructing my personal world with the people in it. I know now that while it’s great to set ridiculous standards for yourself and let them be a driving force, that is no excuse for you to constantly berate yourself for not having a career that consumes your being or to settle for friendships and relationships that don’t bring out the best that already exists in you.