Thought Catalog

Read This If You’re In Your Twenties And Feel Like You Have Nothing To Show For It

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I am 22 years old and so far, I am inches away from a degree, have had two full-time jobs that have taught me more about the world and myself than I’d even care to admit, and I am in a loving, thriving relationship. From the outside, there are many, many people who would kill to have the things that I have.

But alas, here I am, feeling sorry for myself about the fact that I’m not going to be a doctor, a high-profile engineer, a famous model, or a world-renowned scientist. I mean, there’s nothing that says I couldn’t still do those things if I wanted to, but, I wouldn’t be so young to have achieved those things. I look at all of my former classmates and people who I’ve met through the various stages of my life and I see future doctors, people with their own art studios, people who have gotten into Masters programs at high-profile universities, engineering students with 4.0 GPAs, and leaders of rapidly progressing social movements.

All of these accomplishments just seem to be so much more than the things I have accomplished. As a species, we seem to naturally compare ourselves to others, so I suppose it makes sense that I would be doing just that. But doing so made me sad. I felt worthless. I “used to be” smart, I “used to be” motivated, and I “used to be” all of the things that make someone “great.” I felt a profound sense of loss: what had happened to the girl who everyone said was “going places”?

I expressed these feelings to a couple of my closest friends and one said, “But Dan, you are trying! You are trying harder than most and that is a truly admiral quality.”

Then she said: “Piece of paper or not, you have achieved a lot and this is only the beginning for you.”

After some thought, I realized that she was right. In fact, she was very right. Why was I in such a rush to accomplish things? Why do I continuously compare myself to others? More importantly, why is it that we all do it? And why do we use such a narrow list of criteria to define success?

Maybe it stems from our parents’ generation, who went to school, got a good job, stayed in that job for 30+ years, and then retired with a nice, fat (or perhaps meagre) pension. Maybe it’s because many people still believe that that’s what one should set out to do.

Perhaps it’s because we still, for some reason, use academics as the ultimate measure of ability. If you’re academically gifted, then you’re bound for greatness. If not, well, you’ll find something.

Maybe it’s because, when I wanted to be an educator, people looked at me and said, “What a waste of a good mind.”

Maybe it’s because we also measure success in dollars. The more money one makes, the more likely one is to be labelled “successful.”

Maybe it’s because our society measures success in things. Fancy car? They must be a successful businessperson. Big house? Well, they must be a doctor. Which means they’re smart. Which means they got good grades in school. Which means they worked hard academically. Which means they had a good work ethic and means they got where they “wanted” to be.

I edit my writing as I go, so, I just went back and re-read that, and as I did, I realized that it’s all true. That is really how we measure success.

And what a farce that is.

We are so much more than numbers on a piece of paper. We are made of dreams, emotions, ingenious ideas, spirit, and love. We are so much more than how we fit into the teeny tiny box in which we’re expected to live our lives.

With that in mind, I thought of something: what if we measured success not in grade point averages, the value of our belongings, or the number of zeros on our paychecks? What if – and hold on tight for this one – we measured success in happiness?

What a radical idea.

What if the person who makes crafts and sells them at the Farmer’s Market to make ends meet was the happiest person you had ever met?

What if the actor, who sleeps all day and is up all night at rehearsals and film shoots, constantly wore a smile?

What if the person who works behind the counter at the convenience store, who tells every single customer to have a good day, every day, has six kids who are all lovely people and will grow up to make the world a little brighter?

To me, all of these things equal success. If you have a dream, chase it and don’t ever look back.

If your dream is to be a brain surgeon who saves people’s lives every single day, then by golly, you put in the work and you do it. 

If your dream is to be an engineer who builds extraordinary ships or bridges or buildings, then you go do that calculus homework and you graduate with that Engineering Degree.

If your dream is to be a pumpkin farmer with four kids, a cow, and a dog, then you better start researching the best types of soil for pumpkins to grow in and start childproofing and pet-proofing your house.

It might sound silly at first. I have my doubts, too, about chasing my dreams. Even as I sit here, writing this blog post in the bathtub with a makeshift desk and a roll-up-the-rim cup of coffee from Tim’s (on which I won nothing) that I actually wish was from Starbucks, I’m thinking to myself:

Am I just saying all this to make myself feel better?

I won’t lie, it does put my mind at ease. But I also truly believe it. Success should not and cannot be measured by your grades in a program that you hate, or the fact the you’re making over 100k a year doing a job that shatters your soul. Success should be about what we want out of life and whether or not we achieve our own personal goals. And I vow to start making it that way for me.

So, to you I say: if you’re someone who’s on the fast track to academic, professional, or financial success, then good on you. That’s truly amazing and I wish you all the best.

If you’re a person who’s struggling to make ends meet but doing something that you pour your heart into every single day, then good on you, too. That’s also a measure of success.

And if you’re like me, and you’re still trying to figure it out, then have no fear: you’ll find your niche, and no matter what that is, you can achieve success.

Let’s stop comparing each other’s achievements and successes and start sharing in each other’s joys, regardless of the place from which that joy comes. We all have something to offer this world and we all deserve to be happy. Stopping the comparisons might just be the first step. TC mark

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