In Reality Bites, Winona Ryder’s Lelaina lamented, “I was really going to be somebody by the time I was 23.” She’s not the only one who feels like a failure for being still short of extraordinary at this ripe age. I, too, felt panic set in when I turned 23 without a book deal, a marriage proposal, or even my own place. Before you brush us off as entitled brats, consider these: S. E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was sixteen. Joan of Arc fought in the siege of Orleans when she was seventeen. LeBron James was drafted to the NBA with the first overall pick when he was eighteen.
“This world demands the qualities of youth,” Robert Kennedy once said. Success at a young age must be so sweet. But when you’re twenty-three, it’s more like, it’s now or never. Time is running out. You’re screwed if you have a dead-end job; you’re even more screwed if you don’t have a job.
Either way, you’re stuck in a rut. When I confessed these fears to a friend, she presented a theory: If you have either a great career or the love of your life by the time you’re thirty, you still have a shot. If you’re still working at the corner deli and going on blind dates, Hell, you might as well give up there and then.
With just seven years between me and the rest of my life, I found asking myself the following questions useful: Is this the career for me? Probably not. Maybe I should quit my job. Is he The One? Definitely not. I should stop wasting my time. Is this the best I can do? Is it? Oh, I can do better. And the inevitable: is this all there is? Please, God, no.
But is it really that black and white? There are more than seven billion people in this world. Surely not all our lives are meant to be that exciting, and success, if it can be measured, is so subjective. Moreover, being ordinary is not a curse. The real misfortune lies in the delusions of grandeur we continue to harbor. We dread the complacency of adulthood even as we yearn for it. Maybe it’s because the cubicle and, a few years down the road,
the corner office come hand in hand with the inevitable narrowing of our life choices. At your job at the bank, or the insurance company, or the marketing agency, you wonder: Can I still change the world one day? Most likely, we become a poor man’s Ulysses: to strive, to seek, not to find, and ultimately, to yield.
The question, then, is: how do we wrest meaning from the mundane? I wish I know the answer to that. To live in the moment, to find beauty in everyday life, to love and be loved — the list goes on. These are usually easier said than done. What we sometimes forget is just how small we are and how small our lives are in the scheme of things. Our hopes and
dreams may feel as big as the stars but they pale considerably in comparison. And that’s okay.
We are so young, and we still have so much time to learn. At thirteen or fifteen, twenty-three felt like the be all end all, not to mention a lifetime away. Now that it’s here, it’s only the beginning. I’m not saying you shouldn’t strive for greatness, but maybe, just maybe, the only person you have to be when you’re 23 is yourself.