Last week, I quietly turned 35. There was no cake. No candles. No onslaught of Facebook alerts throughout the day filled with virtual well wishes. In fact, I told no one about my birthday and planned nothing for it. A decade ago, this would have been unthinkable. I would have celebrated by throwing a big party with my best friend, who shares a birthday very close to mine, and our scattered group of friends. Pervading the festivities would be that inexplicable, intoxicating feeling of power and possibility: Anything can happen when you’re 25. Everything can happen when you’re 25.
I remember so much about turning 25. I remember feeling sexy and confident in a slinky green dress. I remember feeling jubilant for no reason in particular other than I had made it to my quarter-century milestone. Back then, it didn’t matter if I was in a serious relationship or had a steady job or any savings. What I cared most about was that I was pursuing my dreams and everyday presented a fresh opportunity to turn those fantasies into reality.
When I turned 30, I wrote a blog post with the question Do Your Dreams Die When You Get Older? In it I described how and why dreams don’t just die on their own, we kill them. We become lazy or entitled, adopt a pack mentality towards failure, or simply, convince ourselves that we are better suited for practicality.
At 35, I’m still at a point where I have not figured out my life. Despite going to grad school, being in a fulfilling relationship, and working on my first book, the future that I had so desperately wanted at 25 still seems just as distant now as it did back then. I am reminded of this every time I have a conversation with my mother who asks me why I am not married yet or assures me that one day I will be wealthy, suggesting that absent these two things, there is no way that I could be happy or satisfied with who I am and what I have accomplished thus far. That I am not enough.
It’s not my mother’s fault for thinking this way or never ceasing to remind me of these things. She is just echoing the commonly accepted sentiments of modern social discourse. This is what’s normal. This is what’s supposed to happen. In a moment of serendipity the other day, I came across a powerful personal essay by author and French fashion maven, Garance Doré, called Late Boomer. (It’s worth reading the entire piece.) By most accounts, Doré is very successful and she knows it. She has written a New York Times bestseller. She runs a successful business. She is happily married. She has very nice clothes. She has money. But she didn’t have a child. She was 40 when she visited her OB-GYN “who immediately freaked out” when she told her that she wanted to start trying to have kids. From there, Doré’s attempts deteriorate from hopeful to hopeless until finally at 42, she ultimately decides to forgo her mission to have children and simply rely on fate. Whatever happens happens.
On the surface, Doré has everything my mother and I currently yearn for (wealth, a successful business, a loving husband), but for those couple years, it still wasn’t enough for her to be satisfied with her life. Instead, those years were infiltrated by fear, and helplessness, until at 42, she finally decides to let go all the guilt and the struggle of not being able to have kids easily. She explains:
“Truth is, life is not fair, and life has no rules…Sometimes the most we can do is nothing. Just let life decide and fall in love with our destiny. That’s what we chose to do, for now.”
The 25-year-old me might see this acquiescence as a sign of weakness, a call to surrender, to give up her dreams. But the 35-year-old me no longer does. It’s too much work, too much self-inflicted pain, too much agony to punish myself every day for the things that I do not have and may never have. A year ago, I began seeing a therapist for my anxiety about the future. I met with her only a handful of times, before I believed I was cured. For a short time I was my old, hopeful, normal self. But during the last few months, those familiar feelings of self-doubt and anguish have returned, no doubt in anticipation of my most recent age milestone and the fact that nothing has really changed during the last 12 months, my mindset included.
One reason I have always been so drawn to psychology is that its entire goal is to understand our behavior, to make sense of our motivations, to explain why we are the way we are. But knowing why something happens does not necessarily guarantee that you can or will prevent it from happening. Your personality doesn’t change overnight, just because research tells you why it should. And even though Doré’s words powerfully resonate with me today, tomorrow they may mean nothing.
Maybe that’s exactly the point.
At 35, I still have power. It’s not the same limitless power as it was a decade ago, the kind fueled primarily by fantasy and youth, with a million possibilities all aimed toward some predefined, socially acceptable version of success. Today's power relies on something different altogether, and requires more strength, more conviction, and more open mindedness. This is the power to let go. The power to abandon what's supposed to happen and instead embrace what happens. To give ourselves a break from pursuing that hard, singular path toward fame, fortune, love, and all the other goals we are conditioned to strive for—that make us feel unworthy until we have them in our clutches.
Today's power is a choice. A choice to believe that there is more than one formula for success and joy, no matter what other people think or say. It’s being the satisficer, who is willing to accept very good to the maximizer’s very best. And it’s what I choose today.