- We tend to see ourselves in terms of other people and their accomplishments.
- Happiness depends on living up to your own potential and doing your personal best.
- Who we are is actually who we’re supposed to be.
- Accepting that fact can allow you to do more and better.
Jack had just returned from his 50th law school reunion. “I felt like the black sheep,” he told me. “I actually left early.” The trouble with academic milestones, like the one that Jack had just passed, is that they’re insidious little hotbeds of invidious comparison. You look at one of your erstwhile classmates, and either you’re smug or full of envy. Jack fell into the latter category. “It was like everybody was a judge or a managing partner,” he said. “What the hell did I ever do?”
As we age, we want to feel like we’ve lived up to our potential, made a contribution, maybe even made a splash. It’s galling to feel mediocre. But so many of us do. So, the question, as I told Jack, was how to accept ourselves. More particularly, what is the right measure of what we’ve achieved—and how, finally, do we stop worrying about it?
Jack had gone to an Ivy League law school at a time, he assured me, when they were “easier” to get into. “So, you had geniuses and guys like me,” he said. His point was that, over time, the wheat and the chaff would separate into judges, managing partners . . . and everyone else. Jack felt like an also-ran. He’d joined a decent firm on the basis of his law school pedigree but, ultimately, drifted towards a small suburban practice that never did much to test his legal chops.
By the measure of the people at his reunion, Jack was not one that the school would likely cultivate. “They get us all there, and remind us how far we’ve come, and the idea is that we’ll be so grateful that we’ll write big checks,” he grinned. “Well, I wasn’t part of their calculation.” In fact, Jack had wondered whether he should even attend. Over the years, he’d followed his classmates as they rose through the profession or — in some case—branched off into “interesting” pursuits like writing legal thrillers. Jack, on the other hand, felt bland. He looked back on his life from every available professional perspective, and felt like he’d wandered in the wilderness.
As we age, we tend to assess our lives—who are we and, more to the point, who have we been? Events like class reunions, where we compare ourselves to people out of the gate at the same time, feel like legitimate occasions to criticize or blame ourselves for falling behind. It’s hard to deny the obvious and easy to succumb to what-ifs. In fact, Jack told me that once he and his classmates identified each other (“Okay, no one looked 25 anymore”), everyone gravitated towards their professional peers. “Nobody bothered with me, since I was kind of invisible.” It’s not like Jack was full of regret or a sense that he’d failed, so much as that he felt second-rate.
So, how do we deal with an honest sense of our own limitations? How do we look back on what we’ve accomplished—when it hasn’t been all that much—and not feel that our lives have been pointless? It’s hard sometimes, especially when we’ve gone to the right schools, when a lot has been expected of us, and we’ve come to believe all the hype about who and what we’re supposed to be.
There are a million reasons why we may not have become world-beaters. For starters, there’s always the competition, i.e., we may in fact be pretty good, but somebody may always be better. Is that a reason to be downcast? We may not have wanted to work as hard, even though we made a respectable effort. We may have wanted other things at a time when we missed opportunities. We may have just had bad luck. Who knows?
If we still turned out okay, then comparisons will only make us miserable. Part of aging with a kind of emotional serenity is to stop comparing ourselves to everyone else. Sure, some people have done better. They always will. But we need to accept ourselves for who we are.
Acceptance is a complicated proposition. Insofar as it applies to our sense of self, it means that we give ourselves a pass based on how we got here. The backstory matters, and no one’s is ever simple. With our own story in mind, it’s okay to settle into who we are without imagining who we might have been. It’s maddening to assume that we might have been different, better, a mightier upholder of the American Way. This is who we are now. The rest is pointless wheel-spinning.
Of course, we may wish we had done more in service to humanity and left a more substantial legacy. But it won’t help to berate ourselves for not having done so. The fact is, there is no going back. Did we take full advantage of our opportunities? Did fate play a role? Doesn’t matter. Here we are. Only in the weirdest of quantum trajectories can time travel in reverse.
I suggested to Jack that instead of comparing himself to his glittering classmates, he be the best that he can going forward. The renowned psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson, observed that the main conflict we negotiate in old age is accepting who we are vs. despair over who we’re not. If we assume that despair is immobilizing and leaves us feeling hopeless, then acceptance (what Erikson terms “reconciliation”) is its opposite, the sense that while we cannot change ourselves, we can still make the most of who we are. Starting now.
But suppose we don’t want to start a series of podcasts when we’re 80? Suppose we just feel that we’ve done what we could, and that’s it. Well, that’s okay too. If we’ve come in second, or even in 100th, place, that’s not sufficient reason to feel defensive or demoralized. Life is too short. We can’t assume that we didn’t live up to our potential just because someone else has done more.
Maybe our “potential” was inflected with competing desires that no one could disparage. Maybe we did take wrong turns, but are we really supposed to be perfect? If we all lived theoretical lives, with no real incidents, we’d all be held to a higher, theoretical standard. But, in fact, we lived actual lives, with all the incidents that made us real people. We should accept our own reality because we can’t be anyone else.