When I was 22, I was struck by an overwhelming truth, or what I believed to be the truth: I was old. At 21 I was a spring chicken; at 22, the crypt keeper.
Over the next few years, the belief only deepened. By 26 I was a fossil collecting dust. I was ready to be marked “fragile” and shipped off to a museum, placed in an exhibit in the back with a placard stating, “Millennial, circa 2018. Accomplishments: None.”
As children, we’re bombarded with questions of what we want to be when we grow up. We’re told to dream big, that we can be anything. At 7 I had the potential to be the future president of the United States of America. At 22 I had the potential to qualify for living below the poverty line if I only made $1,000 less per year.
Meaning, I was broke enough to be pitied, but not broke enough to be offered help. I was in limbo.
We’re told to shoot for the moon, and if we miss we’ll land among the stars. Too bad no one told us the stars are basically a pile of garbage. And no one likes garbage. To quote the great April Ludgate (you do watch “Parks and Recreation,” don’t you?), “Moon or quit, man.”
But really, the stars are free-floating balls of gas and light rocketing through infinite darkness. Landing among them meant I was lost forever. The moon was solid and stable. The stars were chaotic, impossible to latch on to. I was destined to spend the rest of my life grasping for one and missing every time.
Since I didn’t land on the moon (and honestly I didn’t even know what my moon was, so what exactly was I aiming for?), it felt too late for me to become anything. Maybe it’s because we’re expected to know what we want to be as kids, or maybe it’s because of social media, but I felt that because I wasn’t a huge success, I had failed. On top of that, I thought I was past my prime.
Everywhere I looked, people were landing book deals at 24 years old, starting companies and launching apps while in college, and basically just creating the next best things and being wunderkinds. I felt like there was no way I could catch up. It was like success was a never-ending race of who could get the furthest fastest.
But as I approached my 27th birthday, something started changing. I found myself suddenly unemployed – and I was OK. Even relieved. I could breathe. I didn’t have a job or an income and I was happy. This went against everything I thought I knew. I started putting together the pieces of what success actually means to me. Spoiler: it’s not being Insta-famous or making six figures.
On my 27th birthday, I felt light. When someone asked the super annoying question of whether I felt any older, I paused to truly think about it. And the answer was a welcome surprise: I didn’t feel any older at all. In fact, I felt younger than I ever had. I was practically a newborn baby. How hadn’t I realized it sooner?
It’s not too late for me. It’s not too late for you, either. I’m going to say something deeply profound now: Age is stupid. And success isn’t one-size-fits-all. There’s more than one moon out there. We’re not all going to end up in the same place. Jupiter has like 37 moons (I looked this up after writing my first draft and it actually has 79. Seventy-nine!). And there’s probably a gazillion more out there waiting to be discovered.
I could find my moon in two years if I publish the book I’m working on. I could find another moon in 10 years by discovering some new passion. I could find a new moon at 89. It’s never too late to try new things and follow your curiosity. I have to let go of expectations and trust that I’ll choose what’s right for me. What you do with your life at 22 doesn’t determine your entire trajectory.
I wish I had known that then, but part of this whole not worrying about the future thing means I can’t dwell on the past, either. I’m just going to hold tight to my young little heart and focus on what makes me happy now.
The rest is merely space junk.
Kate Gardner is a Portland-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, SELF, and Bustle. You can follow her on Twitter @katevgardner.