Recently, I was having lunch with a young friend I hadn’t seen in a while, and we were having a nice time catching up on each other’s lives. She told me what her plans were for the immediate future, and then added wistfully, “But I’ll be thirty soon, and I’m not exactly where I thought I would be by now.” Now this was coming from a young woman who has already lived in several foreign countries, is bilingual, and preparing for a career in international service, so at first that remark seemed a bit odd for someone who has already accomplished so much. But then I remembered how I felt when I was in my twenties, and I understood exactly what she meant.
I remembered when I had also thought that there were certain milestones I needed to reach by a certain age if I wanted to be successful and happy. At the time, my idea of success hinged on publishing several books of middle-grade fiction, or at the very least, working as an editor or writer for some local publication, and I wanted to accomplish this before the age of thirty. And I remember how very disappointed and ashamed I was when that didn’t happen.
The thing is, life rarely works out according to plan. It’s true that sometimes we just don’t work hard enough to reach our goals, but other times, circumstances we can’t control get in the way. Industries change, economies crash, our health can fail: all sorts of unforeseen barriers can pop up between us and what we think we want to do. So it just doesn’t make sense to pin all our hopes and dreams, and even our very sense of self-worth, on the idea of achieving specific goals according to a specific time line. Real life doesn’t work that way, but I think that’s a lesson that takes a while to learn.
Now I believe that life isn’t anything like a check list of accomplishments that need to be crossed off as we go along. I believe it’s more important to follow our dreams and passions, always give our best effort, and still be ready to adapt as circumstances require. That doesn’t mean giving up, it just means realizing that there are many, many, ways to be happy and successful, and to stop limiting ourselves to a preconceived notion of exactly what we need to accomplish and when we need to accomplish it.
I never did publish a book of middle grade fiction, but I am a published author, and I have found different ways to work as a writer. Some of my goals may never be realized, but I have also been so lucky to experience so many wonderful things and do so many things I never thought I could. (I still remember the total awe I felt when I first stood on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, because that was something I had never imagined I would do.) Life always holds something unexpected for us, sometimes bad, but sometimes surprisingly good.
I don’t remember exactly what I told my friend that day, but the gist of it was that I advised her to stop thinking in terms of timelines, and to just keep pursuing both her personal and professional dreams as best she could. I told her she should be proud of all that she has already accomplished, and not waste time regretting the things she hasn’t been able to do. Because life is for living, not for measuring or judging.