In both work and social spheres I regularly encounter people who spend much of their time trying to reconcile life to their expectations. Often you find that their expectations are based on a long list of should be scenarios. For example:
- By 21 I should have my university degree.
- By 25 I should be making an X amount of money.
- I’m smarter/prettier than her. No way should she be picked over me.
- People say it’s very difficult to marry when you’re older, so I should be married before I turn thirty.
- My friend summited Mount Kilimanjaro in six days, so I should take no longer than that.
- It took Facebook eight years since inception to list on a public stock exchange, so my company should aim for something similar.
Many are always assessing what their lives should be like. Measuring yourself against should be scenarios like the ones above will inevitably place undue pressure on you. The more “should be’s” you live with, the less happy you’re likely to be. Imperceptibly this mindset took root in me during my early twenties, until I realized how generalized and inappropriate the should be scenarios I held were. I expected immense wealth and status by the time I turned twenty five, with no idea of how I would do it or any appreciation of the sacrifices that were required.
Before you feel like you aren’t where you should be in life, I urge you to consider the following:
What is “Ideal” Based On?
Look closely at what your goals are based on. How did you determine what an ideal life is? Often we form a picture of the way our lives should be by observing peers and absorbing what the media portrays to us. When I think carefully, it was peer pressure and a relentless exposure to consumer culture on television and the Internet that caused me to focus so much on material enrichment.
Your standards and ideals should be based on your character, values and interests, rather than society’s prescription. Marrying, owning a double storey home with a picked fence, driving two cars and having two kids is a stereotyped ideal that many still pursue, for instance. Yet if you are a spontaneous minded soloist this scenario would probably make you unhappy. A simple apartment, a cat and a well developed public transport system could be all you require to be content.
The ideal life is a matter of opinion and interpretation. It is not a one size fits all package. Rather it is something you have to identify by yourself without undue influence from peers and societal norms.
Focus on what’s Eternal
Eternal values like love, truth, peace of mind and control over your time form the foundation of happiness. When you shed all pretences of the way life should be, you will see that you require just a few simple things to make it enjoyable. Grow and express life’s eternal values rather than pursuing generic ideals. When you do this you may find that your life is actually fulfilled as it is, negating the need to compare your present situation to some hypothetical ideal.
As a sprinkling over this foundation of eternal values will be some worthwhile goals and pursuits. One must carefully select what they pursue in life. Many times achieving what you think will transform your life in theory will only make you marginally happier in reality. That exceedingly expensive watch you have been eyeing for years may draw admiration from acquaintances and strangers, but it will not mend a strained relationship you may have with your partner. The sheen tends to wear off quickly for acquisitions that are materialistic or status-related in nature.
When I started paying close attention to the activities that genuinely made me happy, a short list comprising of things that were either cheap or free formed — things like reading novels with my wife, swimming and cycling. Sure, money and recognition are nice extras that I enjoy working for, but it has sunk in for me that I already have most of what I need to call my life ideal. Goals to me are nice to have extras, not reasons to be discontent.
Stop Agonizing and get Going
Make no mistake, pursuits and goals that are well thought out provide adventure and purpose to your life. By no means are you being asked to drop all ambition and just accept things as they are. What you are being asked to do though is to ensure that your desires and ideals are self-determined, and that they inspire you to act rather than induce feelings of inadequacy.
People spend too much time bemoaning what’s wrong or missing in their lives instead of rectifying it. Imagine agonizing for hours over an unsightly crack in your lounge wall. It would seem silly to spend so much time remaining bitter about the crack when it would take no more than two hours to paint the wall. Yet this is what we spend much of our waking lives doing when certain aspects of our lives are less than ideal. People spend time indulging despair instead of getting out and doing what’s needed to get closer to the situation they want. That great something you want is not as far off as you think it is if you could eliminate procrastination and diligently apply yourself.
Your Time Will Come
There is no need to feel like you’re behind where you should be in life. Comparing yourself to people you consider to be peers is not always wise, because as much as we identify ourselves with certain groups, we are also each here to have unique experiences and insights. My professional career has veered significantly from the friends I studied with at university, so it’s pointless to compare myself to them. Whoever has more money, status or satisfaction between us is irrelevant because we all have different circumstances and objectives.
We come of age at different times in different aspects of life. So let go off what life should be like, pick a few worthwhile pursuits and apply yourself consistently. When you do this, any feelings of regret and inadequacy you have will be replaced by grace and contentment.