I was an overachiever in my 20s.
When I hit 21, I started really kicking my own career-oriented ass. Every choice I made was strategic, always striving for the next feather in my cap. I started taking professional jobs in the theater and film industry while most of my peers were still working exclusively in a school setting. Going to class, going to a professional job, then rehearsing a school production became a normal thing for me for the last two years of my college career. I was the person people looked to for advice, because usually, I had been there before they had.
For a while it all seemed so simple. I'd simply set my sights on something I wanted and through hard work and charm -- and honestly a lot of luck -- I almost always got what I wanted. Friends always talked about struggling in "The Biz," and though I always participated in the "Oh yeah, I'm so stressed, I'm so exhausted, when will it end?" talk, it was a bit of a front for me -- saying all that stuff to sound normal -- because in actuality it all felt relatively easy.
By the time I was 26, my career was on track, I had a fancy job that my mentor described as "a real grown-up job," I was in demand as an artist in certain circles, and though I didn't realize it at the time I was luxuriating in the fact that I was still the "go to" person most of my friends would go to for career advice.
I was Leonardo DiCaprio flying on the bow of a boat that I didn't know was going to sink.
I remember one summer, my "Camelot" summer as I affectionatley think of it. Everything was perfect. Work was challenging but not all-consuming. I was praised for the new programing I was creating, and I had the trust and respect of the higher ups. Outside of my day job, I was working for one of the oldest continuously producing LGBTQ theatres in the country, that afforded me not only some great artistic cred, but also a most excellent social life.
I worked hard, I played hard, I barely slept, and for the first time in my life I had a little bit of expendable income. Toward the end of the summer, while lying on the beach in Venice, CA with some friends, I remember thinking to myself, "I'm so completely happy. How long can this last?"
"Camelot" by definition cannot last forever.
I enjoyed the comfort of my job and career for another year and a half after that summer, but even before all the good times ended, I started to feel a slow slide into something else.
Things weren't as easy as they used to be. I was starting to burn out at my job. Office politics and corporate red tape that I had previously been impervious to, now irked me more and more. Work was now not only hard, but felt thankless at times. The depression I thought I'd beaten, came roaring back.
For the first time ever, at the age of 29, I sat in my office's bathroom, feet curled up so nobody could see me under a stall door, and wept because I was so unhappy. Even as I was crying, I knew I was a cliche.
By the time I was 30, I was experiencing something entirely new: doubt. Sure, I'd experienced doubt before, wondering whether I was making the right decision in my career, wondering how option A would turn out versus option B. But in the past I'd always had a sense of trust in my abilities, and confidence that no matter what I'd land on my feet.
However, at 30 having moved from Los Angeles to Hawai'i, working in a new less "glamorous" job, and for the first time in my life not on a "career track," doubt began to rule my life. Instead of seeing the next step, making it a goal, and achieving it, I started to question what the next step was.
Yes, there was some happiness in the mix, as I made a conscious effort to enjoy my far less stressful life in retail. But the stretches of contentedness started to dwindle and by the time I hit 31, I felt rather aimless -- another new, horrifying feeling for me.
I began envying the peers I'd previously coached, as they began embarking on their "grown-up" jobs. I became the person I'd always pitied. When something good happened for a friend, though I would be genuinely happy for them, part of me always wondered, "Why do THEY have it together and not me? Why not me?"
My tipping point came when, in the midst of a deep depressive funk, I thought back on my previous, 20-something self, and felt a momentary pang of intimidation. That person was a stranger, I envied her. How could I be here again?
In this period of navel gazing, I was so obsessed with my own lack of self worth, that I didn't really come up for air long enough to notice that I wasn't alone. Then my friend Anna called me.
When I got the message from her, I avoided calling her back at first. A couple years younger than me, Anna had always been a spunky, hard working, overachiever too, and the last thing I wanted to hear was how great she was doing. However, I got over myself long enough to call her back, and I will forever be happy that I did.
I wasn't alone! Anna, was in fact, calling for advice. Facing the end of her 20's, Anna was in the exact same boat as me. Having had an enviable job in the film industry for the past few years, working for some of the industry's biggest names, she was burnt out and attempting to find a new career, but she felt lost.
We laughed, I cried a little, and though I could only offer what my experience was so far in what I'd dubbed, "The 31 Slump" (it can happen at any age, but "31 Slump" had a ring to it), it felt incredible to know I wasn't the only one. We talked for three hours that day, crying out with relief, "ME TOO!" every time we hit on a shared experience of the overachiever turned "underachiever."
And though we didn't come to any epiphanies over what to do with our lives, I left the conversation not feeling so pathetic. If this woman who I respected so much, fancy job or not, was having such problems, then perhaps all was not lost.
I started to open up my ears a little more and get back in touch with some of the friends I'd been avoiding talking to. Maybe it was because I started paying attention, but I began noticing something.
Many remarkable women I knew were experiencing the same thing as me. Smart, talented, overachieving women, who had burned brightly in their 20s, were now finding themselves stuck in career ruts around age 29-32. A late 20s/early 30s not-so-sweet spot.
For some it was that they had worked so hard to achieve their career dreams, that by the time they got their dream job, they found they had nowhere else to go, or they weren't in fact all that interested in their "dream job" after all. For others, like myself, they found themselves attempting to switch careers, "later in life," and felt unfocused and fearful of what they'd done to their lives. Either way the result was the same, that shell shocked feeling of "HOW THE HELL DID I GET HERE? WHO HAVE I BECOME? I'M SUPPOSED TO BE BETTER THAN THIS."
I'd like to say I've surpassed The Slump, but that would be a lie. As I've since said to Anna, I think I'm over the "Hump of the Slump", and my good days outnumber my bad, but there are still days I can't quite believe this is my life -- for better or for worse.
I bring up "The 31 Slump" or "The 29 Slump" or "The 35 Slump" or whatever you want to call it, not so much because I know how to fix it, as I believe that's a very personal thing, but because knowing that I wasn't THE ONLY ONE was a huge step in healing myself. Being able to acknowledge and appreciate that this was and is an important milestone in my growth as a person, was like hitting level two of adulthood.
I suppose I can offer this bit of advice, from the other side of "The Hump": You're not SUPPOSED to be anything. If you need to wallow for a little bit, then wallow, but when it's done, be done with it, put on your big girl pants, and move forward -- even if it's tiny bit by tiny bit.
You are not a failure for being unhappy. You are not a failure for changing your mind. You only fail yourself if you don't try to make yourself happy. You're not too old to learn new things, to make new mistakes, to ask for help, to reinvent yourself. Who you are tomorrow may be colored by who you were yesterday, but nobody -- not your past yourself, not your peers -- can dictate what you can, or cannot do.
I'm still trying to live by these words.
So I hope this helped. I feel really hopeful for this new year. And at the risk of sounding like a totally sap-tastic 32-year-old, looking ahead at 300-something days of who-knows-what is exciting again, instead of daunting.
I hope you feel the same way.
Are you in the "The 31 Slump" (whatever age you are)? Have you ever been in "The Slump"? How are you dealing with it? How did you overcome it? Share your wisdom!