It happened to me right away. The instant that I graduated college, I knew my best years were behind me. They had to be. All the "potential" was now over, and the rest of my life would be a long, stammering answer to the ever-present adult-person-accountability Greek chorus of: "Justify your existence."
Yes, this is the perpetual question you are asked (either verbally or nonverbally) as an adult in the working world. Fine, you did that one thing for me the one time, but what have you done for me lately? This month? This week? This hour? Yes, the relationship was hot and sexy when the two of us first met, but what have those fireworks been like lately?
Gone is the disproportionate fawning over that exploding volcano you built for the science fair or the effusive praise you receive as you first head off to prom and then your first college formal and then oh my you look so grownup in your graduation cap and gown.
Yes, as an old person, all you get is: "What have you done for me lately?"
Which might be a major reason people hate getting older. You become one of the Post "Potential Years" People. Hell, that might cause more aging than actual physiological aging itself -- and it's controllable. All that has to be changed is the perspective. If you see yourself as having more pure potential than any other time in your existence at this very moment, every year as you get older, it's like life force coursing through your veins.
Because think about it, pre-21, young people are to be coddled and fostered and nurtured and encouraged. "You can do anything! Dare to reach for your dreams! Don't let anyone tell you what you can or can't do."
Every year after this, you are assessed and evaluated. Marriage counseling. Performance reviews. Preventive care.
But don't you see, fellow old people? Fellow no-longer-21-year-old people? All of this is just a trick. I didn't realize it was a trick until I was in my late twenties, though. It is part of that tricky script that goes along with all of the other standards that are often subconsciously hammered into our brains: You have to be skinny. You have to get married. You have to get married before 40.
The truth of the matter is that none of these standards are relevant to true happiness or success. I have seen 70-year-old women funnier and happier than 17-year-old adolescents who should be basking in all that potential during the prime of their life. I have seen people who every year as they age grow more radiant, more content, more creative, more alive -- rather than marching slowly to the inevitability of isolation and ultimate death.
The truth of the matter is that if you're not dead, you're pretty damn young.
The only thing that matters is the framework within which you see this riddle.
"I'm 27," I said years ago, so embarrassed to an improv teacher at Second City when I started getting into comedy over a decade ago. It was like I was confessing to murder. Why should this guy waste his time with me? When there were so many 20- and 21-year-olds who actually had a shot at say "Saturday Night Live" or being the next hot young "it" girl. He looked at me, puzzled. My anxiety alone probably aged me right then and there, 10 years on the spot.
Then it got worse.
I turned 28. At least I was married. At 29, I knew I was getting divorced and 30 was just around the corner. All in one week, I got divorced, turned 30 -- and got a job that led me to New York. I remember that time, telling people I was 30, I felt like there should be some pithy followup right after to make it all OK. Like, "Yeah I'm 30 -- and I'm the President of the United States of America."
Instead it just hung there. "I'm 30." I felt like I should add an apology. Until I realized, the only person who had a problem with my age: was me.
Well, now, in two years that hanging sentiment will change to "I'm 40." The big difference? I realize today how none of it matters this time around.
The thing is, no one really cares about age unless you are a supermodel or a professional athlete or maybe playing the new cast member on "Awkward." People care about the essence of you. If you see yourself as vibrating with pure potential, then, baby, you are.
Are you a cool person? Do you have distinct interests and passions and tastes? Are you fun to be around? Are you a good listener? Do you stay true to your word? Do you love what you do and have an intellectual curiosity to continue to expand your world? Do you have resilience? Do you have love? This is what determines real potential, not some arbitrary age.
Also: The entire idea that we need to regard the up-until-the-age-of-21 era as being the designated time period where we incubate creativity and potential is patently false. Most people aren't even given a purified form of that since they have an insane amount of pressure overloaded onto them to thrive or survive or meet some absurd societal or familial expectations. As you get older, you gain more clarity about these factors that are tainting the punch bowl, and you can learn to give yourself that climate of nurturing.
Do you want to go medical school and you're in your 30s? Do it. When I worked at Northwestern's medical school, every year we saw incoming members who were nontraditional students pursuing a lifetime of dreams they weren't sure they could still pursue. Guess what, they did it. Many of them made it, too.
I've mentioned this book before, but for some reason the cockypants author Po Bronson and his little 500-page tome "What Should I Do With My Life?" also gave me a cooling degree of comfort as I got older year by year in my 20s. That link takes you to a bunch of sample chapters if you want to see what I'm talking about. Although my absolute favorite story from the book is the Hollywood executive who did finally pursue her dream of going to medical school, saw herself accepted everywhere because of her passionate application essay -- then dropped out, depressed and despondent after only two and half months because she remembered: "Oh yeah, I don't like sick people." Perfection. If that doesn't illustrate the futility and hilarity of trying to neatly control and engineer life, I don't know what does.
The entire point of his book with case study after case study is that no one really knows what they want in life, at any age -- so stop being so hard on yourself. His book also perfectly articulated the idea of the "people in your head" who you are often justifying your life to that are made up of a peer group composed entirely of your competitive imagination, which -- I don't have to tell you -- is not real at all.
We all have these people in our heads who are judging, scolding, inciting. It might be the high school nemesis or the old boyfriend or even the former boss who never gave you the kudos you wanted so badly. We are thinking to ourselves, arguing silently in the shower when we finally reach some milestone or accomplishment: "Oh yeah, what about now? How you like me now? Am I finally good enough?"
For me, somehow knowing that everyone has these similar collective subconscious anxieties always makes me feel a little less crazy. Maybe even a little younger?
The cool thing about humanity is that we are so connected in so many ways that sometimes just realizing the nature of the universally calibrated suffering of the human condition makes it a little less lonely to be a part of the whole damn thing.
A friend once told me that the only way to get through depression or sadness or fear or anxiety or grief was to really sit there in that pit of despair and actually let yourself feel it, realizing you will not collapse and ultimately make it through to the other side. I think the same can be said about anything in life, including aging. Including a litany of what might at first blush appear to be your biggest fear or embarrassment or humiliation.
Here, let me try and give you an example of what I'm talking about in this little speech I might make:
"Hi, yeah, I'm 37. I've done a million dumb things in my life. You want an example? OK. When I was 21, I was a reporter at The Des Moines Register covering a murder trial, and I asked a juror whom I ran into on the court steps what witness they were on so far because I had arrived late, that juror proceeded to look at me in horror and the judge ultimately had to call the newspaper's legal counsel to determine if there needed to be a mistrial because a member of the media had spoken to the jury. It was my first time covering the courts. Great first impression, right? I still die inside thinking about it. Since that time, I've done a million other dumb things. Want an example? Let's see. I have to show almost every piece of writing to someone before I publish it because my need for validation is so great. I obsessively check social media and have to consciously make an effort not to. Want a million more examples? I could provide them. But I'm about to be 38, and who really cares. Life is hilarious."
I don't know who that weird little speech is geared to. Perhaps to those voices in my head -- I shudder to think of who they're actually composed of (maybe that one bitchy chick in high school Spanish?) but I'm almost certain that some of the people in there haven't thought a single second about me in years.
The thing is: That speech is what it is. I am who I am. This article is what it is. I am as old as I am old. You can't be younger. You can't be older. You can't be married if you are single. You can't be single if you are married. It's like that sweet Buddhist book "Wherever You Go, There You Are."
If you can start with that philosophy, even if you are 100 like me, you will be young.