The main difference between 20-something me and 30-something me is that I’m more certain today than ever that I will never get my shit together. That might sound like a gloomy proclamation, but I promise it’s not. I’d actually argue that it’s a mark of maturity to recognize what a mess your life will always be.
Fresh out of college, when I was working on Wall Street, I remember feeling like I knew exactly what I was doing with my life. I’d graduated from a “good” school and landed a “good” job and I was dating a tall, handsome guy who made a “good” living and came from a “good” family.
Over the course of three increasingly grueling years, I realized that I was wrong about a lot of things. I saw that my soul was handcuffed to a job about which I felt lackluster at best, no matter how much they paid me, and that I was surrounded by people I couldn’t emulate. After soaking my pillow in tears too many nights in a row, I quit banking without any specific future plans in place. At 25, I knew that I never wanted to wear another sweater set, but beyond that, I was pretty fucking clueless as to what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Still, I was absolutely certain that figuring my shit out was entirely possible—that through introspection and hard work, I would arrive at My Happy Place. I sincerely believed that I would reach a point at which I felt content in all aspects of life.
I would carve out a fulfilling career in a new field and settle down with the right guy and our mostly peaceful, enriching lives would unfold as the years went by. I wasn’t dumb to the fact that there would be obstacles along the way, but I did expect the proverbial stars to align for me as long as I put some effort in. I felt entitled to happiness, you might say.
A decade later, an outsider evaluating my circumstances might argue that I have figured my shit out. The process of establishing myself as a writer was by no means easy, especially without an English degree, a byline (not even on a personal blog!), or any industry connections to speak of. But I did it. I am also in a serious, loving relationship with a man I truly adore.
Now that I’ve achieved some degree of professional and romantic success, however, I am more certain than ever that I will never figure my shit out. I see that the sense of stability and certainty I once assumed I’d bathe in one day will never come. That it’s naïve to dream of an orderly existence in a chaotic world. That if you’re constantly striving, you might never feel satisfied. That if you cling to grandiose visions about what happiness looks like, you won’t see it in the everyday stuff, where it actually exists.
The thing is, no one ever figures their shit out. Not Oprah. Not your impossibly beautiful, charming friend who always seems to know exactly what to say and how to act. Not your mentor. Not your parents. Not your brother or sister.
Shonda Rhimes, the wildly successful TV writer and producer, put it best in her commencement address to Dartmouth’s class of 2014:
“If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I am probably missing bath and story time at home. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I’m probably blowing off a rewrite I was supposed to turn in. If I am accepting a prestigious award, I am missing my baby’s first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter’s debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh’s last scene ever being filmed at Grey’s Anatomy. If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other…You never feel a hundred percent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous.”
We live in a culture fixated with figuring things out. Self-help gurus prey upon our aching desire to lead “better” lives. We spend billions of dollars a year trying to be thinner, more business savvy, less stressed out, more well organized. We embrace fad diets, fitness trends, “revolutionary” beauty solutions, motivational sayings, and cleansing crystals. We consult the zodiac, psychics, and Myers-Briggs personality experts for answers to unanswerable questions. We have professional goals, relationship goals, and even squad goals.
Admittedly, I love an inspirational quote as much as the next Kardashian sister. I also believe wholeheartedly in doing whatever you must to feel a little bit better about daily life, whether that means spinning, juicing, reading your horoscope, or tidying up. But as I get older, I’m more and more troubled by our obsession with self-improvement, which seems to be rooted in the dangerous assumption that figuring your shit out is even possible. I worry that the never-ending quest for personal fulfillment does more harm than good—to our hearts, psyches, and wallets.
Ultimately, don’t outsized expectations leave us more dissatisfied than incentivized? More exhausted than motivated? More downtrodden than happy?
Life is a series of experiences—good, bad, and meh—for everyone. You can reach all you want for that perfectly fulfilling existence the “experts” are peddling from every direction, but you won’t find it. The sooner you divorce yourself from prefabricated ideas about what personal happiness looks like, the sooner you’ll be able to see it where it’s really lurking—in your morning cup of coffee, or a quick forehead kiss from your significant other, who may or may not be annoying you at the time their lips meet your skin.
The truth is, you’re never going to figure your shit out—and that’s okay.