Why Milestone Birthdays Disappoint - And How to Get Over It

Milestone birthdays come fast and furious in high school and college - 16! 18! 21! - and, by and large, they're pretty hot. Parties! Driving! Drinking! Then everything changes.

Birthday, Cake with candles

25 = Good god, the quarterlife crisis IS real

30 = I'm out of my twenties? Already? And I have what to show for it?

35 = I'm "advanced maternal age"? I only stopped thinking of myself as a kid a year ago; how am I supposed to already be done having kids of my own?! (Men, you're lucky chaps for avoiding this little head-snapper.)

I don't know about you, but as a child playing dress up, I thought all of these birthdays would be pretty darn cool. Well, maybe not 35. That was decrepit. Which, not coincidentally, is the very birthday I hit yesterday.

So today's mission:  figuring out why milestone birthdays reak after the age of 21 and determining what we can we do to combat the suck.

We're Awful At Predicting Our Emotions

English: Happy and Sad face are together.

  • The Problem: We think that future positive events will make us happier than they actually do (on an upbeat note, we also think that negative events will be more devastating than they really are). This is due to a little ditty called the affective forecasting error. You can read about it in great - and surprisingly engaging - detail in Dan Gilbert's  book Stumbling on Happiness. Suffice it to say, though, that when we're young, we think being all grown up will be a hoot. Even a few days before the actual birthday, we may continue to delude ourselves into thinking it'll be one heck of a good time. Not so much.
  • The Fix: Here's the good news:  we're not only bad at predicting how happy we'll be in the future, we're also wretched at remembering how happy we were in the past. In fact, after an event has passed, we tend to think that our initial prediction held true. So if you predict that a milestone birthday will be exciting, fun, and empowering, you'll remember it as being just that. Even if it actually blew. In other words, you only have to get through the valley of the less-than-amazing birthDAY to get back to feeling like the milestone birthday was A-OK. (I must have a few more days to go...)

We Forget About Circumstances

  • The Problem: When we try to explain why something happened - such as, why we got to age 30 without managing to launch a company, buy an oceanside house, marry the person of our dreams, and land on the cover of Forbes - we have to make an attribution. We could say that we hit the Big 3-0 without reaching our goals because:
    • A:  We're a lazy, stupid, good-for-nothing fool who has no prospects of ever doing anything with the rest of our life.
    • B:  There was a lot going on during the twenties - we were fighting to just pay the bills, were learning the ins and outs of cooking and budgeting and simply existing independently, and were trying to maintain a social life amongst it all - and, besides, it's extremely difficult for anyone to reach the lofty goals we set for ourselves, even if there were no distractors.
  • Obviously we're better off if we go with B, the external attribution. Unfortunately when it comes to milestone birthdays, I'd argue that we fall prey to the fundamental attribution error, a thinking problem that leads us to focus solely on individual characteristics while overlooking situations. We usually reserve this error to explain other people's outcomes. Why we focus the laser look on ourselves in honor of our birthdays, I simply don't know. Happy birthday to us, I guess! English: cyrillic STOP sign (CTO∏)
  • The Fix: Simply be aware of this thinking error so you can correct for it. Every time you start thinking like Scenario A, picture a big, fat, obnoxious Stop sign. Then redirect your attention to all the situations that have gotten in your way (a la Scenario B).

We Overlook What We Have Done

  • The Problem: I'm sure you walked out of a college class or two - or all of them - believing you hadn't learned a thing. And, sure, in some of them you actually didn't. But often you simply don't realize how much you'd progressed. On the teacher side of things, I see this all the time. (Am I biased? Sure. But even students who make staggering gains in skills unrelated to my teaching deny the change when I commend them on it.) Similarly, when it comes to milestone birthdays, we look at everything we failed to get done and forget all we have accomplished, both small and large.
  • bday

    The Fix: Give yourself a birthday gift:  make a list of everything that was meaningful to you that happened over the previous year or five years. I venture to guess you'll be astonished. Sure, it might not be what 8-year-old you wearing mom's pearls and heels might have expected (yes, men, I mean you, too; I know your secrets). All the better:  your kiddo self didn't know a thing about what would actually make adult life rich and full and worth living. You do. Trust that knowledge and celebrate what you've done, learned, and experienced. And don't forget to include this very tidbit of understanding on the list.

If all else fails, at least disappointing milestone birthdays can motivate us to make change. There's nothing that gets you going quite the same as a sharp milestone birthday in the rear. Is it any wonder I woke up at 4:30am today, thinking of work? Thank you hot steaming cup of a disappointing birthday. Much appreciated.

How was your most recent birthday? Did you go easy on yourself?

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Milestone birthdays can feel like a train wreck.

Why I Hate "Under 30" Lists

You know what drives me insane? "Under 30" lists. "Young movers and shakers" awards. "Rub It In Your Face That These People Got Their Acts Together Faster Than You" roll calls. Under 30 lists are everywhere. Forbes has one, Inc. has one, GQ has one. Even hot seller Realtor magazine has one. And how many people are on each list? You guessed it:  30. The lack of originality astounds.


These lists make it seem like doing things younger means doing them better. Like there's no point in trying when you pass the ripe ol' 30 mark. Like we might as well throw our diplomas in the shredder and join Dancing With the Losers if we're not markedly successful one-third of the way into our lifetimes.

Every time I convince a student that they don't have to conquer the world by 25 (or 30, or even - gasp - 35) - hell, every time I convince myself that I don't have to - one of these damn lists comes out and messes with our heads.

Why else would 86% of twentysomethings say they feel the need to be successful before age 30? It's the ridiculous lists. And, I suppose, the youth-obsessed culture that eagerly produces and consumes them. But that's not as much fun to blame.

For my sanity and yours, let's get some things straight:

The People on "Young and Successful" Lists are Freaks

The 20somethings lionized on "wow, look at 'em doing so much so young!" lists are on there precisely because they're non-normative. If they were like average people - or even like typical above-average people - the lists would be bloated and pointless.

These people are the 0.001% of the population who have managed to do something remarkable early in life. Trying to be like them is like trying to look like Gisele Bundchen or Tom Brady (or, most likely, their offspring...can we say genetics?).

We've accepted that we can't all be gorgeous, or pro athletes, or live a life of luxury. Yet we somehow feel that we all should be making our mark by 25 or 30. How unrealistic is that?

"Earlier" Doesn't Mean "Better"

Malcolm Gladwell did a pretty convincing job of striking down the "earlier = better" notion in his article Late Bloomers and book Outliers.

"Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth." - Malcolm Gladwell

He goes on to assert that someone can be a prodigy - an individual who demonstrates remarkable abilities at a young age - and yet do little with those abilities in the long run. Prodigies simply develop earlier than their peers, that's what makes them stand out. Once their peers catch up, many prodigies blend into the background.

So those people on the "I'm Young and Awesome" Lists? They better watch out because we're coming for 'em.

Age of Success Varies by Field

Another reason Under 30 lists are ridiculous is because what's remarkable in one field is ho-hum in another.

Physicists, poets and chess masters tend to create their best work early in life. I think I'm safe in saying that most of us are not those things. That means that the fields we're in have mid-life or later peaks. In fact, the more "ambiguous and unclear" the field's concepts are, Max Fisher writes in The Atlantic Wire, the later important work is produced.

So figure out what's the norm for your field, not what's the remarkable exception for some other field (which is what's usually portrayed on the youth-centric lists). To focus on the latter is to pile meaninglessness on top of meaninglessness.

Time Pressure Paralyzes

Here's the true bottomline to the entire "young is amazing!" issue:  the more time pressure a person perceives, the worse their performance is. In other words, our obsession with succeeding young may be the very thing standing in the way of our success.

Granted, time pressure findings are usually found in laboratory psychology studies in which there's short-term pressure on a concrete task. But I'd argue that these findings are applicable to long-term time pressure, too. As one researcher on the topic, Michael DeDonno, said, "If you feel you don't have enough time to do something, it's going to affect you."

Notably, it's our perception of not having enough time - not the actual amount of time we have - that makes us perform poorly. To combat this, DeDonno told Science Daily, "Keep your emotions in check. Have confidence in the amount of time you do have to do things. Try to focus on the task and not the time. We don't control time, but we can control our perception. It's amazing what you can do with a limited amount of time."

Stop aiming to be a success by 30 and you just might become one. Or, at the very least, you'll be freed from a life spent obsessively tracking birthdays, leaving you mental space to instead focus on your life's work itself. But, hey, what do I know? I already went over the youth hill. Which is a relief. Life’s much better over here on the “I’ll Never Make a 30 Under 30 List” List.

A little bitter, perhaps. But better.

Simonton, D.K. (1988). Age and outstanding achievement: What do we know after a century of research? Psychological Bulletin, 104, 251–267.

Why are we obsessed with a number? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is Life About Checking Off Boxes?

Here's a good way to feel pressured and unfulfilled:  treat life like you're earning a Scout badge. L1015280.JPG

You remember that process from childhood, don't you? Your Scout leader announces the troop will be working toward some new badge - the Staying Fit badge, perhaps, or the Savvy Shopper badge, or maybe the Car Care badge (gee, I need those now) - and you all work down a preordained checklist to earn the badge.

Sure, there's some flexibility to the checklists - usually you only have to complete "any eight of the following twelve steps" or something of the sort - but it's pretty much, "do this, and you get this." For instance, with the Netiquette badge, you earn the knowledge of "how to make -- and keep -- my online world a positive place." (Wowzers, I could get my wacky cousin to stop spouting off below every single one of my Facebook statuses? That's quite the power.)

It has always seemed to me that our educational system - especially college - is little more than the earning of an exalted Scout badge. Now there's even a push toward having job merit badges in place of college degrees. (BTW, I so want the King of the Party Badge.)

It shouldn't be shocking, then, that after we leave college, we act like we're still in some great quest to "check off the boxes." In tribute to this mentality, here are - drum roll, please - the first official Career Avoidance 101 Life Badges! (This is precisely what you've been pining for since graduation, isn't it? Admit it.)

I've borrowed some prototype badge images from the Boy Scouts; we really must work on creating our own Career Avoidance 101 versions. Extra credit if you send one my way.

The Kickin' Kareer Badge

(Earn any eight check marks)

  • Get a full-time job offer within two weeks of graduating from college. [Note: Award yourself two check marks if you have a full-time job offer in hand before graduating.]
  • Cover your own health insurance. That's big time.

  • Move out of your parents' house. And stay out for at least three consecutive years. [Note: This check mark does not count if they are paying your rent.]
  • Earn a company match on a 401K plan. [Note: 403b plans - used for schools and nonprofits - only count as half a check.]
  • Have a sturdy name plate on your desk. On which your name isn't attached with velcro. And that you didn't buy for yourself. [Note: Parental purchases are also disallowed.]
  • Be given stock options. Not that you actually know what to do with them.
  • Have at least ten people contact you begging you to help them get a job.
  • Earn a salary higher than your best friend does. [Note: Award yourself two check marks if your salary is higher than all of your real world friends.]
  • Be given an office with real walls. In a corner. With big windows.
  • Enlist a C-level three letter acronym to chase after your name (examples:  CEO, CFO, CIO, CSO, CKO, CBS, CUS, CLC...alright, I made those last three up - any guesses?)
  • Found your own company that has an IPO and instantly makes you rich (Defined as:  "you could buy more than one house").
  • Get a doctorate. Just for the hell of it. [Note:  Three master's degrees may be substituted to earn this check mark.]

The Highfalutin Home Life Badge

(Earn any six check marks)

  • Locate a suitable spouse. (Defined as:  someone who is currently unmarried and who appears unlikely to steal from you.)
  • Connive said suitable spouse into marrying you.
  • Buy a home. [Note:  Award yourself two check marks if you buy first house with 20% down.]

    Image:Family Life.jpg

  • Have 1.86 kids. [Note: Seriously consider having only one as onlies are a hot trend, which may render the 1.86 kid requirement obsolete by the time you complete this check box.]
  • Serve your family solely food that is made from whole, organic, gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free ingredients that were produced within 50 miles of your home.
  • Buy a vacation home. Even though you're too busy with your Kickin' Kareer to go to it.
  • Rid your home of all plastic items (examples include plastic toys, plastic bags, plastic ziplocs, plastic utensils, hygiene products, and other things to which your mind can wander).
  • Subscribe to a parenting philosophy. All the better if said philosophy starts with a capital letter.
  • Get your children to do any three of the following:  be sleeping through the night by four weeks; be walking by 10 months; have 50 signs by age 1; be speaking in full sentences by 18 months; be fully potty-trained by age 2; be able to recite the ABCs and count to ten by 2.5 years; be able to add single digits by age 3.
  • Attend all of your children's sports events, plays, class presentations, awards ceremonies, dance recitals, and any event in which they will appear before more than fifteen people.
  • Secure a standing appointment with a psychologist. [Note: You may substitute regular appointments with any two of the following:  Life Coach, acupuncturist, Reiki Master, psychic, ayurvedic healer, masseuse, an illicit lover.]

The Sassy Socialite Badge

(Earn any four check marks)

  • Dredge up at least 1000 friends on Facebook. [Note: This total may be reached by summing followers across all social media sites, provided that the same individual is not counted more than once.]
  • Have accounts on at least six social media sites simultaneously.

    Image:Citizenship in the Community.jpg

  • Maintain a blog. That has at least 2000 followers. And that gets at least twenty comments per post.
  • Receive more than 200 emails a day, averaged across a one-month period, for at least three consecutive months.
  • Average 40 "likes" on each Facebook status for six consecutive months.
  • Eat out with a friend at least five times a week. [Note: If you have children, you may meet this requirement by meeting for a meal only three times a week.]
  • Have not an hour of your day go by without receiving a text, every day, for five consecutive months. [Note: The hours you are sleeping do not count.]
  • Tweet at least five times a day, every day, for one full year.
  • Have so many friends that you stop being able to keep track of their last names. Start referring to them by location instead, such as, "Lucy from the book club" and "Ben from the gym."

Add some age restrictions to these badges - You must complete The Kickin' Kareer Badge by age 25! - and, voila, you have the quarterlife crisis.

The thing about checklists is that they do give us comfort; for instance, we actually behave more creatively when working within constraints. But at the same time, they put pressure on us. And homogenize us. And presume to imagine that we can know now what will be important to us then.

The way I see it, it's one thing to have goals. It's another to have requirements. Particularly requirements ordained by someone else.

And what if the pursuit of these checklists is more exciting - more like "living life" - than is achieving them? What then? What if you're the 80-year-old with an entire wardrobe of badge-emblazoned vests? (Well, then you'd be seriously fashion challenged, but overlooking that...) What if you get to ponder said wardrobe in your abundant free time because you pushed everyone away in your mad pursuit to earn them? Will that feel like a life well lived?

Maybe. Maybe it will. I'm not quite 80 yet - contrary to my Bates students' beliefs - so it's hard for me to say.

But I personally am sick of earning badges. I'll leave that to the little girls wearing brown and green. And while I'm sitting around not earning a check mark, I'll thank them for their pursuit of their Cookie CEO badge; their Thin Mints sure make my unbadged life a little sweeter.

So tell me, what checklist items would you like to add to our badges?

Overachiever. (Photo credit: Susan NYC)

How To Create Your "Life Goal"

Paper Weaving Just a quickie here, to give you a handout that accompanies the most recent lecture (yes I'm one of those unorganized professors who provides materials out of sequence. Aren't you glad you "enrolled" in such a quality course?). The handout is your very own personalize-able "All I Want to Be" statement. Aw gee, just what you always wanted!

Not sure how to use it? If you want to pass our class with flying colors, then don't bother to read the following. But if class failure (and career bliss) is your goal, read on:

1) Save it on your computer (it's a PDF file; if you'd rather be able to alter it, here it is in Word format).

2) Ignore the file for days/months/years (length dependent on the depth of your Career Paralysis).

3) After the waiting period, stumble upon the file on your hard drive and decide to print it out.

4) Ignore the printed copy for another period of time. (You're really paralyzed, aren't you?)

5) When you're ready - really ready (i.e., you've exhausted all the excuses explored in our class) - hang the blank print-out somewhere you'll see it morning and night, like next to your alarm clock.

5b) Be sure to have a snappy one-liner prepared for when your roommates/friends/parents make fun of you for completing this step.

6) Don't think about the answer too much. Simply look at the blank space daily and let your unconscious mind work on the answer. (This is actually completely serious - psychologists find that letting the unconscious do its work, called incubation, is often key to problem solving.)

7) When your mind one day spurts out a possible completion, jot that jammy down!

8) Live with the drafted statement for a while. Don't think about it too much, but do look at it daily.

9) When a revision idea hits you, print a new copy and try again.

10) Repeat Steps 7-9 ten, 20, or 500 times. Whatever it takes to get an answer. Yes, it's that worth it.

11) When your revisions start to revolve around word choice and sentence structure, you're done! Congratulations on failing this assignment (and being well on your way to failing class)!

(If you're reading these steps and questioning whether it's actually worth all this effort to find a fulfilling career, go directly to Step 2. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. I'll meet you there in the next lesson with another good excuse, you star student, you!)

How many drafts will you go through? (Photo credit: FeatheredTar)