Why Your Friends Have it All Figured Out (And You Don't)

Because they're lying. To you. To their parents. To themselves. I say this for three reasons:

  1. Having it "all figured out" is a fallacy, which we've discussed in the past. Distrust anyone who tells you otherwise. They're either actively hiding their reality from you, or they're passively hiding it from themselves (denial is a powerful, powerful thing). Lives are simply too dynamic to have everything perfectly arranged simultaneously. Ever.
  2. It takes work to figure "much" of life out, and, these days, that work takes most of the twenties. (We can, and will, get into why it takes so long nowadays, but that's another day's lecture.)
  3. Taking on others' desires and goals looks identical to having figured things out for yourself. You read it right:  you can LOOK like you have it all figured out - and truly BELIEVE you have it all figured out - by adopting the interior life of people around you (most often your parents). This is what psychologists call "identity foreclosure" (yes, we finally get to talk about foreclosure without getting depressed about the economy). This point is so juicy that we'll spend the rest of our lecture here.

Identity foreclosure is a sneaky little devil. It completely imitates true identity achievement; i.e., knowing who the heck you are. The only - and key - difference lies in the process to get there. To achieve a sense of identity, you have to go through a crisis. There's no simply no other route to finding yourself. (If you've been sleeping through class, review the class notes to brush up on crises).

To reach foreclosure, on the other hand, you don't go through any searching or struggling or weighing of options. You simply wake up and know what you're doing. Ta da!

The difference between identity achievement and foreclosure is a lot like that between, say, Halle Berry and Tori Spelling. Some people have to work to become actresses; some, well, don't.

I certainly don't blame anyone for being foreclosed. I myself was foreclosed until I was 29. And I didn't even realize it.

Cover of "Hand-Me-Down Dreams: How Famili...

I'd been teaching for five years when my mom watched me sit in the faculty section at Bates' commencement. When I found her after the ceremony, she had tears in her eyes. "I always wanted to be a teacher," she said. "And now here you are! I am so, so proud."

I quit a year later.

It's not that I didn't want my mom to be proud (I'm not that mean). It's that, when my mom choked up from the fulfillment of her dream deferred, it all clicked:  why I felt discontent in my work, why I always vaguely felt like I was doing it for someone else, why I was resentful of a position for which so many would've traded their 1st edition Harry Potter book. How had I never put this together before? Simple:  because foreclosures are usually super subtle. 

Most of us are too independent and rebellious to follow our parents' blatant demands to "become a doctor" or "become a lawyer." But we hear our parents' off-hand remarks about how artists don't earn anything, we see the selective attention our parents bestow on certain people our age (cooing about our cousin the accountant while ignoring our cousin the history major), and we notice our parents' ever-so-subtle facial expressions and bodily tension when we bring up certain career paths. We're designed to read our parents' cues; it's what ensures our survival as babies and young children. As adults, though, tracking our parents' subtle signals is what keeps us trapped.

So what do we do?

Foreclosure is like coming across an  "I Was a Finalist in Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Challenge!" t-shirt at the thrift store (score!). When you wear it, the pats on the back and accolades for "your" accomplishment feel great at first. Over time, though, you start to feel unsettled, like something is off. Eventually you chuck the shirt; you simply can't wear it in good conscience any longer. Then you decide either:

  • That you'd rather wear a shirt that is more personally meaningful to you (who they heck cares if you ate a ton of hot dogs?).
  • OR, that you really would like to wear that hot dog shirt and you start training to earn your own.

I did the latter. Well, not literally! (Yuck.) After quitting Bates, I spent a year pursuing my dream of becoming a writer, which wasn't all it was cracked up to be. While I was wallowing in that realization, I simultaneously found myself missing my good ol' teaching job. When I started bringing photocopied hand-outs to mothering groups (I kid you not), I knew it was time to make a change. Fortunate for me, Bates asked me to come back. Ever since I have loved teaching, without any hint of ambivalence. Because now it's not for my mom. It's for me.

In short, I stepped back, had my crisis, and earned my career.

So if your friends seem to have it all figured out while you're thrashing about, struggling to find your future, don't envy them. Feel badly for them. They have a long, hard road ahead. And they don't even know it yet.

Your Assignment:

Read Hand-Me-Down Dreams:  How Families Influence Our Career Paths and How We Can Reclaim Them by Mary Jacobsen. Then scour your life for signs of foreclosure.

Your reading assignment (Amazon)n't even realize it.