November 21, 2014

Life is not a Race: The Danger of Creating Artificial Deadlines.


On November 2, 2010 I voted in the midterm elections at our local high school.

The mother of a good friend of my 23 year old son, Jeff, was working as a volunteer.

We chatted as I waited, and she informed me that Ryan would be moving out of their house and into Manhattan with several college friends. I wished Ryan the best but the feeling that engulfed me when I heard this, in light of Jeff’s fragile state was, “Please not now.”

What scared me that day—which turned out to be exactly one week before he jumped to his death—was that I knew exactly how Jeff would interpret this news.

He had made it clear that fall, as the antidepressants he was taking staked their claim on his mind, that he felt his friends were moving ahead on defined paths, and he was not.

He felt he was being left behind.

Jeff had fallen into the most dangerous trap a young person can become prey to—he had created artificial deadlines for achieving certain milestones on the road to happiness and success.

He further allowed himself to become a victim of self-imposed pressure to keep up with friends.

Two of Jeff’s other friends were in law school, and now Ryan was moving into the city.

Jeff took this to mean that he was both being left behind and could never catch up.

I was baffled that a 23 year old with his intellect could believe such nonsense and I spent all my time that fall trying to disavow him of those ridiculous notions.

That night, I took out a sheet of paper and started sketching a diagram that I called “The Road Map.”

I tried to illustrate that everyone has goals of achieving of happiness and success in the future. Since a sports analogy would be the most effective way to reach him, I called that state of being “the end zone.”

The crucial point, though, is that the path to reach our goals is different for everyone and there is no right timeframe in which one must achieve these things.

It is different for each person.

Furthermore, there is no universally accepted definition of success—that is also different for everyone.

On The Road Map, I tried to show how three different people might take very different routes to the same goal line.

Person A is a member of the minority group, representing maybe 10% of college kids, who know early on what they want to do and the steps they’ll take to get there. Their paths are a straight shot to the end zone. Good for them but I argue that the pressure they place upon themselves, to walk that precise path under a defined timeline, is immense.

Some of the best laid plans go astray and if these kids experience a misstep along the way, then Person A is often left without a plan B. They are thrown off their perfect track and don’t necessarily know how to recover.

Person B is a part of the much larger group of people who take a more circuitous path but who ultimately find the end zone. Maybe their first job wasn’t as interesting as they’d hoped and they took a detour. It may take Person B longer to find a long-term career but so what? Once a person in this group gets there, he or she will have benefited from the exploration process and might feel even more comfortable with his/her ultimate decisions.

Jeff would have been Person C, part of another large group who endure significant setbacks either at the outset of their journey or down the road and who are forced to find a completely different road to travel in order to cross the goal line. Jeff had taken a step back by quitting his first job.

He could have then held his ground and weathered the storm while he figured out his next move. Once he did, he would have begun to push forward again.

There can be more twists and turns along the way before Person C finds his or her happy place but once he or she does, it’s likely this person will feel the greatest gratification of any member of either of the other groups. Person C will have fought through life’s obstacles and victory––as defined simply by contentment––tastes so sweet.

Jeff had options he could have explored and he knew it. He flirted with applying to law school and he took the LSATs in October 2010 with a clouded mind under the grip of anti-depressants—he still did well.

He could have gone back to journalism school and pursued his passion for writing. Or he could have moved down to D.C. and pursued his passion for politics.

But those meds robbed him of any motivation to resume his fight.

Instead of gearing up for his next battle, he saw himself as being behind and not knowing how to catch up—therein lies the grave danger in young people creating artificial deadlines.

Life has enough financial and societal pressures that are real so we don’t need to create artificial ones.

For example, the issue of whether a college kid moves back home after graduation for two months, two years or longer is irrelevant in the grand scheme of life, as long as that person realizes that such a situation should not be permanent.

Jeff’s concern that—18 months after graduating college––his friends were no longer living at home, while he still was, was misguided. Many other friends were still living at home and continued to do so long after Jeff left us.

The Pew Research Center estimates that the percentage of young people 18-31 living with their parents (36%) is the highest percentage in four decades.

In short, there is no rush.

Parents and kids should take whatever time necessary to prepare together for their eventual independence.

As parents, we can use this time productively to teach them, help them save money, enjoy them and do things with them. Importantly, we must lessen the pressure on our kids, not add to it.

Situational anxiety is rampant within younger age groups and our family has learned the hard way what that can lead to.

The beauty of youth is that you’ve got time to figure it all out.

Jeff should have understood that.

The pressure he felt was self-imposed. The pressure kids are putting on themselves to “succeed” quickly is debilitating. The consequences can range from suicide, in Jeff’s extreme example, to living with severe anxiety and depression.

Many cases of depression have no apparent cause but just as many are caused by specific triggers and situations and they can be cured without medication by learning how to eliminate self-imposed pressure.

As adult mentors, we can help by guiding these young men and women but also by spreading the mantra that they should relax and remove artificial deadlines from their lives.

We must tell them to take time to consider their passions, to follow those dreams, but most of all, to enjoy the journey and accept that there will be setbacks.

“It’s harder to know what success looks like, but, as one friend put it bluntly recently: I don’t just feel the pressure to succeed, I feel the pressure to be young and successful.” ~ Heather Long When Life Doesn’t Measure Up.

This way of thinking needs to be eradicated.

Again, there is no universally correct deadline for success.

I’m all for planning for the future. But too many people actually live in the future and by doing so, they sacrifice the present and the thrill of today’s journey.

As a consequence, life will pass them by without leaving memories behind to savor. They have no moments to reflect upon and cherish because they didn’t really experience them at the time—they were only looking ahead.

Why did people start obsessing over whether Hilary would run for President in 2016 just days after Obama was re-elected in 2012, rather than focusing on what the current President needed to do right then to make our nation better?

I believe that this way of thinking and behaving is a broad societal problem that will continue to make people’s lives less fulfilling.

Life is an unpredictable journey that should be experienced every step of the way.

As the band Survivor once sung, “It’s the thrill of the fight.”

Many friends at work say that college kids should be “off the payroll” once they graduate and that allowing them to stay at home for any length of time fosters complacency and weakens their work ethic. Many also believe that their kids should be leveraging their degrees to seek the highest paying careers, regardless of their passions.

I disagree.

It’s often not feasible to take kids off the payroll right away and it’s also potentially deleterious to their mental health to do so.

Many recent college graduates remain unemployed or underemployed.

Advising kids that wealth accumulation is the highest priority, at the expense of pursuing careers they can be passionate about, is not wise.

The chances of achieving happiness and financial success are greater when we do something we truly enjoy. But of course I disagree with those noted above.

After all, I’m a man who has a son who jumped off a bridge because he believed that he had fallen behind his friends and would never catch up.

My son panicked over this thought and believed he was actually regressing. What a terrible tragedy this was. I wish Jeff had known Aodhan Beirne, the secure young graduate of Georgetown.

“Two years later, I’m a graduate of Georgetown University living with my parents and occupying a bedroom with a dinosaur blanket and the remains of my middle school Beanie Baby collection. I should feel stuck—that I’m regressing, or that I’m missing out on the experience of living in a big city on my own—but much to my surprise, I don’t. Indeed, there’s something comforting in my situation. I can experience the frustrations of young adulthood and the infancy of my professional life and still come back to my dog’s unwavering affection and a home-cooked meal. So during the most jarring transition of my life—from student to graduate — it’s not bad having the stability my childhood home offers… I know this situation is not and should not be permanent, but for now, it helps. I believe I will look back at this time fondly… At nighttime, after I turn out the lights and climb into bed, I have no problem sleeping soundly under my dinosaur blanket.” –Aodhan Beirne, “I Moved Back Home, and I’m Glad I Did”, The New York Times, November 6, 2012

Aodhan could have talked sense into him.

Today, 18 months after my now oldest son Drew (age 23) moved back home with us, I’m reveling in this time with him. I’m watching him tirelessly follow his passions by working as an assistant high school basketball coach and teaching kids basketball classes at local health clubs.

Living at home hasn’t made him complacent—in fact, his work ethic is stronger than that of anyone I know. He’s using this time to save money and in Beirne’s words, he can experience the infancy of his professional life and still come home to the unwavering affection of our greyhound and to a home cooked meal made by my wife Carey.

I’m incredibly proud of Drew, and my greatest enjoyment comes from kicking back with him and watching sports together. I hope that Drew looks back on this time fondly, because I sure will. In fact, I’ll miss it dearly someday.

His complete independence will come when the time is right, but there will be no rush.

There will be no artificial deadline. And when my younger son Brett graduates college in 2016, I’ll look forward to enjoying a similar time with him.

I remain a blessed man.

Heather Long’s article, referenced earlier, was published on Memorial Day 2013 and reflects on Memorial Day

“War is real, even if we too easily forget it. Casualties are real. Missing limbs are real. Broken marriages and depression from battle are real. It’s a sobering reminder to us all that a lot of families would give just about anything for one more day or one more week or one more year with a loved one. It makes these silly thoughts about not being at the “right place” in life by a certain age sound ridiculous. It’s a reminder that sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning and walking out the door is an achievement in itself, one that we should be a lot more thankful for.” ~ Heather Long

She is right. I’d give anything for one more day or even one more hour with Jeff.

But I can’t have that because Jeff couldn’t handle the pressure of his first job and then felt he wasn’t at the right place in life by a certain age.

In the context of Long’s wise words, such silly thoughts about running behind do seem pretty damn ridiculous.

And so I beseech our youth to stop the race.

Try to experience your journey, savor the human connections that you make en route and live in the moment as you figure out how to make your way.

Whether you are Person A forging straight ahead, or Person B who takes a more winding road, or Person C who may take one step forward and two steps back, you all have a great shot at reaching your personal end zone eventually.

When you get there, spike the ball hard, savor that moment, look back fondly on the trip and work hard to maintain that state of being.

For now, though, the best thing you can do is just curl up under your own version of a dinosaur blanket at night and sleep soundly.


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Author: Rich Klein

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock


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