I don’t know how old I was the first time I subconsciously started creating a mental checklist of things I should do to live a happy and successful life.
However, I recognize this list was well established by my late adolescence.
The big picture check boxes looked something like this: attend college, get married, get a steady job, buy a home, have children, attend said children’s sporting events, and so on.
I strongly believe I, like many others, began gathering similar to-do’s in order to provide some type of road map to navigate all of the unknowns of life. In my attempt for security, I watched the lives of others around me—family, friends, teachers, and community members as well as what was portrayed in television and in magazines—to see what my life should mimic.
I did not feel pressured in my early 20s to have it all figured it out. People directly, and indirectly, told me, “you are so young, you do not need to know what you want to do right now.” And I took that advice to heart. Upon college graduation I moved into my dad’s house for a few months before determining my next leap—all of the prospects and possibilities of the unknown road ahead felt rousing, maybe even intoxicating.
I became drunk on all of the potential trajectories my life could follow. I tried various lifestyles. I stayed in college an extra semester to spend time in Italy and Ireland. I then moved to Hawaii with only a backpack, learning how to use horticulture as a therapeutic component and following that, I spent a year in Colorado wearing mostly hiking boots and drinking craft beer. However, the older I got, the longer the should-be-doing list grew, and the more my energy was drawn to trying to get it all right.
Just before turning 25, I opted for a less transient lifestyle. I moved to a small town in the Midwest, took a stable job as a teacher, got married, and became a homeowner. To say I did these things because they were boxes would negate all of the joy and love I found in each of these situations. I genuinely wanted a partner, a home, and a great job. And I loved them all; I consciously chose them for myself.
However, early into my 26th year of life, I recall feeling they were not right for me. Despite this looming feeling, I was afraid to make a shift because I had already invested energy into the life I was building and the fear of starting over felt like it was too much. I stayed in this life and tried to make it work for many years before my intuition became too loud for me to ignore.
A few years later, I slowly started to uncheck my boxes. I quit my teaching job to work for a start-up company and opened my own yoga space. I eventually left my marriage, sold the house and now I am back where I was when I graduated college. I’m at my dad’s house entering a master’s program, working in retail, and dreaming about what comes next. Only at 31, it feels quite different than it did at 23.
There is a certain unspoken way of how we think our lives will unfold and there is definitely an unspoken timeline for life events. I vividly remember one evening three years ago before making my decision to leave my marriage, I googled the age of geriatric pregnancy and cringed knowing I was only a few years away.
I did the mental math of how long it would take me to meet someone, how long I’d like to date them before getting married, and subsequently how long it would be before we would have a baby together to see if I could make it before being geriatric.
While addressing my aging ovaries, I looked at those around me getting ready to celebrate almost a decade with their company, planning their child’s first birthday party, and buying their second home.
I scrutinized my own perceived imperfections under a microscope while holding a magnifying glass over the strengths of others. I fell deep into the rabbit hole of comparison, that I almost couldn’t muster the courage to leave a life that wasn’t for me.
I almost chose my check boxes over my truth.
Since entering my 30s and choosing authenticity over appearance, comparing myself to others seems less appealing. Through my own peaks and pitfalls, I see that life is an ebb and flow of success and defeat.
I have been successful, I have hit many bottoms—and I have watched others do the same.
Success, whether other people’s or my own, is quite temporary. Meaning that boxes are not etched in permanent marker—at best, they’re—scribbled with dry erase.
Relationships, jobs, homes, and bodies are all subject to growth, change, decay, and so on. While comparing my life to other’s lives holds less importance to me now, I am currently wrestling with the comparison of the life I have now, contrasted to the version of life I thought I would have and the version of myself I thought I would be.
This is the colossus that I currently face—who I thought I would be at 31 and what I thought my life would look like, versus where I currently am. Perhaps this will be true at any age or junction in life.
I am learning there is a certain type of grieving process in letting go of what never was, but there is also freedom in this space too. The same type of freedom I felt when I was 23 and did not pressure myself to have it all figured out.
My happiness and success are not defined by the check list I created long ago. The checklist, and pressure to get everything right, traps me on a page that does not have room for joy, spontaneity, or trust.
Additionally, as an adult I now have many other examples of happy and successful people who did not follow the traditional route I saw as a child to find joy and fulfillment. The truth is, a lot of them seem happier than those who meet society’s timeline.
While my current situation does not look like I thought it would—my life has never really looked how I imagined it would. I think the same is true for most other people, too. This certainly is not the checklist I created many decades ago. But the thing is, I am happy, I am free, and I am free to determine what my life will look like from here on out.
I do not have a guideline that anyone else has set for me to follow. I had my list, I checked it, and then I essentially burned everything to the ground.
So here I stand—on new earth—with a blank page—a page that will be filled with poetry and daydreams, with maps of mountains I want to hike, and cities I’d like to explore, with names of the baby girl I hope to have some day, even if that means adopting her on my own.
This page will be filled with the garden I want to build with watermelons growing wild, doodles and writings I wish to share, and outlines of the classes I wish to teach. My page will no longer be filled with check marks imposed by anyone else’s wishes or their ideas of normalcy.
It will also be filled with hope. It will be filled with the life I choose for myself, not the one society has chosen for me.