Recently, my boyfriend was washing my dishes, chiding me for the fact I’m the world’s worst housekeeper and because my sink had turned into its own ecological experiment. Because I’m a completely reasonable person, I chose this moment to suggest that maybe we should move in together this summer. He gently turned me down, but not because living with me would clearly mean a life of filth. No, he turned me down because he thought I was just trying to check an item off my personal to-do list.
I was completely horrified at this accusation, mainly because it’s completely true. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been super-judgey about people who live their lives without conscious decision-making, just easily chugging along and checking items off your basic “how to live a decent first-world life” list. Step one: Meet a nice boy in college. Step two: Marry him right after graduation. Step three: Buy a house and acquire things from Target. Step four: Start picking out baby names-you know, doing things just because that’s how it’s done. And there I was, standing in my own kitchen, realizing that checklist-obsessed person wasn’t some anonymous yuppie, it was ME.
I was secretly relieved that my boyfriend said he didn’t want to move in together. But I still couldn’t help but feel a twinge, like it said something about me as a person that I’ve never lived with a boyfriend. Ever since this exchange, I’ve been catching myself at plenty of other checklist hang-ups and their requisite self-judgments. My boyfriend tells me all the time I need to stop comparing myself to others because it’s never fair or productive. Part of making friends is finding people you relate to or whose personalities, interests and experiences are interesting to you and compatible with yours. It’s natural to try to understand yourself through others. Sometimes, it’s even more illuminating to try to understand yourself in terms of the people you aren’t.
Just because it’s natural, though, doesn’t mean it’s always healthy. Credit card debt is sky-high nationwide because advertising has us thinking we all need to live like Kardashians even if we only make $30,000 a year. Facebook makes it easier than ever to obsess over how others live-where they eat out, what they wear to dinner, who they’re dating, what their politics are. But it can be really hard sometimes when you don’t recognize your life in any of the others you see around you. It’s also really tough when you’re just starting out in a job or a relationship or some other endeavor. We all know what the milestones look like, but not necessarily the journey. It makes it hard not to think in terms of goals.
I really admire Becca Skeels and her partner, Doug, who run the local Tumbleweeds Handcraft wood veneer sunglass company. They wrote of their unique, crafty lifestyle, “Generally, we just do all the cool stuff every 12-year-old vows to do when they are all grown up and don’t have parents telling them what to do!” I envy their conviction to live this life driven by passion rather than convenient guidelines: to have tattoos, to work from home, to create their own rules. Few of us have that kind of vision and courage.
At the same time, it’s hard to turn down the feelings of validation I’ve gotten from something as simple and trivial as a great blowout after a haircut, from presenting at professional events, from introducing my boyfriend to my parents. Every time I pass a milestone or see my life looking like something familiar, I can’t help but be pleased. It’s harder making up your own milestones or simply ignoring that system altogether when that means admitting that your accomplishments might not be recognizable or impressive to others.
We all struggle with these kinds of questions to different extents, depending on how much we care what others think and what we want. For those who genuinely want a familiar life, who-even after a great deal of thought-find authenticity in the traditional checklists, more power to you for finding your happiness. For those who want something different and have the bravery and imagination to make it happen like Becca and Doug, rock on. But for those of us in the middle, for those who are tempted by everyone else’s truth or a little unsure of their own, the thought process can be complicated.
You have to struggle every day with your motivations and your goals. Sometimes, you feel a little lonely when you don’t see anyone else plugging away at the start of their career or when you aren’t sure what a 1-year-old relationship should look like if you aren’t yet ready to move in or get engaged. Sometimes, cute boys who do your dishes have to tell you that you aren’t ready for the things you think you want. It’s OK.
If you feel this way sometimes, know someone else out there does, too. I might not advertise it on my Facebook wall as much as my penchant for Anthropologie dresses and weird cocktails, but I do. That’s the thing about comparing yourself to others-all you can see is the surface. You have no way of knowing how much contemplation and struggle went into what you see. The people I admire and compare myself to could be just as conflicted as I am, might work just as hard to create an authentic life. I’d never know it. All you can ever really know is yourself. Start there, and you can’t go wrong.
Meghan O’Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.