A few weeks ago, over breakfast with a new friend, I discovered the joy of feeling “regular.” It was one of the hottest days of the summer, and after we exchanged niceties and apologized for sweating and reassured each other that we didn’t look as sweaty as we felt, we quickly fell into a discussion about our shared fear of falling behind.
We’re both in industries (media, entertainment) where people younger than us achieve dizzying notoriety—sometimes seemingly out of nowhere. And while most of the time we feel successful (we are successful), it’s hard not to feel, couched between wunderkinds, like we’re missing a certain arithmetic others located easily. Saying these things out loud always helps. And it can feel especially rapturous, in the company of a new friend, to share an insecurity only to find they feel largely the same way, are talking themselves off the very same ledge. We worked ourselves into a bit of a tizzy, sharing in perceived slights, railing against the establishment, knocking over a stray spoon.
“But,” I said, realizing I needed to calm the fuck down, “life’s better than before.”
“Much better,” she said. “Now we’re just regular people.”
Regular. What does it mean to feel regular? This friend and I both came to our current careers “late,” starting over in our late 20s after building different, more stable lives. Lives we didn’t really want. And now that we’re here, our problems are just… problems. Not bone-deep anxiety, not existential spirals, not immobilizing panic. We want more money, we want to succeed, we worry if we should move or network more or try to develop a bigger Twitter following (I recognize this is not, like, a normal career concern, but you get it). It is in these moments that I try to remind myself that it’s actually kind of nice to deal with smaller, ever-shifting bits of dread, rather than carry around the weight of living the incorrect life.
I know that weight well. In my early twenties, I played it safe. I took creative-adjacent jobs that seemed stable enough and told myself I was happy. I got a competitive apprenticeship after college and never looked back. When it became clear that something wasn’t quite right, that my life didn’t totally fit me, I blamed it on money stress, so I picked up an extra retail job. Then I blamed it on the wrong set of friends, so I made new ones. Then I told myself it was just growing pains, until finally I blamed all my problems on location and moved to the Pacific Northwest with no job, no plans, and one friend.
Many told me it was brave. My mother told me I was crazy, then cried at the airport and told me I was brave. But deep down, I knew I was running, and when I woke up six months later to the same me and the same problems, I had to make a decision: Go after what I wanted, start small, start now, and figure it out, or give up on the things I secretly believed about myself. Instead, I created a third option: I drank. And kissed people on street corners and in cars I probably shouldn’t have gotten into. I turned attention into validation and collected compliments to keep out the chilling thought that I was wasting my life. My days were so easy, so charmed, but it only made me feel ungrateful for feeling unhappy. It felt like I was growing around myself, collecting milestones and making choices, a life growing fuzzy around the pit of who I was.
Eventually I made another career change, moving back to the midwest under the misguided hope that one more big and bold move would cure my wanderlust, but as I lay in bed one night, months later, it occurred to me that I felt like a fire burning down in a hearth, the logs collapsing in on themselves as the embers glowed slightly. Normally I would have chastised myself for such a dramatic metaphor, but it was finally the image I needed to propel me forward. I was suffocating under the weight of my own choices, and I needed to propel myself toward something, rather than away from everything.
So I did it. I mean, I did it in about as safe a way as you could: grad school. And it felt like drawing a straight line between myself and what I wanted for the very first time. When I landed in New York, everything clicked. My apartment was shitty, I was broke, classes were disappointing and hard, but when I stumbled into my first media job, I finally felt like myself. Everything that didn’t go right hurt in a sharp new way, but the drive to get back up and keep moving felt new and foreign: I had tapped into a sense of resilience I didn’t know I had. I was doing it. I did it. I was building something. All of a sudden that core, that pit in the center of all my empty actions, was expanding.
I’ve never wanted one thing. Or maybe I’ve never wanted one thing for long enough to pursue it in a clear-eyed way, which I’ve used as an excuse to hide. I was always fairly ambitious and fairly successful, but that drive felt empty because I was going after the soft edges of what I always wanted, not the thing I actually wanted.
“You’re right. It’s nice to feel regular,” I replied to my friend.
I’m still learning how to be a normal person. What do I do with all this energy that isn’t spent feeling like jumping out of my own skin? How do I move forward now that things I actually want are, holy shit, kind of in my grasp? How do I do all of this at a time when my friends are buying houses and having babies and that little voice rises up to tell me I’m foolish, I’m an old embarrassment, threatening to stop me in my tracks? How do I grapple with finally feeling at ease with myself when the world feels like it is falling apart? Now that I’m here, how do I turn around and give back?
Growing up the second time, where my desires and my life are layered on top of each other and not on parallel tracks, has been a thrilling type of puberty. I am finally free to live my life instead of observe it. How nice it is to revel in the mundane. To sit with a friend over coffee and pause to be thankful for where we are, for the life we live.
Feature Illustration by Mia Christopher.