My birthday falls at the end of the calendar year. By the mandate of the New York City public school system, this put me perennially behind my peers. I was last to graduate into the upper age brackets in sports leagues, to advance into subsequent bunk ranks at sleepaway camp, to earn the liberty to purchase scratch cards I never wanted in the first place.
In college, I marauded from bar to bar in Saratoga Springs, sliding my flimsy form of false identification toward bartenders and bouncers until well into my senior year—the point at which most of my friends had already grown numb to the glimmer surrounding their 21st year of life. I was familiar, in the guttural sense, with the experience of catching up.
Until suddenly, I wasn’t. After I traded my clapboard college home for an apartment in Brooklyn and willfully greeted The Real World, my tempo sped up. I wrote frantically, read Franzen, subscribed to the Times in print, configured myself into the writerly shape I had been so determined to take as a student. The whole dynamic seemingly turned on its head: I was no longer last, I was first. I was writing! Publishing! Parading around in block heels and oversized Oxford shirts, marveling at the wonder that is an email signature. I was a thing to be commended—“wise beyond my years.” The favored term amongst my superiors was uniform: I was impressive for my age.
For all the reasons age appears a bizarre qualifier here—akin to tacking “for a girl” onto a compliment about athleticism—it never felt that way to me. It flattered me, but beyond that, it became a matter of identity politics. As I saw it, age and success melded into misshapen, conjoined concepts, each one thoroughly dependent on the other. To be worthy of praise, I had to surpass my peers, and in order to surpass anyone, I had to be praiseworthy.
Now, at 24, I am still doing the things I was doing at 21—writing, collecting newspapers, publishing stories on The Internet (though, admittedly, reading less Franzen). And I continue to not-so-quietly delight in the pleasure that comes with revealing my age to colleagues: What a thing, they squawk. You’re so young!
But here is a dark if obvious thought: I won’t always be, and what then? Come December, I will turn 25, and then 26, and eventually 30, and is anyone impressive for their age at 30 unless they’ve found their name on a Forbes list? (I only mean to be as dramatic as my own interior monologue.) The utterly inconvenient, onward march of time seems to beg the looming question: Is there an age—a predetermined threshold—at which we outgrow the whole charade that is age-contingent success? And if so, what if the successes themselves are lacking without age as a qualifier?
“I’ve been ahead for so long,” my friend Emma told me recently from her couch in Bed Stuy, having determined that she was ready to leave the job she’d held for the past four years—one she’d left college early to begin. “I’ve been labeled ‘remarkable’ by bosses and mentors, almost always with the disclaimer: ‘And look at how young she is!’ But now I’m realizing, that’s not really the whole thing—it’s not the only professional identity I want.”
It’s difficult to express the largeness of this particular thing for this particular friend, but it undermined something we’d rallied for in more than a decade of friendship: This perpetual grasping at the next thing. We’d sprinted, headfirst, into an iteration of adulthood that we found more commercially admirable than the ruddy terrain of our girlhood. But now that we were here, our ambitions had nowhere else to move. However long Emma might have been able to maintain the whole wunderkind shtick, as a metric of success, outrunning her peers felt transient. It felt cosmetic. If not forging ahead, she needed a different vessel for her ambition.
“You know, people your age tend to forget they can move sideways,” a friend’s father, notorious for his sage, if granular, wisdom, once told me over shabbat dinner. “Sometimes moving sideways will make you happier than moving forward.”
Naturally, there’s a case to be made that age has never been a relevant barometer for where, exactly, we ought to be in our personal and professional trajectories. That moving diagonally and sideways and probably even backwards each have their own merits, while age-specific qualifiers only apply to a very particular form of progress: forward motion.
“I remember reading the Forbes 30 Under 30 list after I had just turned 32,” says a former editor of mine, Alex, when I ask him about his feelings on his age. “They owned companies! They were worth millions when I was only worth thousands!” Hearing this surprised me. As I saw it, Alex had always been content to meander forward, delighting in all the particulars of his job as it was, wading coolly through his 30s. But it seems that, even for those of us who aren’t frantically hurtling towards some great, amorphous thing, the notion that we’re eternally behind schedule if not ahead runs rampant.
But Alex offers a humbling thought: “Mozart wrote his first symphony at 8. John Glenn flew into space at 77. I was raised by a single mother who waited tables to help send me to college only to end up getting her masters degree in her 40s. Guess which I find most impressive?”
Here is the age-accomplishment problem: When we stop evaluating personal successes in their own rite, and instead the age at which they were achieved, fulfillment becomes a measure of speed rather than depth. It becomes comparative rather than personal. We all wanted to be prodigious. But success and prodigy are not like terms, and we do ourselves a disservice in using them interchangeably. As we age, the whole territory of success will shapeshift—and that’s the metric that does matter, qualifiers aside. Right?
My father, a therapist, now in his late 50s, told me recently that he believed his age was no longer relevant. “All of ‘middle-age’ is murky territory,” he said. “It’s funny that, for you, being in your early 20s is central to your sense of self. For me, age is just sort of outside of my own field of vision.” In his early 20s, he worked as a wardrobe supervisor on television sets. The career he’s held in social work for most of my life came as more of a second act. “If I’d thought the way you do about all this, I never would’ve started over,” he tells me. “I wouldn’t have wanted to go back to square one as I entered my 30s.”
He says he thinks in prose—words like father, author, speaker—in place of numbers. He says I should do the same. And to some degree, this feels obvious. If I were not compulsive in my desire to outrun myself on the battleground that is New York media, perhaps I’d be writing more, unafraid of distilling my ambition into lateral motion—writing sans deadlines and digital bylines. Writing with no obvious endgame. As of right now, this is still foreign territory for me.
The age-success ratio weds us to trajectories, in place of our more profound predilections—most of which are free-floating and all but disconnected from corporate ladders. It renders us allergic to the very idea of lateral motion. But what if we were interested in a different sort of geometry? What would we be then?
Feature illustration by Molley May.