“A man is a success if he wakes up in the morning and gets to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.”
– Bob Dylan
A couple of weekends ago, I went to spend an afternoon with my grandmother and took her out for lunch. When I went to pick her up she introduced me to one of her friends who was chatting with her outside her building, a sweet old lady just as elderly and frail as herself. As her friend shook my hand to greet me, she said to me “Kalam arabiyah?” which means “Do you speak Arabic?” in Arabic. I was shocked at how this little old Canadian lady, fragilely holding on to her walker, boldly spoke a foreign language with such exquisite confidence.
I laughed and told her that I speak a little bit and I asked her how in the world did she know how to speak it. She told me she used to live in Egypt for eleven years and worked as an English teacher there. Intrigued by her story, I asked her about it and I could see the memories glisten in her eyes as she nostalgically spoke of Cairo and Luxor from her past life. As she spoke, I pictured a younger version of herself circa 1960s, gazing at the pyramids with a strand of her hair blowing under a scarf in the dusky breeze of Old Cairo. Stuck on this image, I asked her how long ago she was there. Contrary to what I imagined, she said she left Egypt in 1988. “I was 65”, she proudly added.
I was surprised at how recently she had ventured off on her teaching mission and the age she was when she did it, even to think of how old she was to learn a new language. Of course I don’t know every detail and circumstance of this woman’s life but sure enough, this little old lady worked halfway across the world for something she was passionate about well past her 50s during a time period in which doing so wasn’t typically common to do. The thing that hit me the most was that if she was 65 in 1988, then it means that she was my age, 29, in 1952. What kind of social freedom or opportunities did a 29 year old woman have in 1952? Probably not a lot. At that time she probably already popped out a couple of kids and got married at the age of 20 destined to be a housewife. But that didn’t stop this woman from doing what she wanted to do later on in her life and it didn’t stop her from enriching her journey with new opportunities and life experiences while ignoring socially constructed expectations. That made me think.
It made me think of all the times I felt like I was behind in my life or that I haven’t yet reached the finish line of what I had envisioned my future to be. It made me think of all the times I created burdened pressure on myself to achieve the highest form of success by the age of 25. It made me think of all the jobs I worked at with zero passion but I continued to work regardless because it was what I was “supposed to do”. It made me think of all the times my schools and parental expectations drew out this glamorized picture that in order to be happy and successful in life, you had to study hard and have five degrees and three PhD’s because that will guarantee a big job and make big money because after all, that’s what success is all about, kids. Then I kept thinking of the grand disappointment that occurred after graduating university and realizing that the promised array of jobs waiting for me a silver platter were a lot more scarce than I was told which, God forbid, “slowed down” the process of making it big by the age of 25. As the years go by (and they sure go by quickly these days) you can’t help but look back and falsely feel that there’s so much to “catch up on”. Especially when you’re at an age where you’re constantly invited to house warming parties, engagement parties, weddings, baby showers or work promotions. It’s only natural to start asking yourself “What is taking so long?”.
But hearing this old woman’s story made me wonder: what is the rush? Is there some kind of expiry date for finding, and ultimately loving, what we truly want to do? Is there some kind of allocated age category in which if we don’t check off a goal by age X, then we’ve missed the boat for the rest of our lives?
Before we proceed, let’s define “success”. Success means something different to each of us. Growing up in a Western North American world, we’ve been taught that success means having wealth and fame. I beg to differ. I associate success with having a happy soul. That may sound too kumbaya or hipstery or what have you, but I tend to define success as attaining the self-fulfilment of an idea or a passion. To put it simply, if at the end of the day you’re doing what you want to do then you’ve reached your success. It’s when your hard work, your struggles and your failures don’t stop you from reaching that place where you can tell yourself “okay, this is where I want to be”. And sometimes you’ll find yourself in a satisfying place even if it isn’t your particular end-goal, but it could very well be a necessary pit-stop in your journey to get there. Of course this train of thought could apply to anything – a personal goal (i.e. weight loss), a relationship goal (i.e. having the courage to speak up) or a professional goal (i.e. getting that promotion). For the sake of sticking to the general idea of this blog post, when I mention success I mean it in career-driven context and the general “expectations” mid-to-late twenty somethings/early-thirty somethings feel the pressure to live up to (mortgage and marriage included).
Now let’s talk about those expectations, shall we? If I wrap my head around this correctly, men and women of today’s world are supposed to get a degree, find an excellent paying dream-job, buy a house, buy a car, get married, have kids and have our life figured out all before the age of 30? That’s a shitload of pressure and unrealistic expectations. And then what? What happens after 30? Isn’t 30 still incredibly young? Why do people scramble and rush like being 30 is some kind of final deadline before the end of the world? Also, who says that our goals and ambitions won’t change after we turn 30? Isn’t it only natural that as we grow and experience life that we could very well change our decisions about our career paths, our lifestyles and our relationships?
Using my own career journey as an example, I’ve really gone from one end to the other. After graduating from university with an International Relations degree in my hand, I somehow got myself a job in Events and Marketing (because of course, that’s the general process after university – you work in a job that has nothing to do with your degree). Luckily for me, I actually enjoyed working in Events and Marketing and it made me pursue an Event Management certificate which helped me a lot. However, although I liked the job itself, I just did not like the industry I worked in. There was no passion at all. I kept lying to myself by convincing myself that the passion and the interest will eventually come, but after five years of a dry and disconnected relationship with the industry, I came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t for me. So I left and I tackled the world of Corporate Communications. On paper it was a good experience but in practice it turned me into a miserable corporate slave. It drained me and burnt me out, and again, it still wasn’t the industry or the job that gave me exciting butterflies. It actually have me gut wrenching panic attacks. Needless to say, the lustre of that fancy job quickly lost its shine and during that time, I had lost a part of myself.
It was time for me to make changes. It was time for me to finally listen to my heart, and to not give a shit about what looks good on my resume or what I do for a living in comparison to my peers. It was now or never and I had never felt more ready. I left the corporate world behind and I decided to finally take the plunge to do what I want to do. With the support of my family, my friends and the extremely inspiring network of professionals I had the pleasure of meeting, I was fueled with determination. After looking at what made me happy and what made me energized, I landed a job in the travel and wedding industry by combining my passion (travel) with my professional experience in event management (weddings). I never thought I’d find a place where I can combine the two, and I never thought I’d be paid to have fun and enjoy myself. Whoever said “If you’re having fun at work then it’s not a real job” is a world-class idiot and knows shit all about anything.
After achieving what I wanted and going through a brief existential crisis/self-reflection, I asked myself why the heck didn’t I do this any sooner? Well…because I never would have felt that hunger and that drive to attain what I truly wanted if I hadn’t been in places that I did not want to be in. Everything happens for a reason and you face certain things that serve as stepping stones to where you’re supposed to go. As J. K. Rowling once said, “And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life”. I couldn’t relate more.
So I just turned 29 and for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m finally walking down a career path I belong in. And it’s a path that I am eager to walk even further now that I’ve sampled the scenery. Most importantly, for the first time in my life, I’m finally happy when I wake up in the morning to go to work. I never felt that way about any job I worked at in the past ten years. That’s sad!
Our generation is certainly a conflicting one. We have every opportunity, freedom and resource to build our future and to improve our growth and relationships, yet we do nothing to make good use of it. Ironically, and this is what perplexes me the most, we live in a time where it’s totally okay to break free from the cookie-cutter conformity that society has constructed for centuries. So why do we still kill ourselves to comply to it? Why do people celebrate advancements and freedoms and yet take a few steps back and follow the same repetitive timeline? All of these timelines and expectations I hear people declaring just makes me wanna hold them by the shoulders are say “SLOW DOWN.” And the more I see people stressfully racing to the finish line, the more it makes me realize that I’d rather take a scenic stroll towards my own journey of self-fulfillment than joining their marathon.
I truly believe that meeting that sweet old lady was for a reason, almost like a sign that reassured me I was on the right track. Listening to her story and seeing how energetic she was when she reminisced about her past gave me inspiration that it’s never too late to do anything you set your mind to. Here I was, freshly 29 and just starting to sink my feet into a passioned career path and I kept thinking about how when she was 29, she did not have that opportunity. And, she still went and pursued her goals much later on in her life. So what have I got to worry about? That’s the thing – nothing at all! At the end of the day, your happiness is your own responsibility so don’t be scared to take the time you need to step out, explore yourself and attain the happiness you want. I promise you, it’s worth it.