I often feel that if I’m not successful by 30 someone might come and kill me.
I picture that moment looking like that scene from The Shining, where Jack Torrance manically pursues his wife as she tries to fight him off with a baseball bat. Except in my version Jack is replaced with the Forbes 30 under 30 list and I’m Shelley Duvall, frantically defending myself with poor aim and exhaustion.
Now I’m freshly 26, that feeling is ever more prescient. With each lap around the sun the inexhaustible devil on my shoulder tells me to do more! Produce more! Achieve more! Right now!
Each time I’ve read that Forbes’ list, I’ll go on Wikipedia and compare each wunderkind’s career trajectory to mine, trying to manufacture hope from crumbs of similarity should they exist. This is not a criticism of the recipients themselves (don’t hate the player, hate the game blah blah), but as every other publication/business/institution compiles their line-up of prodigious talent, it’s easy to believe one’s window of opportunity expires at 30 (maybe 40, if you’re lucky).
It was in high school that I started thinking about ‘success’ with violent urgency. At 16, I told my mother with unwavering confidence that in 10 years I’d be living in Manhattan working for Vogue and likely “editor in chief or something” soon after.
My gaze was always firmly fixed on an imagined future existing outside of suburban Auckland, believing life happened elsewhere. Like Blair Waldorf on steroids I anticipated that this indulgent, Gossip Girl fuelled fantasy would all be realised by my early thirties. I’d graduate by 24 (with post-grad, too), move to New York, own a cute loft in the West Village and soon ascend to the fashion world’s upper echelons. Of course this dream was doomed to die in the portal of delusion, but who can blame an adolescent with an underdeveloped frontal cortex and a fashion sense informed by Supré.
I soon retired that goal for other, equally naive ambitions - United Nations Secretary General, fashion designer, famous artist - all which I eventually lost interest in.
My self-imposed time frame had no logical anchor; it was just an all-consuming angst that not being *something* or at least nearly *something* by my mid-late 20s rendered me a failure.
And this was before social media (and its consequent, hyper comparative culture) really existed. Nowadays, the way we collectively fetishize youthful success means scrolling through Instagram induces a type of anxiety that shoots up my sternum and erupts in my chest.
I struggle to simply start, let alone enjoy, activities I just did as a child like painting, writing, photography and drawing. I’ll feel guilty that I haven’t converted my creativity into something monetizable, remembering there’s already a 20-something with a New York Times’ bestseller who is supremely more talented than me. I’ll discount my abilities before I’ve begun, put my canvas aside, and do some silly little tasks to distract myself.
Last December I begrudgingly read that Forbes’ list and felt pressured to get my shit together. That next day, instead of mindlessly flicking through my apps like a nurse doing their morning rounds, I went to YouTube and searched for motivational content.
The videos titled, “Billionaire Mindset” and “Change your life now!” were less inspirational than they were audio-visual hell-mouths berating me for not doing the following for the past six years:
1. Rise and grind at 4am, or 3.30am to be safe.
2. ‘Meditate’ (i.e. manifest attracting exorbitant wealth).
3. Gym at 5am to perform primal exercises.
4. Post-gym cold shower. Recite self-affirmations.
5. Breakfast while selling your Apple stock at its 52 week high.
5. En route to work read three self-help books written by men who like rules. Even better, make them audio-books on double speed.
7. Listen to motivational podcasts en route home, like The Joe Rogan Experience.
8. Once home, begin side hustle.
10. #TeamNoSleep (but if you must, make it strategic and intentional to visualise the best you).
This ‘rise and grind’ lifestyle dictates that, if you want to get anywhere (and anywhere quickly) you must squeeze every ounce of your marginal utility into 24 hours.
Being immersed in this ‘hustle’ culture has become an almost inescapable reality, and unfortunately extolled as the metric of success. It’s no wonder so many cling to the seductive fallacy that being a billionaire by 25 is a) reasonable and b) what the world needs.
As a millennial, I wonder if our collective need to achieve might be rooted in an existential dread from knowing the next decade is do or die for the planet and this might be the only time we can truly make something of ourselves…
In spending this summer break trying to extract myself from the productivity hamster-wheel, I discovered that it’s in those quieter moments where the magic truly lies.
In a year where time dissolved into a single, amorphous blob, such was a painful reminder of how much psychological comfort I took from being constantly distracted by small, supposedly ‘urgent’ tasks to avoid just sitting with myself.
For me, night-time is where those quiet moments truly emerge as it’s when I feel most myself; reading a book, watching movies, and drifting into any one of my brain’s 294985 scenarios before going to sleep. I don’t want that time to be usurped by grinding on some side-hustle-cum-pyramid-scheme just to rush into the next morning to a life that’s not wholly my own.
While I understand that ‘success’, however defined, rarely materialises from thin air, it doesn’t feel right to spend one’s 20s on a speed-cycle where productivity is a prequel for rest and pleasure. Unfortunately such is the reality for many, and I’m aware of my enormous privilege to even have the ‘free time’ to question these things. But we didn’t always exist like kernels of pepper to be crushed in the capitalist grinder. My ancestors weren’t in a rush so why am I?
In trying to understand time and my internal sense of urgency, I came across a tweet by @sheathescholar that read “a sense of urgency is a white supremacist culture trait…”.
I read it and re-read it again. I’d never considered the nexus between racism and time. The thought is jarring given how white supremacy is often characterised by extremism, as opposed to how beliefs that white (i.e. Western/colonial) world views as inherently superior, quietly appear in our everyday lives.
Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups describe how white supremacist cultural traits such as urgency, perfectionism, progress, quantity over quality, objectivity and individualism, have so effectively woven themselves into our social fabric that they seem normal, rational and even desirable.
Tricia Hersey (aka The Nap Bishop) discusses this on her platform The Nap Ministry, a site dedicated to the liberating power of rest as an act of rebellion, decolonisation and resistance. She urges us to understand how time has been weaponised by the toxic entanglement of white supremacy, colonisation and capitalism making us rush to achieve, produce and create ASAP, at the expense of our collective wellbeing (a mindset that is also sorely ableist, classist and ageist, too).
As a Pacific Islander we often joke about ‘Island Time’ describing our community’s laissez-faire attitude to promptness. While I’m not advocating that we all start arriving to work at 11am, there is something to be said for slowing down, savouring the simple joys of being, and letting things unfold as they’re meant to.
The irony is that while I’ve been trying to achieve everything in my 20s, my predecessors were leading incredibly long, efficient lives in harmony with the earth, sun and moon cycles. Time, as they knew, wasn’t to be feared, beaten and overcome; but rather embraced, cherished and respected. Age isn’t a target for achievement, it’s just years earth side.
Entering 2021 my only real ‘resolution’ is to relinquish my need for speed. I know that if I haven’t reached apotheosis by 29, all possibility doesn’t slip off the precipice of time into the great abyss. The world always offers countless avenues for reinvention, without a bogeyman ready to kill me should I meander for a while.
It feels weird to come of age (or come of adult?) on the back of two recessions and now in the throes of a global pandemic. The last year truly exposed the need to dismantle a socio-economic system obsessed with hyper-productivity, performance and immediacy - structures that once felt immovable.
Alluding to the imitable Audre Lorde, it’ll take time to collectively dismantle the master’s house, but maybe we can start with his clock.