Welcome to the Inciting Incident blog, a sub-project of the Inciting Incident podcast. I’m Al Laiman, the creator and main host of the podcast, and I feel like there are topics about which I can write that aren’t necessarily good for entire episodes, but are good to discuss regardless of the medium. Maybe we’ll end up addressing them on shows based on the responses, but I think it’s worth starting it up and seeing where it goes, but for now, consider this a place for separate topics and possible follow-ups. I am at heart and in original passion a writer, so perhaps this will be a way to hear my words in a different medium. Here we go.
Given the controversial nature of the podcast at times, it may seem odd that I’m kicking off the podcast with something that seems rather tame by comparison. If you looked at the title, what I’m looking at is a bit of a transitional state of life. I’ve addressed this a lot, including on my recent appearance on the Secular Stories podcast, but this is a bit more specific in my intentions, at least for this post.
Full disclosure if you’re not aware, I’m 31, but I’m a non-traditional college student, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. I was last in high school in 2002, and thanks to the advent of social media, I’ve been able to keep up with friends that I had back then. Because of the unique and strange nature of my journey, it’s fair to say that I’ve had a different experience than a good majority of them. Based on posts I see a lot, I thought it was a possibly helpful idea to discuss the decade of your 20s, and what changes transpire throughout them, especially once you’ve reached the end of it.
Keep in mind that any generalizations I may make always have exceptions, so please don’t rail me if this doesn’t apply to you specifically.
When we leave high school at ages 17-18, regardless of whether or not we go to college, the habits we’ve spent most of our lives being socialized with end up carrying through for a good ten years at least. When you’re in college as a traditional high school graduate, college can very much be an extension of high school, except you get to sleep over and drink beer, sometimes even legally! There’s always an urge to, if not conform, to at least find your place.
Jobs are very much similar in that regard. Have you ever noticed that most restaurants, retail stores, and other entry-level jobs feel like high school a good bit of the time? Cliques emerge, the popular ones go out with each other afterward, and those who don’t make a concerted effort to assimilate are mocked and excluded. It’s not unusual.
However, when you reach your late 20s, and I often see these posts from social media from people my age, there’s this epiphany you have where you realize: “I don’t have any idea who I am!” For many of us, it’s transcendental, because we’re raised in a society that teaches us that we’re already special, individually unique, and encouraged to be who we are. We’re also told that once we hit the age of 18, we’re considered an adult, and with that comes the pressures of acting like one. American youth become terrified when they go to college in their late teens, early 20s, or when they are working in their young 20s and they don’t already have it all figured out. That creates an incredible amount of stress that some of us can never escape.
If there’s a flaw in our educational system, I think it’s that we’re expected to go immediately to college after high school and already have in mind what we want to do with our lives. But as someone who failed at that twice, and then went back to community college at the age of 25, I have a different perspective on that process. In the eight years between when I first tried college and the successful return, I gained experience in the workplace, learned what I absolutely hated, and what I didn’t want to happen to me for the rest of my life.
On the other hand, many of the kids I spend time around are putting so much pressure on themselves to already know what it is before they’re 30, lest they be considered failures or underachievers. Because of this, we end up with jobs we don’t want, degrees in studies that we end up tiring of before we graduate, and a sense of a need to be at places in an emotional capacity hard to attain for many young people.
Once you realize you have no idea who you are, it becomes time to rebuild yourself from the ground up. Of course you keep things that you like, and perhaps opinions you had grow, become rationalized, and better articulated, and others you drop like a bad habit. Your judgments of other people decrease, you become more sympathetic to others who are different from you. You’re not so inclined to draw the line in the sand or categorize everything in black-and-white terms.
Over the course of those few years, some people leave your life while different ones become closer than ever before. But while your foundation is being rebuilt, it feels like everything is in flux, and that anxiety of being a failure increases. Sometimes we end up married because we think we have to, or having children before we’re ready, in addition to the stresses we’re already facing. The barometer of success feels comparative, both to others your age and to what the expectations are.
One day, maybe you’re about 30, and you might be looking back at On This Day on Facebook or wondering why you no longer feel the desire to go out, even when you don’t want to. You joke about how you feel old, how you want different things, or how staying inside and reading a book feels more desirable than getting trashed or being at a club. And if you didn’t do any of those things in the first place, it just feels more acceptable to do so.
What’s happening is that you’re losing the power of cliques. High school trends encompass so many of our actions well beyond your high school graduation, and that mentality drives us to do things we don’t want to do for people we don’t like. But once you start figuring out who you are, as opposed to the you that you want to present, things change drastically in a relatively short amount of time. You spent so much time crafting an image for yourself and a particular group of people with whom to associate. Comparatively, you feel old because it’s been such a short time that reading a book and cooking dinner makes the partying days feel like ages ago.
When I went back to school, especially once I got into Penn two years later, I saw many of my old behaviors manifested in my younger classmates. Motivations made sense, I could see them playing out to the T of thoughts I had when I was young. But at the same time, I was way more focused on schoolwork, studying, and making good grades than I was when I was younger. Prioritizing, working while being a student, having that life experience to keep me motivated, no longer wanting to return to live paycheck-to-paycheck drove me that much harder to succeed.
Those experiences define you, not because of who you were, but who you became. You can’t recreate an experience you’ve never had, and it’s much harder to fight to prevent something that you’ve never had to deal with. If you’ve never had to work through college or on minimum wage, you cannot possibly empathize with that situation. If you’ve never had to take care of your own kids while thinking you’re still one yourself, it’s impossible to realize what it’s like.
But at one point, when you no longer care about what others think, when you aren’t driven to wear certain things or go places because others think you should, that’s when you’ve become an adult. When you see yourself as who you are rather than who you want to be or how you want to be seen, your perspective shifts so dramatically that it causes a crisis in your own mind. I must be getting old, I’m not cool anymore, I should feel bad about what I like now… Nonsense.
You are who you became as a product of having to deal with things on your own. When you have to work until midnight for tips, you stop caring about what kind of clothes you wear on your day off. When there’s no break between classes and work, what your fellow classmates think of your phone case is irrelevant. When you’ve got your own kids in school, dealing with what other children think you should be becomes completely disassociated with your philosophy.
That’s growing up. That’s becoming a person. Never be ashamed of it. Do what you like, learn new things, explore new places, and read new books; not because you think you should, but because they contribute to the overall personhood you’ve made through your own hard work and not the pressures and stresses of how much other people in large groups can really suck a majority of the time.
When people say “You do you,” that is what they mean. You won’t realize it until you get there, but it’s always worth the ride.