Recently, I was invited to a Facebook group for my ten-year high school reunion.
I graduated in 2010. When I got the invite, I almost couldn’t believe that it has been long enough since high school for a ten-year reunion to start being planned.
When I was a teenager, ten years seemed like an impossibly long time. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be creeping up on 30; that seemed like a distant future of maturity, wisdom, and being, like, really old. Now when I look back to ten years ago, it doesn’t feel like any time at all.
This reminder of how long it’s been since high school has caused me to start asking myself: What would teenage me think of my life now?
Reflecting on what we wanted when we were younger can, I think, be a helpful way for us to evaluate if we are going in the right direction and to appreciate how far we’ve come.
It’s also a little uncomfortable.
My life doesn’t look like I thought it would when I was seventeen.
If you had asked me at seventeen what I thought my life would look like in ten years, I would have probably started by listing all the things I thought I would have accomplished by then: graduated college, published a book (or a few), traveled extensively and lived or studied abroad. Gotten married (I would have said this, but I don’t think I would have really believed it — more on that later). Made a lot of money. Be well established in a successful career.
I had a sense that I was waiting for my life to “start.” I think I had this idea that after I finished college, started a career, and settled down my life would truly begin and I would just coast along happily until I died.
Seventeen-year-old me might have been a little out of touch with reality.
This is the reality: I graduated from college. I traveled abroad once, but I haven’t lived or studied abroad. I’m not married, but I’m in a long-term, happy relationship. I haven’t published a book, but I share my writing in other ways. I don’t have a lot of money (exactly the opposite). I have a job that I don’t love but that more or less covers my basic necessities and gives me a lot of flexibility. I’m still figuring out what my career plans are long-term.
Not exactly the glamorous future I envisioned at seventeen, but by no means a bad life, either.
Would I be disappointed in myself?
Seventeen-year-old me had unrealistically high expectations and was very judgmental. (Twenty-seven-year-old me is also inclined to be judgmental, but I try hard not to be). I think there is a good chance that she would look at my life and not like what she saw.
What about all of your plans!? She would say. You were supposed to move to Paris! You were supposed to publish a best-selling novel! You were supposed to have everything figured out by now and be a career success! And also be married and have a kid!
Clearly, I had no concept back then of the true expenses of travel, or immigration policies (Did you know it’s not easy to just pack up and move to Paris?). I didn’t understand how much career success can be out of your control, and I didn’t quite grasp how much real work, years of it, go into becoming a successful writer. And I definitely didn’t know the first thing about how romantic relationships actually work.
The high expectations I had for myself at seventeen probably never could have been met. And what’s more, I don’t know if anything I did would have satisfied that younger version of me; I have always been very hard on myself, but it’s only recently that I’ve recognized it as “being hard on myself” and not “holding myself to perfectly reasonable expectations that I fail to meet because I am a failing failure.”
There are also some aspects of my life that young me would be proud of.
At seventeen my mental health was in the toilet. I was depressed and anxious but didn’t recognize these things as depression and anxiety. I didn’t like myself very much. When I said before that I wouldn’t have truly believed deep-down I would ever get married, it was because I thought I was a garbage person that no one could ever really love if they really knew me.
Thankfully, I don’t feel even half so bad anymore. I still deal with anxiety and depression, but they are much better managed. I don’t think I am a garbage person. I know that someone can really know me and still love me.
My life isn’t perfect. But I can handle things a lot better now, and in general am more content with myself.
Seventeen-year-old me would not have thought any of that was possible.
Reflecting on what we wanted in the past vs. what we have now can be enlightening.
When we think about what past versions of ourselves would think of us now it can help put our life into perspective. It can show us how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. It can remind us of the things that are really important to us, the things that have always been important to us.
Looking back, certain things stick out to me: I’ve always wanted to travel, I’ve always wanted to write. I’m reminded that these are still things I should make a priority in my life. I’m also reminded that I’ve always been inclined to a “the grass is greener” mentality. Back then I had an idealized version in my head of how good my life would be in 10 years after I had accomplished everything on my list; these days I still sometimes find myself slipping into thoughts of “things would be better if I just made more money/published a book/accomplished some other goal.”
That’s when I have to remind myself that I can’t wait for my life to start after some arbitrary point in the future. It’s already happening now.
So maybe I haven’t yet accomplished all the “to-do’s” on my teenaged wish list. Maybe I never will. But I know something that that version of me didn’t know: That life goes on and it can get better. It can be good in ways you never even imagined were possible. Things change, goals evolve. There will always be more work to do, so there’s no sense putting pressure on yourself to “get it all together” by a certain time. It takes as long as it takes.
Grace Carlson is a writer from Washington. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and the occasional poem. She also publishes articles on travel, mental health, and writing. Visit her blog, A Passport And A Pencil, or follow her on Instagram.
Image courtesy of Blake Barlow.