I don’t have my life figured out at 32, but that’s ok
I don’t have life figured out at 32 and I’m not sure what my life will look like when I’m 80 - but that’s okay. The roads we take may not be those we initially envisioned, but if we base our choices on what’s important to us and gives our life meaning, I’m sure we won’t regret our final story.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Librarian. Teacher. Checkout Chick. Power Ranger. Musician. Lawyer.
As a kid, these were some of my answers. I would change my life’s ambitions monthly, even weekly, depending on my latest hero.
At 17, I finally decided on my true path, or so I thought. I took up a double degree in Commerce and Law with the idea of being a serious lawyer.
At 22, I graduated, lined up a decent law job in London, and mapped out my plan to reach the highest echelons of the legal field by my early 30s.
Now at 32, my business card doesn’t say Partner, Law Firm. It says Co-founder, The Mindful Company.
I run a jewellery brand that promotes mental wellbeing and kindness. If you had told me when I was 22 that I’d be running a jewellery brand, I would have probably retorted, “What nonsense! I don’t even wear jewellery!”
So what happened?
The truth is: life is non-linear, it’s more like a winding maze.
We can’t always control our external circumstances, and as time passes, what we want out of life changes.
What matters is that the choices you make are governed by the truth of what’s important to you. Truths discovered through self-examination, a life-long process of introspection and conversation.
The result? Decisions that build meaning into your life, and acceptance that releases you from the prison of a specific destination.
In a speech at Stanford University’s 100th commencement ceremony in 1991, American civic leader John Gardner said: “One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception we have of the kind of concrete, describable goal toward which all of our efforts drive us. We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived.
So you scramble and climb to reach what you thought was the goal. And when you get there, you feel a little empty…making you wonder whether you have climbed the wrong mountain.
But the metaphor is all wrong. Life isn't a mountain that has a summit.
Life is an endless process of self-discovery, an unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves.
By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one's capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.
The pursuit of self-discovery that Gardner promotes is not a new concept. Socrates defiantly declared at the trial that led to his execution that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
He believed that life without wisdom, without self-examination of what you value, leads to a life without meaning – a fate worse than death.
A tad dramatic, but a fair point.
As both Gardner and Socrates remind us, fixating on a specific destination without introspection may leave us empty.
What you believe you may want now, may not be what you want in a year, five years, or even less likely when you’re 80.
Dr Karl Pillemer, a world-renowned gerontologist at Cornell University, was intrigued to find that the elderly tend to be significantly happier than people decades younger.
He asked over-65s what important life lessons they would like to pass on. One unanimous refrain were three simple words, “Life is short.” A 99-year-old woman said: “I don’t know what happened, but the next thing you know you’re 100.”
Their biggest regret in life?
“I wish I hadn’t spent so much time worrying.”
An 87-year-old elaborated: “What possible difference did it make that I kept my mind on every little thing that might go wrong? When I realised that it made no difference at all, I experienced a freedom that’s hard to describe. My life lesson is this: Turn yourself from frittering away the day worrying about what comes next and let everything else that you love and enjoy move in.”
In other words, don’t waste precious time worrying about the things you can’t control.
Life has a way of working itself out. And what matters in the end?
Dr Pillemer found that the elderly desired recognition that their life mattered, how it was meaningful, and a story that ended well.
In Paul Kalanithi's posthumous memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, the 36-year-old neurosurgeon protagonist wrestles with what gives life meaning in the face of his terminal cancer diagnosis. He questions what it means to be human, and how to make sense of life despite being mortal.
He wrote to his young daughter, born months before his death: “That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied.”
Kalanithi realised that what makes life meaningful is a question about living, not dying. Life isn’t about avoiding suffering; it’s about how we choose to make meaning. We are reminded then that the question we should ask ourselves is “How do we want to spend this finite time?”
I don’t have life figured out at 32 and I’m not sure what my life will look like when I’m 80 - but that’s okay.
The roads we take may not be those we initially envisioned, but if we base our choices on what’s important to us and gives our life meaning, I’m sure we won’t regret our final story.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ciara Yeo is co-founder of The Mindful Company, which makes personalised jewellery. This piece first appeared in The Birthday Book 2018: The Roads We Take, a collection of 53 essays by a range of Singaporeans and Singapore residents reflecting on our individual and collective journeys as the Republic turns 53. TODAY will be carrying other essays from the book in the coming weeks.