I think we all grow up with a set of boxes that we feel we need to tick. The expectations of parents, family, teachers, significant others, peers. We’re shaped by these invisible standards that we set for ourselves and for others: ideas of “rights” and “wrongs,” and an artificial sense of timing for achieving those goals.
Growing up, I felt so much pressure to get the right grades, and then do the right amount of studying to reach the next goal. I had to try to get into the correct school, pick the correct career, and then make the correct amount of money. All of this felt necessary so that my parents’ many sacrifices for how my future might look wouldn’t be for nothing. It felt overwhelming, and yet I also recognize that the pressure I experienced at home was still markedly mild, compared to some friends with more affluent, high-pressure upbringings.
At some point I had to leave these expectations behind and follow my own path. I’m not sure precisely when I disavowed the entire notion of “ticking boxes that someone else set for me.” It was more gradual, as opposed to being one pivotal moment. Instead, it arose from a series of small realizations that I had around the ideas of time, happiness, and priorities that I couldn’t even fathom in my childhood.
The realization that I had to shake off these expectations was influenced by significant experiences I had — moments of revelation that affirmed my sense of independence. My first long weekend getaway with friends; my first time leaving the country; my first fleeting romance with someone who didn’t speak a word of my language. And while I was in the throes of this self-discovery, it made a great impression on me that I had friends and acquaintances who managed to tick every classic “box” perfectly — the ideal school, the job, the salary, the marriage — and despite it all, they still felt a lacking in their lives.
This kind of social pressure can feel inescapable. It’s such a common trope in our society: the bored housewife, the lonely executive, the pressured student. In the end, I took a different path, if an unorthodox one, and I’m so much happier in my day-to-day knowing that I can prioritize the small things. Time spent with friends. Cooking delicious meals for myself. Long drives, with the sunroof open and the stereo up. I feel immense gratitude for being in a place in my life where I’m free enough to skirt any responsibilities and hop on a plane to somewhere I haven’t yet seen.
When my mother finally calmed down after learning about what I do for my career, she calmly said, “well, I suppose on the bright side, you’ll get to live a life I could never afford to give you.”
As heartbreaking as it was to hear a parent say that they feel like they didn’t do enough for you… she was right.
I have no shortage of appreciation for the incredible experiences I’m exposed to in my day-to-day life. I get to discuss the world with impeccably-educated minds; press my toes into the softest sand beaches; taste cuisines of cultures that I would have never had a chance to learn about in a book.
And along the way, I’ve made some of the most beautiful friendships with like-minded people. People who simply want to soak up every moment of their time here on earth. People who can’t be bothered with ticking boxes. People who, instead, make the systems in place work for them and for their own idea of a beautiful life, whatever that looks like. (For some, it’s being able to focus on their art, or travel the world. For others, it’s making time for romantic pursuits. And for others still, it’s downright hedonism. Say what you will about the hedonists, but they’re certainly being true to themselves.)
Thus far, I’ve only experienced one hiccup since I decided to put myself and my dreams first. I have had to learn to let others’ discomfort with my happiness roll off my back. When things are going well for you, especially when that ease comes from a “questionable” choice, it’s odd how that makes others feel resentful.
But I think that raises the real issue with adhering to a list of expectations: none of us get to be our true selves.
Authenticity is something we all claim to admire and value in others.
Why shy away from it?