You're Not Behind

"Am I doing this wrong?"

Have you found yourself asking this question?

I'm not in a relationship--am I doing this wrong?

I'm not married yet--am I doing this wrong?

I don't have kids yet--am I doing this wrong?

I'm not even close to buying a house--am I doing this wrong?

I don't have a job in the field in which I earned my degree--am I doing this wrong?

You look around at your friends, your family, social media, TV, and it all makes you wonder if you've fallen behind. If life is a giant game of Mario Kart, maybe you've slipped on the banana peel and now Princess Peach is lapping you. 

It's no coincidence that we can feel like we're "behind"--and feel shame or confusion as a result--in a culture that loves to rank not only things but people.

Time magazine has its "Person of the Year." People magazine has its "Sexiest Man Alive" and "World's Most Beautiful Woman." Forbes has its "World's Most Powerful People" and "400 Richest Americans." The NFL ranks its top 100 players every year. Full disclosure--I love to talk about sports and stats, but ranking each season's top 100 football players might be one of the most useless lists in existence along with Nebraska's Top 100 Corn Fields and the list of girls I asked out in high school (because it's zero). I don't know what the capacity of the internet is, but if anything could max out all of our servers, it's the ever-growing monster of rankings our "list lust" has created.

We keep feeding this need to judge who is the richest, the most successful, the most attractive, the best and fastest and strongest. (and on the darker, meaner end of the spectrum, who is the ugliest and worst.)

Let's not ignore the system of "placement" indoctrination that is our schools. We start in kindergarten, and we must move up each year, to first grade, then second, then third, all the way to twelfth. We're measured with phrases like "on grade level" and numbered scores from standardized tests. We have to keep up, keep pace, stay on track, stay the course.

By the time we turn eighteen, how do we not view ourselves and other people through the lens of this question: How do I measure up to everyone else? And as we look around and try to gauge our progress in life compared to this person or that person, it's not too hard to believe we've fallen behind.

Hey. You're not behind.

Consider someone like J.K. Rowling. When she was almost thirty years old, this is what her life resumé would have read:

  • Divorced (from an abusive husband)
  • Single mom
  • Jobless
  • In need of state welfare
  • Suffering from clinical depression
  • Shopping around a children's book about wizards and magic

How easy would it have been for her to think she was behind? Or for any of us in that scenario, to feel like we're on that race track in Mario Kart, and Wario hit us with a red turtle shell? Instead of moving forward with everyone else, we're spinning off the track into the fence, and now we're hopelessly behind.

We know how it shook out for Rowling. She was a few years away from striking a major deal with Scholastic, Inc. and introduced the world to "the boy who lived," Harry Potter.

J.K. Rowling isn't even the greatest example to make my point--the point isn't that she eventually became wildly successful. The point is that there's no one-size-fits-all track, no benchmarks, no standard to rank how you're doing in life.

J.K. Rowling, at thirty, to anyone who measures people by our cultural norms of success, was behind. We now know she wasn't. And when she wrote about a boy named Harry who lost his parents and lived under the staircase in the house of an abusive uncle and was a freak to everyone around him, she wrote a story that screams to all of us: when you feel like you're behind in life, you're not. You're just not.

If you didn't go off to college at eighteen like all of your friends, you're not behind.

If you don't have a lucrative job in a field you love like your cousin, you're not behind.

If you've started and failed three business ideas but your neighbor struck gold on his first idea, you're not behind.

If you don't own a house with a big yard and 2.5 bathrooms, you're not behind.

If you're not married like your younger sister, you're not behind.

If you don't have kids like your younger brother, you're not behind.

If your life doesn't look like everyone else's life on Instagram, you're not behind.

You don't have to look left at your family members or look right at your friends to see if you're keeping pace.

All you need to do is look forward, with your eyes on your path, and take your next step. If you do that, you're not doing it wrong. You're not behind. You're right where you should be.