Opinions, Column

Comparison Culture: Leaving Behind the Life Timeline

Think about the last time you set a goal. Maybe you hoped to earn an A on your next statistics exam or land your dream internship. Whether minor or life-altering, these goals likely had a few factors in common. Each was set with the intention of contributing to a continual progression of achievement, and odds are that each of these goals was also placed within a time frame. 

To get that A on your exam, you had to master the content by Thursday. And to earn that internship role, you had to complete the application before its November deadline. These goals may start small, but as we get closer to the inevitable independence of post-college life, they begin to progress into objectives with the daunting power of defining our futures. 

As someone with an aptitude for extreme organizational planning, timelining my goals quickly became an instinct. In my high school marketing classes, I was taught to define “measurable” and “time-bound” goals for the marketing campaigns I ideated. I looked to this idea as one that I could apply to my own life, and I ran with it. Rather than treating myself as someone with fragile emotions and fluctuating aspirations, I worked myself like a machine to meet the deadlines created by none other than myself.

I envisioned the path to my “ideal” life as a straightforward journey, mapped out methodically on a timeline. I would get into college at 18, get an internship at 20, and secure a job by 26 to ensure I had a well-defined career before marriage. I also decided that I had to be married by 28, which meant, ideally, meeting my future husband by 25. Grad school got wedged in somewhere between 22 and 25 to round out the path I believed would lead me to success. As these future milestones started piling up, the “perfect” timeline quickly became overcrowded and overwhelming. Whenever the anxieties over these constantly multiplying objectives struck me, however, I found myself trying to assuage the incessant thoughts with one deceptively reassuring statement: “I still have time.” The solace I found in this affirmation crumbled the second I stepped foot onto the Quad last August.

College is a breeding ground for comparison. As I watched my peers start landing internships the summer after freshman year and finding their self-proclaimed “soulmates” less than halfway through their four years, I felt stagnant. I thought that I had laid out the perfect plan for myself, but that confidence quickly morphed into doubt. I used to tell myself that I didn’t need to have a concrete career path or consider the implausibility of marrying Timothée Chalamet because I was only 16 or 17 or 18. But after mere months in the cutthroat competitive landscape of college, my worries about falling behind and failing to meet my self-imposed deadlines skyrocketed. “Only” got tossed to the side. Suddenly I was already 19, and then 20.

Caught up in the habit of measuring progress through external achievements, I barely realized how much self-growth I have undergone since moving into my shoebox of a dorm room in Keyes—that is, until recently. It wasn’t until I looked back at photos of myself from only a year ago that I realized how far I have come from the girl who never thought she would find her place at Boston College. Maybe I still don’t have the internship or boyfriend that was written into my timeline, but I have received the gifts of indispensable life skills. Learning the value of patience in relationship-building and the necessity of self-advocacy were never part of my timeline, but they have silently amplified my journey of personal growth. These learned abilities—not constricted within a narrow time frame nor visible to passive observers—are often vital stepping stones toward larger goals, like those jammed between ages on my imagined timeline. 

It has taken me 20 years to reach a state of active acceptance, not just passive acknowledgment, of the fact that our lives cannot be perfectly scripted. We may be the authors of our narratives but, unlike the writers of coming-of-age stories and long-winded epics, we cannot control the world around us. We have no say over the timelines of others, and we cannot edit our environments to perfectly fulfill our needs. No matter how many goals we set for ourselves, there is just no way of knowing what opportunities will befall us and what obstacles will create holes in the plan we assumed to be impenetrable. 

I do believe, however, that with the right mindset and intentional actions, we can reframe our views on success. Rather than simply seeking the completion of an end result within a self-defined time frame, we can be more appreciative of the path that goal-setting and seeking lead us along. This journey is full of valuable lessons and opportunities to build upon skills that may have previously been dormant.

So set your goals high, but don’t be afraid to make changes to the narrative you have set out for yourself. I can say with confidence that the age at which you accomplish a goal does not define your success. Truly accomplished people are those who appreciate the skills they gained along the way. I am by no means a walking embodiment of this mindset—I certainly still worry about whether I am falling behind in terms of relationships or career exploration. But I am trying hard to remove the age labels associated with my aspirations. I would much rather appreciate the journey and lessons life has offered me than place unnecessary time constraints on my goals. No matter how hard it may be to break away from the constraints of the timeline mindset, I believe the outcome is well worth it. 

Your timeline is a work in progress, not a pre-ordained narrative. And you are so much more than a pawn moving between tasks. Appreciate the journey to reaching success, acknowledge the wisdom gained from each of your achievements, and do not be afraid to stray from the path. This journey is uniquely yours.

November 12, 2023