Have We Actually Failed if We’re Not ‘Successful’ by the Time We Hit 30?

  • June 10, 2019

Sorry, what? You’re 30 years old and you haven’t changed the world yet? Relax, you still have (at least) 20 more years to get that Rolex on your wrist and prove your success. Our thirties are often when we first call our career choices into question, and when we experience the disappointment that can arise from that. This is often when we take stock of our lives: What have I accomplished? Am I the person I thought I would be? Where has my career taken me? These questions are natural and can, unfortunately, be the root of the infamous “thirtysomething crisis,” the impression that you have failed in your professional life if you have not yet obtained a managerial position, founded a thriving start-up, or indeed, changed the world.

Thirty: The transition between innocence and wisdom

Are you no longer motivated? Do you feel like you’ve made all the wrong choices? Do you avoid talking about work with people you think are more successful than you? Then you’re undoubtedly experiencing your thirtysomething crisis, a phenomenon that has been around for a while now. A British study published in 1996 highlighted the early signs of this trend. After questioning thousands of employees in the UK, the researchers were able to construct a job-satisfaction curve that formed a U. The curve began at the top during the early years of interviewees’ professional life, with it falling to a low during their thirties and forties, and then taking off again toward the end of their working life.

For young graduates, entering the workplace can bring immediate and varied sources of satisfaction, such as being invited to a get-together after work for the first time, getting the printer to work straight away, being responsible for chairing a meeting, or the holy grail—being complimented on your excellent slides. When people hit their thirties, they become more demanding and have a much narrower definition of success. “They’re all thinking very directly about the kind of professional niche they want and what kind of success that may hold for them,” explains G. Richard Shell in his book Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success. This assessment is difficult and often painful. Luckily, perspective and experience allow fiftysomethings to adopt a wider, more-nuanced definition. “Executives who are further along in their careers are more attentive to their families, to the work-life balance, and even to the types of mentoring they can provide for younger people, guiding their careers and helping them make choices that make sense for them,” continues Shell. So why are we so hard on ourselves when we reach our thirties?

The causes of an all-too-common crisis

Making comparisons

Humans are social creatures and, like all mammals, we have developed hierarchies, levels of power, and social statuses. We like to measure, evaluate, and compare our position in a group, and (too) many of us worry about what others think, to the point of denigrating ourselves. “I dragged my feet after finishing school. But then I realized I was a few years behind my friends, who began their careers at big-name companies as soon as they finished their internships at the end of college. Now I’m trying to catch up,” confides Romain, a 32-year-old digital consultant.

Social media’s biased frames of reference

Social media exacerbates comparison, longing, and the feeling of failure. Seeing what others are up to can cause you to set yourself unrealistic goals, with the result that your self-esteem takes a nosedive when you realize you’re not going to achieve them. In reality, though, who openly talks about bad days, making mistakes, or the daily pressures of their working life? It’s not exactly a case of #nofilter.

‘Success stories’ and skewed information

Tales of great entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and philanthropists who went from nothing to the top are legion. But the media hype around success stories overlooks the difficulties and failures that the majority of people face and makes us believe that these incredible accounts are the norm. “For a long time, I was envious of friends who were entrepreneurs and admired their ability to invest 100% in their projects,” explains Sébastien, a public relations officer in the healthcare sector. “Then, I watched as some of them hit the consequences—breakups, isolation, burnout, and the like. I realized I prefer my life—it’s less glamorous but calmer.”

Your family environment

Close family members have a huge influence on what we consider success to be. As we grow up, we absorb the expectations that are impressed upon us by those around us. “I come from a lower-class family. For my parents, going to college was already the ultimate achievement,” says Charlotte, a project manager at a bank. “I was lucky never to have family pressure, and I can see the difference in terms of how relaxed I feel compared with my friends who come from better-off families. Many have set goals that are much more ambitious than mine. But in the long run, I think I’m happier than they are.”

Success is overrated: How to stop feeling guilty and put things into perspective

It’s a shame to set others’ goals as your own, especially since several studies, including one by the psychologist Tim Kasser, show that the pursuit of money, material possessions, and social status creates a lot of stress, less-genuine relationships, and a lower sense of wellbeing. Here are a few tips for finding satisfaction with your career path.

Have insight on how you judge things

When your spirits are low, it’s easy to minimize your successes and not be able to appreciate them. If you think it would help, why not ask someone close to you to give you an honest assessment of your accomplishments?

Stop comparing yourself

The impression that you have not achieved anything at such a young age is directly linked to your self-esteem. In their paper “Cognitive-Behavior Therapy for Low Self-Esteem,” Freda McManus, Polly Waite, and Roz Shafran explain that the traditional approaches for boosting confidence are destined to fail for one simple reason: “Maybe the problem isn’t your position on the list of successful people, but the list itself.” The key to confidence is to stop comparing yourself with others. “Building good-hearted feelings towards others is good for the soul,” the paper’s authors continue. “This helps get rid of feelings of insecurity and fear and gives the strength needed to take on obstacles. That is the true source of success in life.”

Don’t be so hard on yourself

In a post on Medium, Jamie Varon invites her readers to stop giving themselves a hard time: “You don’t need more motivation or inspiration to create the life you want (…) You need to stop listening to people who are in vastly different life circumstances and life stages than you tell you that you’re just not doing or being enough.” Your thirties is a good time to take stock and focus better on your own goals by letting go of the influence others have on you. These are the years when things are much clearer, and possibilities are still abundant. Keep in mind that not all successes are covered in gold. For that matter, younger generations are increasingly moving away from what has long been considered the only model of success—managerial position, high salary, and so on—toward professions and objectives that are more in tune with wellness and personal growth, or “follow-your-heart” jobs that provide less money and are less valued socially but give meaning to daily life.

Translated by Mary Wagonner-Moritz

Photograph by WTTJ

Marlène Moreira

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