set your own goal posts

2020-02-18

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~5 min read

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1000 words

It was my birthday recently and as is often the case around birthdays, I spent a good amount of time looking around, lifting my head up and trying to assess where I was. This was a bigger birthday too - I was turning thirty.

As I thought more about it, I came to feel that birthdays are like landmarks in a number of ways. To start, they look different from what’s around them. Landmarks can serve multiple functions. They can mark distance, orient travelers, and frame progress. Landmarks also stir up thoughts about how they came to be (who was around when it was built, what were they thinking about? what were they trying to commemorate) as well as what might lay ahead.

As a landmark, a birthday comes in various shapes, and sizes, but they’re predictable in their occurrence — arriving like clockwork every 365 days (+/-).

I think of small or “minor” birthdays like mile markers along a highway: helpful for demarcating progress and grouping a stretch of the journey together, but otherwise relatively forgettable. A large or “major” birthday is a different beast altogether. These are akin to monuments - they arrest progress and demand attention. If a “minor” birthday is a mile marker, a “major” birthday is like the Arc de Triumph in Paris. A monument that dominates the landscape and which, standing at a confluence of many roads, impedes the progress of all, requiring travelers to circumnavigate it in order to continue along their original path. These landmarks invoke feelings of awe and wonder. Awe and wonder, however, can be felt as fear and anxiety depending on the observer’s perspective.

All of this and more has been on my mind lately as I made stead progress toward my thirtieth birthday. As I approached, the specter of that day grew larger with each passing day, slowly mutating from an amorphous shape into a solid object that dominated my view and proved impossible to ignore. Still off in the future, however, I was helpless to do anything but ponder what it meant and what it would be like when I finally arrived.

It was during this period that I came across two essays that at another time might have passed without notice but in this context left a lasting impression. The first was Ryan Holiday’s “32 Thoughts From a 32-Year-Old.” Ryan happens to write these lists every year, and has done so since he was twenty. The second essay was Sam Altman’s wonderfully titled essay, “The days are long, but the decades are short.” Both are collections of lessons without a narrative. In fact, the only thing unifying the lessons in either essay was the period of time over which they were learned. Reading both, I was struck by several things - two of which stand out: first, how strongly they resonated with me and my desire to compile a similar list of lessons learned, if only I possessed an adequate command over the English language to create a compelling one; secondly, and, more challengingly, the levels of success these men had achieved was on such a different scale from anything I’d managed making any comparison between them and me foolish.

Intellectually, I knew that the devastation wrought by this understanding was due to sampling bias (something I’ve proven susceptible to over the years). Emotionally, it didn’t matter. And yet, today, I am not disappointed. I am not concerned. I am at peace. I managed to cross the chasm by making yet another observation, mulling over it, and working diligently to internalize it: I control the goal posts that determine my success and where they are set. I could adopt whole cloth the same markers of success that seem to be held up by our culture: wealth, notoriety, and more wealth. But there’s nothing forcing me to do so. Nothing is stopping me from defining success for myself. So, that’s what I’ve done. I’ve come to understand success as something defined internally. The markers of success are not my possessions, titles, or recognition, but by the things I control: my thoughts, opinions, and actions.

By these metrics of success, I have come a long way during the last few years. Yet, I know too that it is a journey that will last a lifetime. And as with any journey of significance, landmarks play important roles. They mark the path, orient travel, and limit the degree we are able to stray. Landmarks that are particularly large and magnificent go further. Their role is not limited to marking the direction or distance traveled. They elicit feelings. They inspire inspire introspection.

That’s how I view my thirtieth birthday. It was never a crisis. I never worried about all of the things I didn’t do in my twenties. I never wished for more time as a twenty-something. I did, however, spend a lot of time looking at the monument, the landmark of turning thirity, and wondering what it meant.

I never came up with a good answer, but the process was rewarding. I found a power all people possess, but which I’d neglected: the power to define success for ourselves and set our own goal posts. This discovery, simple as it seems in retrospect, enabled me to cross the threshold and enter my thirties at peace.

My thirtieth birthday is one I’ll remember for a long time. It was all I could have wished for. I spent it with family exploring a new city and trying new experiences. The day, which for so long dominated my view and attention is now firmly in my rearview. I can access it whenever I wish. I need only turn to my memory. Looking ahead, things are less certain. What the future holds, I’m sure I don’t know. What I feel comfortable with, however, is that there will be more landmarks to help me pause and consider my progress. I know now too, that when I consider my progress, I can supply the goal posts.


Hi there and thanks for reading! My name's Stephen. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Want more? See about and get in touch!