“I should have things figured out by now”

Whether we’re 22, 28, 34, or 40 years old, we might tell ourselves:

“I should have figured things out by now. I should have a steady job or a successful business and I should have some stability in my personal life.”

What if this isn’t the case? What if we’re still searching for what we want? Does that mean we’re a failure? Does that mean we will never figure things out?

First, let’s reframe the situation. When we think “I should have figured things out by now”, that’s just a thought. We don’t have to believe this thought and we don’t have to engage with it. Instead, we can just observe it. We can notice that the thought is there. It doesn’t matter why it’s there. It just is. If we like, we can thank our brain for trying to protect us, and then let the thought go.

Second, it’s perfectly okay not to have things figured out. There is no schedule of things we should have achieved by a certain age. And because there is no schedule, we cannot be behind schedule. Even if it is common to have a “steady job” and perhaps kids by a certain age, that doesn’t mean that we have to do what’s common. Many people are happy running their lives in many different ways at many different ages.

Third, what does it even mean to have things figured out? There is no state of ultimate happiness that we can achieve. Even if we were to have a great relationship and steady work we love, that doesn’t mean we’d be done and that we could just sit back and enjoy happiness for the rest of our lives. It doesn’t work that way. If we achieved those things, we’d still have problems. They’d be better problems, sure, but we would still have problems and we would still feel sadness, anger, fear, and shame from time to time. 

Finally, when we look at other people who appear to have things figured out, we can realize that appearances can be deceiving. Think of someone you know who you think has things figured out. Maybe they have a dream job. But what if they actually are bored with their job? Or maybe they genuinely do love their work, but they invest so much energy in it that they have little time to spend with their partner. The point isn’t to find flaws in someone else’s life; the point is that comparisons are not that useful, if only because we don’t know the full circumstances.

Even though we don’t need to have things figured out by any particular age, these thoughts may pop up from time to time. I get them too. For me, a thought might be “I should be an accomplished public speaker by now” or “I’m getting better at climbing, but I should be even better than I am—I’ve been doing this for years now”. We can either let such thoughts go immediately, or if we do want to entertain them, then we can challenge any premises they might be based on.

Which thoughts do you notice? What do you think you should have figured out by now?


— Peter

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