growing in many directions other than “up”

From the time we’re children, it’s instilled in us that “what do you want to be when you grow up?” always has to be followed by an occupation.

A paleontologist.

A zookeeper.

A doctor.

A professional athlete.

The occupation that follows is usually something that holds a certain level of prestige and is associated with making more money than the average person.

However, the older I got, the less I started defining “what I want to be when I grow up” by prospective career paths, and the more I started describing traits I’d like to possess. I’m not sure how much of this is me feeling jaded about job prospects and the cost of higher education in 2016, but I’m not sad that I made that shift in my head.

Yeah, I guess if I told my four-year-old self that I’d be a divorced Administrative Assistant at 26, my four-year-old self would be bummed. But my four-year-old self knew nothing of student loans and the everyday trials that come with young adulthood and Figuring Life Out. And my four-year-old self didn’t know that you can have the coolest sounding life on paper and still be a miserable asshole. 

I still talk about “what I want to be when I grow up,” because even if I’m an adult now, all I want to be is a work in progress. The antithesis of a miserable asshole.

If there’s anything I’ve taken away from this year, it’s that we should always grow (up, out, around, wherever) in the direction that feels best for us. Growth involves a lot trial and error, so you’re bound to fuck up somewhere along the way, but don’t let that deter you from staying true to yourself.

I have an honorary degree in Fucking Up from Probably Don’t Do That Ever University, so feel free to take any of this advice with a huge grain of salt, but I will say that, social media presence aside, I became a much less fucked up version of myself after abiding by a few things when it comes to personal growth:

Don’t grow in the same direction as your significant other for comfort’s sake when your heart is pulling in another direction. Ending a romantic relationship sucks, but the strain of knowing you’ve sacrificed too much of yourself to be a supporting role in someone else’s life story will do much more damage in the long run.

Don’t grow in the same direction as your friends for convenience’s sake when your mind is telling you to wander. You’ll see new things, make new memories, and meet new people, and if the friendships are solid, they’ll be waiting for you when you return.

Don’t have kids if you don’t want to have kids. Have kids if you want to. Don’t get married. Get married. Work toward a prestigious job. Do what you have to do to pay the bills so you can enjoy your free time. Whatever. But don’t do any of those things because of some weird nebulous force like societal pressure. There’s no roadmap that says that you can only be a happy person if you take Such and Such Road to So and So Landmark. Some people hit all the right milestones at all the right times and are still unhappy, and some of the happiest people take unconventional paths to get there.

At face value, it might appear as though I’m an advocate for leaving (a marriage, a career path, a home, a friendship) because this year, admittedly, I’ve been doing a whole lot of that. I’m sure there’s more than one person in my life who sees actions in the last year from an outside perspective as flighty and non-committal.

But the truth is, it’s not about bailing when things get inconvenient, it’s about knowing when the pressure to make something work simply isn’t worth the energy you’re exerting to maintain a baseline of sanity.

If you’re reading this, and you’re currently in a situation that you know deep down is shitty or painful or unhealthy, please know that there is no such thing as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that is your life that you only get for staying in a bad place because you were told you had to “make it work.” This is your life, and if you’re unhappy with your situation and can’t see it improving in its current state, do everything you can to change it. And if you’re not sure you’re capable of changing your situation, don’t hesitate to ask for help.