Don’t Plan Your Life Around Other People’s “Milestones”
We tend to get caught up in this idea of what we “should” be achieving by the time we reach a certain age. At 18, you should go to college. After you’ve earned your degree, you should move out of your parents’ house. You should buy a house and get married before you turn 30. You should have at least 1 kid (preferably 2) by the time you hit 35. And so on, and so on.
Family, friends, and the media all contribute to this overwhelming pressure to stick to the traditional timeline. They perpetuate this narrative that you can gauge a person’s success in life based on these major milestones. (If you’ve ever gotten the “When are you going to settle down?” lecture, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.)
But, here’s the thing: that’s not how the world works.
Our lives aren’t on a track. We don’t take a linear path from one destination to another. Sometimes there are setbacks and detours and derailments, but that’s okay. That’s how we learn and how we decide what we want our lives to be.
Many new college graduates, for example, come out of college without a clear career path, and they may bounce around for a while until they find their dream job. Maybe they absolutely suck at the job they thought they wanted, and maybe they fall in love with a profession that didn’t even exist just a few years ago. Maybe they don’t find what they’re really meant to do until they are well into their 40s. Life is unpredictable, and we can’t plan for everything that’s going to happen. So, why should we stick to these arbitrary deadlines?
The Milestone Myth
A milestone is a marker that shows you how far you are from a certain destination. Milestones are useful for road trips, but we can’t use them to dictate our lives. Traditional milestones assume that you have a fixed destination and are taking a linear path to get there. However, that’s not the case with life.
In my late teens and through my 20s, I did things completely out of order. I didn’t go straight from high school to college. In fact, I didn’t enter college until nearly a decade after I graduated from high school. I actually had my first kid before I had a college diploma. I’ve also chosen to rent instead of buy a house at different times of my life because it made more sense for me professionally. None of those choices have had a negative impact on my happiness or my professional success. In fact, I’m grateful for the unconventional path I’ve taken because every step has led me to the life I’m living now.
Sometimes, the responsible choice is not to follow the “tried and true” timeline. I’ve heard from so many young adults who felt pushed into college because “that’s just what you do.” The same goes for homeowners who’ve had to postpone their retirement after taking out irresponsible mortgage loans, all because you’re “supposed to” buy a house once you reach a certain age.
Going to college, getting married, buying a house, having children — these are all important decisions that will reverberate through the rest of your life. The only one making those decisions for your life should be you.
Stepping Stones, Not Milestones
We need to stop setting our sights on traditional milestones and start focusing on the stepping stones that will carry us to our life goals.
There’s nothing wrong with setting long-term goals — like buying a home, getting promoted, having children. However, we tend to put too much focus on the destination rather than the journey. It doesn’t matter if you graduate from college by 22 if you don’t actually learn anything. It doesn’t matter if you get married and buy a house at age 30 if, in 3 years, you end up in foreclosure and stuck in an unhappy marriage. Those milestones are traps that force you to take steps that you may not be ready for, and that’s why they are often counterproductive to long-term happiness.
Instead, focus on long-term goals that are supported by incremental progress and aren’t bound by arbitrary deadlines. For example, say that you want to buy your own house someday. What other conditions need to be met before that can happen? Maybe you need to achieve a certain salary level before you feel comfortable making that investment. Maybe you need to pay off your student loan debts before you commit to monthly mortgage payments. Maybe you need to settle into your career before you decide on a more permanent place to put down roots.
It’s all about deciding what’s right for you, your life, and your aspirations and regularly making small progress toward that goal, rather than rushing toward those preset milestones. So, throw out your 5-year plan, and instead look to improving your daily, weekly, and monthly habits to achieve your goals.