In pretty much every aspect of my life, I’ve been the youngest. I’m the youngest in my immediate family and, amongst the cousins, there are only two younger than I and they are both located in Florida, meaning at the average family gathering on either side of the family, I was the baby. In every roommate situation, every volunteer group, every paid job: I have been the youngest.
And I was used to being the youngest. I knew my role as “second player” in Super Mario Bros and I became accustomed to never sitting “shotgun” in the car.
At one point, it even became a running joke, a crutch if you will. It was my defense. When people mistook me as being older or more professional or more experienced in a subject area, I would revert back in my youthful, innocent voice, “I’m 19.”
It became such a running joke that somehow, even at my present age of 22, I can still hear myself hiding behind the notion of “being 19.”
You see, I’ve always been the kind of person to live on the threshold of two worlds – afraid to commit to any one thing. Perhaps nothing reflects that more than the own way I know and understand myself, in a constant battle of wanting to listen to Disney Pandora and make chocolate chip pancakes and also wanting to be left alone to throw myself into The Smile Project and other professional things, because I’m an adult with a real professional job, darn it.
I was in the basement laundry room of my apartment last week, waiting for the elevator, when it opened and I was greeted by a middle aged couple. Rather than stepping to the side to allow my laundry basket and I into the elevator, there was an awkward pause as I tried to read whether or not they were getting off in the basement or just weren’t letting me onto the elevator.
Then the woman exclaimed, “You look 13!!” with more enthusiasm than even I have for chocolate chip pancakes.
Confused, tired, and caught totally off guard, I responded slowly and as if asking a question, “I’m.. not..?”
She said of course she knew that but that I just looked like I was 13 and sometimes we all have those days where we look 13. They got off in the lobby and as I rose to my floor I replayed the situation.
13? Really? Man, maybe it is time to start wearing make-up.
I dropped my laundry in my room and recounted the story to a few of my girlfriends, all of whom chimed in with their own hilarious stories of being accused of looking too young to be in their job or too young to see an R rated movie without an adult. These ladies are all in their twenties as well. Though that gave me some comfort, I continued to think about that experience and the idea of living on the threshold of youthful innocence and adulthood responsibility.
As I was preparing to leave for a work conference last week, I reached out to an older, wiser friend for some advice. I was 22 and about to go on a business trip. It felt so “adult,” for lack of a better word.
He told me to just be myself and I’d be fine. Probably the most classic advice but also often the least helpful thing to hear you’re having doubts about what “being yourself” really means.
That night, as I was retiring around a group of coworkers, ranging in age from my young 22 to colleagues in their 50s I realized he was exactly right. I did not have to emulate the exact professional aura of Colleague A or the spirited, bubbly nature of Colleague B.
Maybe they had just as many doubts about who they were as I did, but I wasn’t seeing them. I was seeing coworkers who were being their most authentic self, regardless of their age, working history, or anything else that I thought made me stand out as young or inexperienced. I realized that I can be my own unique mixture of who I am and that will somehow be enough.
I’m still finding myself in this struggle. Half of my friends have entered the work force and half of my friends are on a college meal plan. Sometimes, I want to spend my evening at a professional networking event surrounded by older and wiser people. Sometimes, I want to spend my evening watching a movie with my four roommates. I love how I feel in a classic black dress and blazer. I love my favorite t-shirt, a pink V-neck with a red lobster on the front. I need to dedicate more uninterrupted time to The Smile Project. I need to balance that with play and exploration.
I am a walking contradiction of professional and child. I am the poster child for “winging it” and my idea of a fancy meal is green beans, mac and cheese, and apple sauce. And that’s okay.
Because I know at the end of the day, even those that I deem “extremely credible, professional adults” still like chocolate chip pancakes and maybe – just maybe – will tolerate a little Disney Pandora too.