I grew up with two older brothers so much of my life is shaped by looking up to people slightly older. When I was in elementary school, I was in awe of my older brothers who could stay up later watching Whose Line is it Anyway with my mother and were the embodiment of “cool.” When I was in middle school, I couldn’t wait until high school – my brothers both took German and when they started saying “danke” instead of “thank you” at the dinner table, I knew I would have to learn too. When I got to high school, I thought having college aged brothers made me worldly and ahead of my time. I always had a “favorite college t-shirt” to wear during Spirit Week.
There are a lot of perks to being the youngest child – one of the biggest being the built in system of strong role models. More than just my brothers, I grew up with their friends and was continually surrounded by kind, encouraging, positive people. But there’s another factor that I never considered until recently.
Remember when you were in 2nd grade and you saw the 5th graders at recess? At my elementary school, the 5th and 6th graders had access to an entirely exclusive “big kid” playground. My friends and I would take turns smashing the wall ball into the brick side of our building and wonder what it must be like to be an elusive 6th grader.
Then I was an elusive 6th grader. I could now go on the hamster wheel playground toy and access every piece of playground equipment that I wanted. I still played wall ball and giggled with my friends about my crush and I certainly didn’t feel like a big, bad 6th grader. I was just me.
The pattern continued. When I was in high school and my older college friends would come home for the summer, we’d sit at the 24-hour diner and listen to them share stories about life outside of our town. I was fascinated by their tales of dorm life and cafeteria food and random roommates. College kids, I decided, have their act together.
I’ve been a college graduate for two years now – a time frame that pushes me right into the world of “adulthood.” I don’t feel like a “boring, responsible adult.” (At least, not most days). I do think, however, that I’ve spent a lot of my life looking “just beyond” what I was. I knew I wasn’t going to accomplish XYZ goal in high school – that was something college kids did. I knew plan ABC wasn’t possible during university – I needed a degree for that. I’ve been filling my mind with faulty restrictions, giving the 23-year-old version of myself dream curfews that only impeded on my aspirations.
My brothers, cousins, neighbors and all their friends always seemed (and were) a little older, a little cooler, and a little more put together. I always figured I would figure it out by the time I was “their age.” Well the funny thing about birthdays is we all aged together and even though they seemed to have it together at 23, by the time I reached the milestone, I still felt like I was, of course, just me.
And then the lightbulb clicked. I’ve spent most of my life looking ahead. As the youngest, you don’t spend too much time looking behind you – nothing and no one is there. I was the one who looked up to people. There was nobody in my family to follow in my footsteps. But just to be sure…
For the first time, I did my metaphorical turn around and saw younger versions of myself. I thought of everyone I had ever met who was younger than myself, whether it be a camper from one of the various groups I’d counseled for in summers past or even just a younger college student I met in my last semester at school. I wondered if they looked at me the way I had looked at my brothers and cousins and neighbors and so on. I wondered if they thought I had it all together.
Flattening my business dress over my legs and staring at the mirror, I realized that there is always going to be someone who thinks you know what you’re doing. Even in those moments where you feel a little lost, a little empty, or a little ill-prepared, there is someone who thinks you are the coolest person in the world because you responded to a passed bowl of green beans with “danke.”
I’ve been trying to convince myself – recently especially – that I am a capable adult who knows what they are doing, where they are going, and how they are getting there. But it doesn’t always feel like that. Sometimes, I feel like I’m stuck in that perpetual loop of being the 2nd grader on the playground who can’t understand why only the big kids can use the fun monkey bars. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “when I’m (blank) age, I’ll know what I’m doing” or “when I hit this point, I’ll finally feel qualified to do what I want.”
What makes you think you aren’t now? You might feel underprepared when you compare yourself to your strongest role models, but you’re forgetting one really vital fact.
You are somebody’s strongest role model. You are what someone looks up to. You might not think you have it all together and you might wonder how you’ll ever get there, but I guarantee you there is somebody in your life who is inspired by you every single day.
Absolutely look forward. Reach for the stars and then some. But don’t use age or perceived ability or any of the above as a reason to delay your dreams.
And every now and then, look back. See where you’ve been. See how far you’ve come. And remember that someone out there thinks saying “thank you” in another language, is really, really cool.