On the school run this morning a white hair stood erect from the top of my head. It waved at me in the rearview mirror as I monitored the violence levels of the back seat. The light bounced off its treasonous texture as a massive Fuck You! to my habit of yanking them out as soon as I spot them.
It was another disappointing reminder that while I think I’ve stood still (or, more accurately, have been running in circles) since having my first child nearly seven years ago, time definitely hasn’t.
I look in the mirror each morning. Social conditioning dictates that I judge the frown line scored between my brows like biro on a leather settee, the etching of permanent surprise on my forehead, and the crinkles at the corners of my eyes from all that angry, surprised smiling.
I’m usually able to brush these thoughts aside, mostly because two young children yelling for their breakfast don’t give two fingers of fudge for naval-gazing about getting old. They’re living fully, passionately, loudly, in the NOW and they want to know where their Weetabix is.
But occasionally I glance in a mirror, and I judge.
Every time it feels like feminist treason. I know I shouldn’t care. I fanatically repeat the mantra that I am more than my body, and sometimes I believe it. But we are saturated in attitudes that place smooth, plump skin and perky knees on a pedestal.
Trying to maintain a conscious distance from these attitudes sometimes feels like telling someone who is suffocating to just BREATHE! when their mouth is full of shit.
The danger of the youth-equals-value message is heightened by its prevelance. We stumble through life, eyes half open and much of the time we hardly even notice it. Apart from wishing we looked younger, of course…
Our obsession with the aesthetic of youth drips with misogyny, but it is a fixation that runs more than skin deep. As a society we find the coupling of tender years with success similarly intoxicating.
The social media age in particular has created a plethora of high profile successful young people. It is no coincidence that Forbes magazine launched their 30 under 30 lists in 2011, once social media had become interwoven with the fabric of our daily lives.
In defence of such lists is the notion that they are inspirational. Unfortunately they often have the opposite effect, and knowledge of these exceptional young people seeps into our hyper-connected worlds and makes us – whatever our age – feel worse, not better.
Unprecedented levels of access mean we feel we know these unicorns: we perhaps can relate to them; we feel the way they feel. They in turn cultivate that connection because it has become their currency.
The flip side is that their achievements are also normalised. We perhaps overlook the contribution intergenerational privilege and access may have made – and we judge ourselves harshly. We question our ideas, qualifications, work ethic and talent and we wonder why we’re not twenty-three and smashing it.
I find very successful young people fascinating. I contrast their drive and focus with my own half-formed twenty-something self and I marvel. These are people getting (some) things very very right, when most people are busy getting them very very wrong.
Now I’m 38. I’ve reached the end of one career and I’ve started another; I hope to start another still. But I sometimes wonder if I’m past it. Too old, too cautious, my attention is spread too thin, and too much time has already passed to make the chase worthwhile.
But why are we so hooked on the idea that success has to be young and fast, otherwise it doesn’t count?
Success is just as special when it is steady and slow. It is just as worthy of celebration when it is turnaround-and-start-again, and again, and again, beset with false starts and plagued by real fears.
Success when we’re young takes drive and determination. When we’re older success takes drive, determination and often, courage.
It’s the difference between being the six year old who conquers the climbing frame the first time they try, and the seven year old who has to wait an extra year to heal.
Before she climbs again she stares at the summit and wonders if she’ll ever get there. She watches the others who make it seem so easy and thinks that will never be me. She thinks of how much it hurt last time.
Once life has had its way with us, the success we desire – whatever that might be – can look like something that happens to other, younger people. But as Jamie Varon wrote in a recent Instagram post:
The trick is to keep believing. To not give up on the things that matter the most to you. You are not past your prime. When you are feeling your best and doing things that light you up – that is your prime. Never let your chances go by because you’re too fixated on age. The wisdom of age is a gift. Use it.@jamievaron
What success looks like is a personal decision. For you it might be the decreed accumulation of wealth and status, or you might seek a different definition. I can’t tell you what your success should look like.