Why ‘30 Under 30’ and other age-based lists are actually terrible

Written By kom nampuldu on Senin, 09 Maret 2015 | 18.18

Last month, I turned the big 3-0. Luckily, I'm not one of those people who gets tripped up on a number — I'm actually excited to welcome my new decade. But despite my birthday enthusiasm, I was still thrown for a loop when, a few weeks ago, Forbes released its annual "30 Under 30" list.

It's not like I expected to make the cut. I haven't started a nonprofit or written a best seller. But still, seeing my successful peers clumped together like that gave me pause. Though I'm quite happy with my freelance career and my social life, I started to wonder: "Have I done enough? Could I have achieved more in my 20s? Am I behind?"

In short, I felt anxious — and career experts say I'm not alone. All age-based lists — including "30 Under 30," "40 Under 40" and "50 Under 50" — have a tendency to provoke anxiety. It's rooted in a concept known as upward social comparison: "Part of how we gauge how we're doing in life is by comparing ourselves to our high-achieving peers, i.e., those who are motivated by power, wealth and status," explains Bryan Dik, a vocational psychologist and co-founder of jobs Web site jobzology.com. "No matter what age you are, doing so makes you feel crappy when you don't stack up."

It also places more value on achieving your goals by a certain age, rather than just letting your life unfold as it should.

Patrick Everett bartended his way through his 20s and eventually became the co-owner of a successful corporate event space called Offsite, but even he gets anxious about the next bracket: the "40 Under 40" list.Photo: Tamara Beckwith

It's a feeling 33-year-old Carrie, a freelance writer who wishes to keep her last name private for professional reasons, can relate to. She hopped all around the globe in her 20s, taking jobs in acting, publishing and radio, and is now realizing radio may be her golden ticket to career fulfillment. Yet even though she's fine with the fact that she's still coming to that conclusion — and that it still might change tomorrow — she feels differently whenever she sees one of those lists.

"I immediately get anxious about the fact that I'm still finding my way, because I compare my life to people who've already found theirs. Those lists leave little room for the idea that life experiences mean something and add value, too, even if they don't always add up to something concrete and 'successful' on paper right away," says the Soho resident. But Carrie has found a way to combat her anxiety when it hits. "I do a lot of yoga," she says. "It helps me stay in the moment."

But even if you have found your way, those lists still provoke angst — a truth Patrick Everett knows all too well. The 35-year-old Murray Hill resident bartended his way through his 20s, with brief stints in event planning and the music industry, and eventually found his feet as co-owner of a corporate event space called Offsite. He finally feels like he has direction, but even though he enjoys that feeling most of the time, he gets anxious about the next bracket: the "40 Under 40" list.

"I never let those lists get to me before, but now that I'm associated with people who could actually be on those lists, I'm more inclined to care," he says. Whenever he feels that way, he tries to remind himself that success is success — no matter the age. "I'll just remind myself again and again, 'Who cares how old you are when you make it, as long as you make it?'"

So how do you curb your overall age anxiety? For starters, let peers inspire you. "Think back to the phrase, 'You spot it, you got it,' " says Christine Hassler, Los Angeles-based career expert and life coach and author of "Expectation Hangover: Overcoming Disappointment in Work, Love, and Life." "If you're drawn to someone on a list, there's a high chance they have something that you see in yourself, so reach out and ask them to do an informational interview," she advises.

Or try emulating their style in your own way. If your role model has a blog on the side, for example, start your own. If you like how he or she has a great work-life balance, prioritize your relationships.

Another option: Invest in your relationships and your friendships outside of your career. "Most of my clients and students say that their true meaning in life comes from being with the people they love, and the people who love them," says Dik. So don't think that your career is everything: Have dinner with your best friend, and just enjoy it. Go on a getaway weekend with your significant other.

I certainly took that advice during my 30th birthday celebration last month. I may not be a CEO or a big boss-lady yet, but as I continue to figure that out, I'll take comfort in the fact I have a crew of friends and family who are always ready to hang — and buy me some tequila shots.


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