Over the long arc of one’s career, one eventually realizes there’s no single formula to attain professional success, financial stability, and personal contentment. At least in the United States, the road to middle-class comfort no longer follows the linear roadmap that it used to: Student debt has reached a crippling upward climb for college graduates; owning a home is prohibitively expensive in major cities; many job markets are perpetually in flux, given that two major recessions and a global pandemic have each occurred within the last twelve years, throwing the livelihoods of millions into the abyss.
We tend to glamorize the success and entrepreneurship of a few, despite the hardship endured by many. There’s perhaps no better encapsulation of this idea than lists like Forbes’ 30 Under 30, which has its latest edition out today. It’s a legacy media tradition that pays tribute to the ideal we’re all taught to believe in: noteworthy success while you’re still young. In doing so, it shines a light on a small (if worthy) group, and makes the rest of us feel like we’ve done something wrong.
Here’s a few reasons why this list, and your non-appearance on said list, shouldn’t trouble you.
Your twenties are for learning
The only thing Americans might love more than a rags-to-riches story is a get-famous-young tale. The Forbes 3o under 30 offers a snapshot of a few people who managed to catapult to the upper echelons of their respective fields on a quick timeline. Good for them, but if it’s not you, don’t sweat it. For most of us, our twenties are a decade of self-exploration. If you feel like you’re going around in circles instead of climbing to the top, it’s likely you’re doing just fine.
Taking these lists as gospel might convince you that public veneration should be foremost among your professional ambitions. There’s plenty out there, both portrayed in pop culture and trumpeted by media outlets, to suggest that a fast track to professional success isn’t just attainable, but a healthy ambition. In reality, enjoying the ride is what sets you up for that success, both personally and professionally, later in life.
Plenty of people find success later in life
If you’ve got it all figured out in your twenties, that’s great, but it’s much more typical to find your professional footing once you’ve got a little bit more experience under your belt. If leafing through the pages of a 30 under 30 list makes you feel inadequate, just think of all the wildly successful people, such as comic book legend Stan Lee, or the actor Samuel L. Jackson, who drifted through their early years only to prosper later on.
Late bloomers are often happier
Research suggests that people who aren’t as focused on early success might find happiness easier to come by. The book Late Bloomers, written by Forbes’ own publisher Rich Karlgaard, charts this phenomenon, arguing, per a review in the Harvard Business review, “that our culture’s obsession with early achievement dissuades us from pursuing our passions.”
There’s a lot to suggest that late bloomers enjoy a variety of advantages: namely, resilience. As the writer Charles Duhigg recounts about his time at Harvard Business School in a New York Times Magazine story, students who were dealt setbacks were eventually poised for greater success, because they were nimble.
“These late bloomers…learned from their own setbacks. And often they wound up richer, more powerful, and more content than everyone else,” he wrote.
Thirty-under-30 winners might have had help
A prevailing myth of American entrepreneurship is that you can, by virtue of just your own intellect, rigor, and passion, rise to the top without anyone’s help. In fact, most people get help: Jeff Bezos, for example, took $250,000 from his parents to fund Amazon when he was just starting out.
Though it’s certainly not true for everyone on a 30 under 30 list, it is often the case that behind these tales of early success lurk hidden privileges, if not family fortunes. That isn’t so much a nefarious secret as a fact of getting ahead in this day and age.
Looking at these success stories shouldn’t make you feel inadequate, because it’s quite possible that you’re doing everything right, despite not featuring in a high-profile business magazine. And like lots of highly successful people, you may just find that your most promising years are still ahead of you, which should allow you to enjoy the journey.