Goalposting and Existential Angst: The Hidden Lives of 20-Somethings…and Beyond.

Ahhh your roaring twenties…the supposed “best time of your life…” Right? Well, after the bills, missed payments, adjusting to your new 9-5, all while feeling like a scared kid.

This is the new normal: exhaustion, burnout, and several shots of espresso are the drumbeat of our days. We punch time clocks and live for the weekends and continue to live our lives of “supposed to’s” and the entire time, we are wondering what the hell is wrong with us for feeling so shitty and sad when we did ALL THE THINGS.

To remedy this, we may decide to do one more thing or get an (expensive) certification or garner yet another degree or promotion – achievements and status symbols that stack like chips around a hollow life. Maybe if we do these things, then we will finally be happy. Maybe then, we can look ourselves in the eye and be satisfied with what stares back.

But it doesn’t work. The dissatisfaction deepens. What the fuck is happening? Are we just broken? Ungrateful? And we wonder why mental health is in the toilets.

This isn’t a made up doomsday scenario. From social media to New York Bestseller books to conversations with an assortment of people from all walks of life, this “new normal” phenomenon is something I have personally, widely observed. It’s disturbing, it’s profound, and it’s so, very, very fucked up.

Being a Miserable 20-or-30-Something…and Pretending We’ve Got Our Shit Together

There are so many things we aren’t told when we’re starry-eyed kids. We spend our entire teenage years striving to do “the right thing:” we go to school, we get the best grades, we graduate, we get the job. And I’m not knocking going to college or putting in the work. I’m not even knocking the concept of delayed gratification. What I amknocking is this sense that seems to be drilled into each of us: that if we don’t do, don’t achieve, then we are worth nothing. This implicitly offers the inverse: that if we DO achieve, then, and only then, we’ll be happy. (As if happiness was ever such a simple concept.)

We are fed this narrative that if only we postpone our happiness a few more years until after we graduate high school or college, then we’ll be happy. While doing these things certainly offers a lot in terms of the potential of logistical and material comforts, it utterly fails to address our human-ness – our desire for fulfillment does not exist solely within external measures.

I have a theory about this, about why 20-somethings (and beyond) are so empty and burnt out.

We are fed this idea of “go, go, go” and “do” so much so that once we do all the things and suddenly, life slows down and sinks in, there is mental whiplash. “Oh,” we think, “I did the thing. And here I am. Is this the rest of my life? Is this all there is? Do this forever until I die?” “This”, being pay bills, haul groceries into your house, and punch the 9-5 timeclock at work. “This,” being, dealing with your name on a bunch of shitty legal documents like your tax returns and the letters informing you of financial blunders and late payments and credit card bills. “This,” being, feeling like you were cheated by the system, that you were lied to, and yet you are required to suck it up, go to work, and pretend you aren’t full of rage, and even more, fear.

I definitely had a moment like this, and it was a difficult and uncomfortable couple of years. I did all the “supposed to’s” and secured myself a wonderful job. I rented a new apartment and moved out of mom n’ dad’s for the first time. And after the “rush” of being “successful” wore off about a year in, I’d lay in bed at night, sweating, fighting off the urge to jump out of my skeleton, wondering, “is this it? Because if it is, I don’t know if I want this. Is there a refund policy on life?”

Putting Off Happiness: Goalposting

If only I can finish school, then I’ll think about that relationship. I can’t allow myself to get distracted. If only I finish grad school, then we can move in together. If only I finish my medical residency, then we can have the life I promised.

Those are words I have both read about, heard about, or had said to me. They are words that other people have uttered – from neurosurgeons to marketing CEO’s to college professors. These words speak of goalposting, a colloquial phrase for putting off what you want in life for a later date.

The first time I learned about the term, I understood it was unsavory tactic – often within the context of romantic relationships – where one partner might say that “in two years, I’ll be ready to get married.” And when the two years are up, the partner might say, “sorry, actually in another six months I’ll be ready to get married.” And when the six months roll around, they might say again, “I’m still not ready. Give me another year.” This person is effectively goalposting: moving the date of a marriage further and further back and stringing their hapless partner along for the ride.

Goalposting in the way I am describing is the same thing, but not necessarily with weddings and marriage, though that can certainly be the subject of a goal post. For our purposes, goalposting is another way to describe delayed gratification. Like the examples in the previous few paragraphs, goalposting would be saying, “I won’t get into this promising relationship right now, not until I’ve finished school, because I don’t want to be distracted. Once I’m done with school, then I will let myself consider a relationship.”

Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not harping on the concept of delayed gratification. There are times when this is a good and necessary thing, like when trying to hit financial goals or not giving into impulse purchasing at the mall. Or when finishing school actually does translate into a more comfortable living and financial situation – like in my case.

But hear me well: there is a subtle difference between a healthy bit of delayed gratification and an endless cycle of making yourself miserable because all you do is count down to the next “goal post” when you can get or do “that thing” that you want. And then, once you have it, then at long last, you’ll be happy.

Except the funny thing about goalposts is THEY FUCKING MOVE.

 I cannot emphasize that enough. Once you get that coveted thing, you aren’t happy. Instead, you find there are simply more things on the horizon to get, to do, to accomplish. This has been documented in lifestyle creep, which is where you think you’ll be satisfied and financially stable once you attain a certain amount of money, except once you obtain that amount, your spending increases accordingly, and suddenly, you need the NEXT amount of money to be “happy and comfortable.” See? Goalposting. Such an insidious, quiet trap. Such an sneaky way to ensure you will never, ever be satisfied with who or where you are.

Goalposting as a Deep Symptom of Dissatisfaction

Sometimes, goalposting is a habit we can fall into as a symptom of dissatisfaction. We aren’t happy with our current circumstances or our lives and so we look to that next thing – whether it be weeks, months, or years into the future – hoping that that thing will finally make us happy.

I did this too. A couple of times actually. And I felt it happening. Five years ago, I would stare a hole in the office clock, counting down the days until the weekend, where I would take off and drive almost five hours away to Boston to visit my (now) ex partner. That was the only good thing I felt I had going on in my life. Nevermind the fact that my family and even my boss would actively ask me, “…don’t you do anything over the weekends for yourself? Like, for fun? Socialize and make friends?”

Fun? I’d think. What’s the point of fun? This is the time in my life where I was promised I’d have fun and be happy and yet here I am! I wasn’t depressed, I don’t think – not clinically, anyway, and I’ve definitely had bouts of that in the past – but I wasn’t not depressed either. It was a strange time, looking back.

Fast forward a few years to where I was living in Maryland, now living with the ex-partner. I would goalpost the hell out of my monthly trips to visit my family back in Pennsylvania, looking forward to them in a way that made me rush through my days. It wasn’t the normal sense of healthy anticipation, which I have recently tasted. It was a more frantic version, where I was literally counting the days until I could temporarily escape from the life that I was telling myself was “good enough.”

Looking back, I now know that I was deeply suppressing my unhappiness in that relationship (and again, with my life), attempting to pretend it away. I wondered why I couldn’t just be satisfied with the situation that I had longed for – living at long last with my partner. It was only much, much later, when I stopped denying the deeply unhealthy dynamics lurking beneath the happy veneer of my relationship, did I realize the truth: I was goalposting again to avoid facing this reality.

Be Where Your Feet Are: How to Not Goalpost

So how to not do this? How to strike that strange balance between enjoying your life where it is, but living meaningfully toward the future? How do we avoid that pitfall of using goalposting to distract ourselves from an unideal reality? How do we avoid putting off all our satisfaction until the future?

And in the name of absolute fairness, I ask as well: how do we avoid falling into an attitude of complacency where we fixate TOO much on the present and allow our future dreams and goals to pass us by?

First, let’s consider a metaphor – hiking, specifically. The longer the trip, the better, but even a hike of a few hours will do. When you hike, you are forced to slow down. You’re going (at most) around three miles an hour. That’s slow enough to be present: to appreciate the birdsong, or the smell of the leaves, or the rustling of the wind.

At the same time, the very act of hiking speaks of progress toward a future goal: each step takes you closer to your mileage count for the day, which eventually brings you closer and closer to the ultimate mileage count for your overall hike (section hike, or thru-hike).

But what does that look like in not-the-woods real life, you may be asking?

I wish there was a magic pill. But in reality, it’s a perspective shift.

Mostly, it’s a lessening of the internal pressure you place on yourself to achieve more, to do more. Some call it comparison-itus. This pressure is not merely internal; there are plenty of societal pressures as well. And the trick is to not let them effect you as much.

If you’re like me and your form of “internal pressure” comes in the form of comparing yourself to people on social media who have achieved what you haven’t yet done, this is the first thing I’d suggest: take a fucking social media break for a little while. This will help reset you and knock your brain off it’s spiraling loop of “they’re so much better than me, and why can’t I be where they are already?”

Can you write down your goals without feeling pressure to achieve them all RIGHT NOW? Can you read them objectively, with hope towards the future, and simultaneously holding grace for where you are, right now? What are some small things you can do today to make those goals a reality? For me, one goal is: write my book. That’s a honking big goal. To make that more manageable and practical, my goal for today can be, “spend an hour working on finalizing my book outline.”

Can you find moments of joy in the present that you can anchor into? That can keep you grounded in the here and now, even while you plan for your goals? See, if you can find happiness NOW, you’ll be less tempted into the trap of thinking happiness can only be found “Once You Accomplish The Thing.”

I was told recently: “the breath is an exquisite portal to the present moment, because when you focus in on your breathing, you are not thinking about the future or the past. Just your current breath, in and out.” Give that a try.

Or my personal favorite: go for a walk, if you can. A hike is best! And even 10 minutes will do. Heck, even five minutes to the goddamned mailbox. And on this walk, bring presence, and leave the to-do list behind. It can wait for five minutes.

This list can easily get longer. But for now, I’ll leave you with this: be where you are, right now. Become who you want to be. And in the meantime, find peace in the process, joy in the moment, and you’ll find that goalposting slowly, miraculously, loses its grip on you.

Welcome to living.


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I unpack existential topics and ask the questions people are too afraid to ask: What does it mean to Live? Why am I unsatisfied with my life? What is happiness, really? What the fuck is the point?

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