Stop The Race: The Great Danger In Creating Artificial Deadlines

27 Jan

Two years later, I’m a graduate of Georgetown University living with my parents and occupying a bedroom with a dinosaur blanket and the remains of my middle school Beanie Baby collection.

I am back to the routine I felt I had outgrown in high school, in a room I had outgrown even earlier…

I should feel stuck — that I’m regressing, or that I’m missing out on the experience of living in a big city on my own — but much to my surprise, I don’t. Indeed, there’s something comforting in my situation. I can experience the frustrations of young adulthood and the infancy of my professional life, and still come back to my dog’s unwavering affection and a home-cooked meal. So during the most jarring transition of my life — from student to graduate — it’s not bad having the stability my childhood home offers…

I know this situation is not and should not be permanent, but for now, it helps. I believe I will look back at this time fondly. I am sure that living at home will give me a greater opportunity for success in the future. At nighttime, after I turn out the lights and climb into bed, I have no problem sleeping soundly under my dinosaur blanket.”

 –Aodhan Beirne, “I Moved Back Home, and I’m Glad I Did”, The New York Times, November 6, 2012

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On November 2nd, 2010, I stopped by our local high school on my way home from work to vote in the midterm elections.  Linda Williams, the mother of one of Jeff’s good friends, Ryan, was working as a volunteer at the sign-in table.  We chatted as I waited, and she informed me that Ryan would be moving out of their house and into an apartment in Manhattan with several of his friends from Duke.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Ryan and wished him nothing but  the best, but the overwhelming feeling that came over me when I heard this, in light of Jeff’s fragile state was, “Oh no.  Not now.”

The issue was not that Jeff wasn’t part of the group moving into the city, as he was not in a position to make such a move at that time anyway.  Rather, the thing that scared me on the day that turned out to be exactly one week before his death was that I knew exactly how Jeff would interpret this news.  He had repeatedly made it clear during that fall, as the meds staked their claim on his mind, that he felt that all of his friends were moving on with their lives, on defined paths, and he was not.  In his view, he was being left behind. The thought of moving away from home was not feasible and it scared him too.

Jeff had fallen into what I believe is the most dangerous trap a young person can become prey to—he had created artificial deadlines in his mind for achieving certain milestones on the road to happiness, fulfillment and success.  And he further allowed himself to become a victim of self-imposed pressure to keep up with his friends.

Two of Jeff’s other friends, Elon Rubin and Jack Rossman, were in law school, and now Ryan was moving into the city.  Jeff took this to mean that he was not only being left behind but that he could never possibly catch up.  I was baffled that a 23 year old with his intellect could actually believe such nonsense, and I spent all my time that fall trying to disavow him of those ridiculous notions.

Music has a powerful impact on me, and I remember that the song that came on the radio as I made the short drive home after voting that night was Jackson Browne’s “Running On Empty.”

“I’d love to stick around, but I’m running behind…you know I don’t even know what I’m hoping to find (running blind)…running into the sun, but I’m running behind.”

I know that, deep down, Jeff wanted to stick around and stay with us, but under the influence of anti-depressants, he had become convinced that that was not an option given that he was running behind.  But Jackson Browne had moved me to get out a sheet of paper, as soon as I got home on that November 2nd night, and to start drawing again.

I had tried this a few weeks earlier with “The Napkin”, and now it was time to try again with “The Road Map”.  I tried to illustrate for Jeff the fact that everyone has the achievement of happiness, stability and success as their goal for the future.  Figuring that a sports analogy would be the most effective way to reach him, I told him that that state of being was the end zone.  The crucial point, though, is that the path to get there is different for everyone and there is no right timeframe within which one must achieve these things.  It is different for each person. Furthermore, there is no universally accepted definition of success—that is also different for each of us.  On The Road Map, I tried in my own way to show how three different people might take very different routes to the same goal line.

The Road Map

The Road Map

Person A is a member of that minority group, representing maybe 5 to 10% of college kids, who know from the start of college exactly what they want to do and exactly the steps they will take to get there. Their paths are a straight shot to the end zone.  Good for them, but I would argue that the pressure they place upon themselves to walk that precise path under a specifically defined timeline is immense.  As we all know, some of the best laid plans go astray, and if these kids experience a misstep along the way, and if they don’t get that internship they were shooting for, or get into that ideal graduate school, or don’t get that perfect first job, then Person A is often left without a Plan B.  They are thrown off their perfect track and don’t necessarily know how to call an audible.

Person B is part of the much larger group of people who take a more circuitous path, but who ultimately find their way to the end zone.  Maybe their first jobs weren’t as interesting as they had hoped, and they decided to take a detour and explore another career alternative.  Or maybe they decided to go back to graduate school to see what they really like best and to give themselves an advantage in the job market over the longer term.  It may take Person B longer to get settled into a long-term job or career, but so what?  Once a person in this group gets there, he or she will have benefited from the exploration process and, as a result, might feel even more comfortable with his/her ultimate decisions.

Jeff, had he stayed with us, would have been Person C, part of another large group of people who endure significant setbacks either at the outset of their journey or somewhere down the road, and who are forced to regroup and find a completely different road to travel in order to put the ball over the goal line.

As depicted on The Road Map that I showed to Jeff, he had taken a step back by walking out on his job.  His next move should have been to hold his ground and weather the storm while he figured out what to do next.  Once he decided on his next step, he would have begun to push forward again.  There can be many more twists and turns along the way before Person C finds his or her happy place, but once he or she does, it is likely that this person will feel the greatest gratification and self-satisfaction of any member of either of the other two groups.  Person C will have endured and fought through life’s obstacles, and victory–as defined simply by contentment– tastes so sweet.

Jeff had options he could have explored, and he knew it.  He flirted with applying to law school, as he thought that going back to an academic world in which he had always excelled would potentially be a good way to regroup and regain his confidence.  And sure enough, he took the LSATs in October 2010 with a clouded mind under the grip of anti-depressants, and he still did really well.

 He could have gone back to journalism school and pursued his passion for writing.  Or he could have moved down to D.C. and pursued his passion for politics.

DSC03139

DSC03146

But those meds robbed him of any drive or motivation to resume his fight.  Instead of gearing up for his next battle, he saw himself as being behind and not knowing how to catch up, and therein lies the grave danger in young people creating artificial deadlines for themselves.

Life has more than enough financial and societal pressures that are real, so we don’t need to create artificial ones.  As an example,  the issue of whether a college kid moves back home after graduation for two months, six months, two years or longer is irrelevant in the grand scheme of life, as long as that person realizes, as Aodhan Beirne—the author of the New York Times article—clearly does, that such a situation should not be permanent.

Jeff’s deep concern that– 18 months after graduating college– Ryan, Elon and Jack were no longer living at home, while he still was, was misguided.  Many of his other friends were in fact still living at home and continued to do so long after Jeff left us.  The Pew Research Center estimates that the average length of time that kids move home after college is well over two years and that the percentage of young people 18-31 living with their parents (36%) is the highest percentage in four decades.  And as Ronni Berke wrote in her October 1, 2013 article on cnn.com called “Brace yourself, Mom: We’re Back” (http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/01/living/parents-moving-home-millennials/):

“The Pew Center’s Kim Parker, who documented this phenomenon in her 2012 report “The Boomerang Generation,” said “there can’t be a stigma attached to something that’s become almost a norm with a certain age group.”

In short, there is no rush.  We and our kids should take whatever time is necessary to prepare together for their eventual independence.  As parents, we can use this time productively to teach them, help them save money, enjoy them, and do things with them while we still have so much time together.  And more than anything, we need to box out peer pressure the way Shaq used to box out the rest of the NBA’s big men.  We must lessen the pressure on our kids, not add to it.  Situational anxiety is rampant within the younger age groups, and our family has learned the hard way what that can lead to.  The beauty of youth is that you’ve got time to figure it all out.  Jeff should have understood that.  The pressure he felt was completely self-imposed.

The intense pressure that these kids are putting on themselves to “succeed” quickly, lest they fall behind their peers, is debilitating.  The consequences can range from suicide in Jeff’s extreme example, to living with severe anxiety and depression.  The enormous amount of student loan debt that many are saddled with makes the situation that much worse.  Many cases of depression have no apparent cause, but just as many are caused by specific events and situations, and they can be cured without medication by learning how to eliminate self-imposed pressure.  That is precisely what Daniel Zwillenberg, the behavioral therapist whose office Jeff tried to drive to on November 9th, 2010, would have tried to teach Jeff.

As parents and adult mentors, we can help by doing everything possible both to guide these young men and women but also to spread the mantra that they need to relax and remove artificial deadlines from their lives.  We must tell them to take the time to think about what pursuits will make them feel fulfilled, to follow those dreams, but most of all, to enjoy the journey and accept that there will be setbacks.

Heather Long wrote in her May 27, 2013 article entitled “When life doesn’t measure up” on theguardian.com (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/27/when-life-does-not-measure-up):

There’s one conversation topic that comes up almost daily in my life lately. I hear it from friends, acquaintances, random people on the subway. It goes something like this: “I feel like I haven’t achieved enough. I look around at my peers and feel so behind.”…

It’s harder to know what success looks like, but, as one friend put it bluntly recently:

‘I don’t just feel the pressure to succeed, I feel the pressure to be young and successful.’ “

This way of thinking needs to be eradicated.  Again, there is no universally correct deadline for success.  I’m all for having goals and planning for the future.  But way too many people actually live in the future, and by doing so, they sacrifice the present and the thrill of today’s journey.  As a consequence, before they know it, life will have passed them by without leaving any memories behind to savor.  They have no moments to look back on and cherish, because they didn’t really experience them at the time—they were only looking ahead.

Why did people start obsessing over whether Hilary would run for President in 2016 just days after Obama was re-elected in 2012, rather than focusing on what the current President needed to do right then to make our nation better?  Why did reporters immediately ask Lebron James after winning a championship in 2013 whether he will opt out of his contract after the 2014 season ends, instead of asking him to reflect on the great moment that had just occurred?

I believe that this way of thinking and behaving is a broad societal problem that, if not corrected, will continue to make peoples’ lives less fulfilling.  Life is a beautiful, painful, unpredictable journey that should be experienced every step of the way. As the band Survivor once sung, “It’s the thrill of the fight.”

I know that many of my peers vehemently disagree with my views and especially my opinion that we need to take pressure off of our college graduates and allow them to live at home for as long as is necessary and practical.  I hear many friends at work say that college kids should be “off the payroll” once they graduate and that allowing them to stay at home for any length of time fosters complacency and weakens their work ethic.  Many also believe that their kids should be leveraging their degrees to seek the highest paying careers, regardless of what their true passions might be.

I disagree.  Not only is it not feasible in most cases to take kids off the payroll right away given that the effects of the financial crisis persist, it is also potentially deleterious to their mental health to do so.  Jobs are still scarce, and a large percentage of recent college graduates remain unemployed or underemployed, as well as laden with debt.  And advising kids that wealth accumulation should be their highest priority at the expense of pursuing careers that they can be passionate about is not wise, in my view.  I think the chances of achieving happiness and financial success are greater when we do something we truly enjoy.

But of course I disagree with the people noted above.  After all, I am a man who has a son who jumped off a bridge because he believed that he had fallen behind his friends and peers and would never catch up.  He panicked over this thought and became frightened that he was actually regressing.  What a terrible, terrible tragedy this was.  I only wish Jeff had met or known Aodhan Beirne, the grounded and secure young graduate of Georgetown, who continues to sleep soundly in his childhood bedroom in Yonkers, New York.  Aodhan might have been able to talk some sense into him.

Today, eight months after Drew moved back home with us, I am reveling in this time with him.  I am watching him tirelessly follow his passions by working for three of the largest health and sports training facilities in our area.  Living at home has not made him complacent—in fact, his work ethic is stronger than that of almost anyone I know.

He is using this time to save money, and in Aodhan Beirne’s words, he can experience the infancy of his professional life and can still come home to the unwavering affection of our greyhound Dobi and to a home cooked meal made with love by Carey.  I am so incredibly proud of Drew, and my greatest enjoyment comes from kicking back on a weeknight with him and watching sports together.

Plenty of Drew’s friends are living in Chappaqua too, and seeing them together again has been wonderful.  I hope that Drew, like Beirne, looks back on this time fondly, because I sure will.  In fact, I will miss it dearly some day. His complete independence will come when the time is right, but there will be no rush.  There will be no artificial deadline.  And when Brett graduates in 2016, I’ll look forward to enjoying a similar time with him.  I remain a blessed man.

 Heather Long’s article, referenced earlier, was published on Memorial Day last year, and the way she closed it puts all of this in the clearest perspective.  Reflecting on Memorial Day, she wrote:

“War is real, even if we too easily forget it. Casualties are real. Missing limbs are real. Broken marriages and depression from battle are real.

It’s a sobering reminder to us all that a lot of families would give just about anything for one more day or one more week or one more year with a loved one. It makes these silly thoughts about not being at the “right place” in life by a certain age sound ridiculous.

It’s a reminder that sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning and walking out the door is an achievement in itself, one that we should be a lot more thankful for.”

She is right.  I would give anything for one more day or even one more hour with Jeff.  But I can’t have that because Jeff couldn’t handle the overwhelming pressure of his first job and then felt he wasn’t at the right place in life by a certain age.  In the context of Long’s wise words, such silly thoughts about running behind do seem pretty damn ridiculous.

And so I beseech our youth to stop the race.  Try to experience your journey, savor the human connections that you make en route, and live in the moment as you figure out how to make your way.  Whether you are Person A forging straight ahead, or Person B who takes a more winding road, or Person C who may take two steps forward and one step back, you all have a great shot at reaching your personal end zone eventually.  When you get there someday, remember to spike the ball hard, savor that moment, look back fondly on the trip, and work hard to maintain that state of being.

For now, though, the best thing you can do is just curl up under your own version of a dinosaur blanket at night and sleep soundly.

–Rich Klein

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2 Responses to “Stop The Race: The Great Danger In Creating Artificial Deadlines”

  1. Penny January 27, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

    Rich, I so agree with you. But I feel that our youth-these deadlines are imposed upon them by our society. Kids in middle school are given tests to determine and have classes to find out what they want to be and what career they want .. And then as freshman they are expected to start researching colleges and as sophomores what their major must be … The timeline is high school, then straight to college, and then the job and moving out and the beat goes on… These are society’s deadlines and time frames. Sadly our kids are ingrained with these deadlines and if they veer off the road, then there must be something wrong with them. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on thisI we can all learn from what you wrote. Penny

  2. Jen January 27, 2014 at 10:13 pm #

    I knew Jeff but only briefly. We worked together at soundview sports camp in about 2005. I was the youngest one there (I was only a freshmen in high school while many of the other counselors were seniors or even in college) Jeff was by far the nicest one to me. We worked with the same group and while many of the other counselors didn’t speak much to me he ALWAYS made it a point to include me and made my summer a memorable one. I have thought about him many times since that summer but did not hear about his passing until recently. From the summer I spent with him I could tell he was a special man. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us it and I can’t express my extremely late condolences. Your words are helping so many others in the same situation. Thank you.

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