If you took freshman psych or sociology, if you are a parent, or if you have ever spent a really long time waiting for a doctor’s appointment and had to resort to the pamphlets buried under the magazines, you are likely conversant with the milestone theory of human development. In fact, milestone theory has permeated our culture at large. Most anyone you talk to will know you’re referring to first teeth and not Roman road markers, even if they’ve never heard of Erik Erikson (I did go to college. It means “Erik, son of Erik”.)
Milestone theory makes a lot of sense. Children develop in one direction ““ they get bigger. They get more capable. They get wilier. It’s convenient for the adults looking after these children to mark off significant points on the continuous curve of growth. So we eulogize first words, tear up on the first day of kindergarten, and understand the time between milestones as “phases”. I have a niece who is currently in the scuttling phase of locomotion.
So far, so good, right? Milestones are nothing but helpful for parents and pediatricians. There are, I realize, some moms and dads who get caught up in that weird child-raising competition where their baby has to be first past the post, but that is the subject of another essay (one which I will never write). Piaget, Demetriou, CDC ““ I’m feeling you, bros. Someday, when I have a child, I will happily track their progress by means of line charts and spreadsheets, and exuberate over each milestone they hit.
My problem isn’t with milestones for children, and it certainly isn’t with how people raise their kids. My problem is Erik Erikson’s theory of social development, which proposes that these stages extend over the entire course of human life, that we never stop hitting milestones. Actually, I don’t even have a problem with Erickson. I feel like he had his heart in the right place, and since I’m not a psychologist I probably haven’t got the details right anyway. My problem is with me.
I’m going to turn 30 soon. Soon is late 2012, so maybe it’s more relevant to say I’m turning 28 this month. I have no problem with turning 28. I am happier, healthier, and smarter now than I have been at any previous time. But I am also now, inarguably, in my late-twenties, and troubled by milestones, by the idea of milestones, by the thought that they’re out there, somewhere in the swirling fog, while I run around in circles”“ the idea that I’ve fallen behind, or that I’m standing still. There are things I thought I would have done by now, which I haven’t.
For instance, at 18 I earnestly believed that, ten years down the track, I’d be:
– a published author
– a renowned intellectual (don’t ask)
– hugely popular with a rockin’ social life
– sexually magnetic, with a history of dramatic love affairs
– wicked fit. Like, running a marathon fit
– a world traveler
– successful, established, a young professional
– fluent in German and Spanish
As it turned out, at almost-28, I am:
– an occasional blogger
– proud possessor of an MA in English Lit
– mild, retiring, with a few good friends
– physically mobile ““ at least!
– someone who’s never seen Europe or Asia
– currently unemployed
– stubbornly monolingual
Is it a question of realistic expectations? Maybe I was just the dreaming type, and the goals I set were unreachable. But the thing is I know people, people my age or thereabouts, who’ve hit a bunch of my milestones. I know people who have published novels. I know people with solid careers and plenty of money. I know MBAs and MDs. I went to school with a woman who’s an Olympic runner. I know many people who bummed around Budapest or taught ESL in Thailand. I know party boys and club girls. And while I don’t know a single person who that top list describes precisely, I know a few who come eerily close. You might think that my original list is frivolous, even ridiculous ““ and you wouldn’t be wrong. But how different would it be, really, if I’d set out to own a home, learn to knit, be credentialed as an EMT (or what have you)? Life is contingent. It’s impossible to imagine what you’ll be able to do in the future, or whether desire will match up with experience.
The point is, milestones are stupid. They’re a terrible way to conceptualize adult achievement. When you can do whatever you want, in whatever order you please, why is a goal a milestone that you have to pass? The socially-predicated ones are obviously false ““ whether you wed at 18 or 38, you end up just as married. The self-inflicted ones are equally bad. So I haven’t backpacked through Europe yet? So I didn’t have a summer fling in southern France? So what? At some point in the future, when the timing and my finances allow, I will go traveling. My husband’s presence may cut down on the foreign romances, but the experience will be just as meaningful.
I think having goals can help you live a productive life. But milestones are done. They’re over. They stress people out, attempt to quantify the un-quantifiable, and are terrible at predicting what achievements are actually going to feel important. They’re used to pit people against each other. They make life seem like a race, when it’s not. To quote my inner hippie, it’s a journey, one where you make the path as you go along.
So the next time your friend, or sister, or girlfriend freaks out because they’re turning 30 and they haven’t _______, or they aren’t ______, give them a good hard slap to the face and then calmly explain that they’re doing fine. That milestones are obsolete. That their achievements are uniquely theirs. And that their endless griping makes them sound like an old lady (although this last one might get you slapped right back).