When she was three, Alma Deutscher picked up her first violin. At six, she wrote her first piano sonata and, at seven, her first opera. Now she’s taking her first full-length opera to Vienna. She’s 11. Whereas I’ve just had a sensational breakfast (poached eggs and avocado). What the very hell am I doing for the human species, I think to myself; where’s my sonata?
My 29th birthday is about five minutes away, and I can’t help but feel anxious that I haven’t achieved something significant. The least I could do is write a critically acclaimed play by the time I was 19 like Polly Stenham; bag a three-book deal by 25 like Emma Cline. Or launch a hit TV show by my 26th birthday – hello, Lena Dunham.
I love my career as a writer, but I’ve still got this niggling disappointment that I haven’t reached some kind of stellar milestone already. I’m not alone. ‘Prodigy guilt’ is rampant among young people in this fast-moving, big-thinking world. That self-imposed sense of shame that we aren’t all the Almas of the world. We’ve learned to stitch together our self-worth and our professional achievements. We’ve been conditioned to give moral value to our salaries and emotional currency to our résumés. And as millennials, we want to do all of that at the speed of Wi-Fi. It’s demoralising, it’s unrealistic and it’s exhausting.
Consider these cautionary tales. Annie, 28, is a copywriter but her side hustle has always been launching a career as a singer. “I always wanted to be a singer, but by my early twenties, I didn’t think I should even bother. I stopped giving my music ambitions attention because I thought I’d passed some kind of age limit for music success.” She had decided that because Taylor Swift, at 26, is younger than her and the most commercially successful artist on the planet, it wasn’t worth trying. Which, of course, is ridiculous – but exactly the kind of prodigy guilt we’re talking about here.
‘Prodigy guilt’ is rampant among young people in this fast-moving, big-thinking world.
“This year, I finally shrugged off the pressure I’d put on myself and went for it, releasing my first single independently and it felt incredible.” Think how close she came to throwing away her dream because she’d defined success in just one way and imposed an arbitrary timeline for it.
Meanwhile, Lisa, 32, works in finance. She loves her job, but she just got a new manager who is 26. This, as you might imagine, caused a mini crisis of confidence. “My first instinct was to feel utterly inadequate and even resent her for the pace at which she’d overtaken me,” she admits. “I started undermining her in meetings and speaking down to her. It was silly, but I just couldn’t disguise my feelings. In the end, I had to meet my superiors to discuss my ‘attitude’; it was awful.” Lisa nearly lost a job she loved because she couldn’t deal with someone younger than her being her line manager. That’s how dangerous it is to define our success by the speed with which we climb the ladder.
Clearly, we need a shift in attitude when it comes to navigating our careers. Because here’s the thing: we live in a competitive culture and we’re virtually incapable of defining success on our own terms. It’s partly to do with our achievement-oriented economy and partly to do with the fact that Rihanna had achieved so much by the time she was 22. We look to just about anything but our own conscience to tell us if we’re doing well.
“It all comes down to a fear that we are not good enough,” says Ros Toynbee, director and head coach at The Career Coach. “Particularly with graduates, is this attitude of comparison – if one of their friends started out on a £100k salary and they started out on £28k, the assumption is, ‘They’re better than me’. It is an insidious practice to undermine self-esteem and value.”
If you’re one of those people, like me, you know how crushing and stressful that pressure can be. You know how easily that desire to prove yourself can trickle outside of your professional life and infiltrate your personal life, too, including potentially knocking your health.
Are you getting swept up in what you think you should do, not what you want to do?
“Stress, regardless of age, can manifest in physical ailments if it goes on long enough,” explains Dr Lynda Shaw, cognitive neuroscientist and business psychologist. “The stress hormone, cortisol, keeps us sharp and on our toes, but if it’s secreted for too long in the brain we become ill. High blood pressure, memory loss, depression, digestive problems, migraines… stress plays havoc with our health.” And one of the worst ways to get into this chronic stressed state? “The nagging and endless to-do list created by the assumption we need to be succeeding as fast as everyone else. Every generation has a handful of superstars – but it’s always only a handful.”
According to Toynbee, the first thing we need to do to ward off that stress is to challenge ourselves to be honest. “You need to see what you really want to accomplish and why: are you getting swept up in what you think you should do, not what you want to do? What are you trying to prove and to whom? Then you need to realise that there are multiple ways to achieve ambition and to advance your career; not just the sleekest and fastest way.”
And building a career at a steady pace has many benefits. There’s so much you develop with time and experience: patience, resilience, integrity, conflict resolution skills and emotional intelligence in the workplace. “Building out a career that has legs is a process of self-discovery and steadily growing your inner game,” says Kerry Hannon, author of Love Your Job: The New Rules For Career Happiness. “Take resilience – or a knack for springing back in the face of adversity or failure, it’s imperative in achieving happiness at work. Regardless of your career stage, we all run up against that feeling of being stuck and with no sign of promotion. Resilient people keep looking towards the future. They keep learning.”
So, looking to the experts for advice, how can we move away from this competitive, toxic state of mind? I hereby pledge to kiss my prodigy guilt goodbye and just get on with enjoying my career and my life. Won’t you join me?
Ask yourself some tough questions
“Prodigy guilt is down to our basic wiring,” says Nimita Shah, director at The Career Psychologist. “We’re not evolved to make decisions impacting us ten or 15 years from now. We feel a need to accomplish very quickly; it’s the problem-solving nature of our brains.” How to deal with this part of our nature? “Go back to the drawing board,” continues Shah.
“What is it about your past that makes you put such pressure on yourself? What do you want to do with your life that involves only you; not your parents or any other external influence. It sounds cheesy, but look deeply at your own values and what you want your legacy to be.”
Pause to take in what Shah’s saying here. Your values, like mine, are probably not efficiency and profit. My values are kindness, integrity and creativity. I want my legacy to be about family, friendship and storytelling.
None of that should cause me to behave like some kind of trophy-grabbing monster. “A classic coaching exercise is to imagine yourself on your 80th birthday,” says Julianne Miles, psychologist, co-founder and managing director of Women Returners. “Looking back on your life, what will make you feel you have succeeded? This is likely to give you a broader perspective on what matters most to you.”
Take a jungle gym approach
We’re living longer and working harder than ever. Our careers last around 50 years and, on average, we have between five and seven career changes in that time. That means on the occasion of my 30th birthday – the deadline I’ve set for some kind of epic success – I’ll have roughly 40 years of my career ahead of me. What in the name of Sheryl Sandberg will I do with all that time if I get all my achieving done now?
“Careers are no longer just about climbing a ladder, with people higher up being the most successful,” says Miles. “Think about your career more as a jungle gym, with the goals being to maintain variety, interest and balance, to build a portfolio of skills and to be able to adapt to a constantly changing workplace. This brings the flexibility to explore different paths, take breaks and change track – all without beating yourself up for having ‘failed’ to follow a linear upwards career track.”
Do this career drill
Grab a pencil and a healthy sense of perspective and finish the sentence, ‘I am successful when…’ 30 times. “When you do this that many times, you get below the immediate ones and you find that it’s hardly ever about what you assumed, such as money. It could be more like making time for music or art,” says Denise Taylor, chartered psychologist and career coach at Amazing People.