competition /ˌkämpəˈtiSH(ə)n/, n.

There’s a different sense of competition that arises in the post-grad space after you finish the “traditional” 16 (or 18) years of schooling: preschool, K–12, plus college. In school, it was all too easy to compare grades and GPAs, the advanced classes you elected to take, the prestige of the internships you landed, and finally the next step you decided to take as an adult.

I have friends who pursued further schooling without a gap year and friends who took any number of gap years; I have friends who, like me, found full-time jobs; and I have friends who went home, uncertain of what they actually wanted to do with their lives after leaving the hyper-regulated space of school. Without school to hold us all within one particular set of standards, people finally have the freedom and ability to branch off and pursue different interests.

The more nebulous, grey zone space of post-grad life should theoretically make competition less fierce. The path is no longer paved with such precision that marks the progress we’re making. And yet, the reality is actually the opposite.

As a student, if you received poor grades during the first half of the semester, you still had time to catch up before finals week. If you didn’t take as many advanced courses, you could boost your resumé before graduation by making a name for yourself through extracurriculars.

Adults don’t have these neat finish lines anymore. There aren’t definitive ages at which we’ll celebrate another milestone. Sure, we can rent a car at more reasonable rates when we’re 25 or start running for political positions in office. But companies like ZipCar have taken away even that small celebration, and truthfully, we’re not all Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (though that does not excuse us from our civic duty to vote).

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RESPECT exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. Quote reads, “Life is like a game of chess, make your next move your best move.” | Photo by Courtney Cheng

As adults, “falling behind” carries more weight and burden because there is no longer time built in for us to “catch up.”

Salaries are available on LinkedIn and Glassdoor. Folks who start off their first career at a lower pay grade know they will take that much longer to reach a six-figure salary (which in the Bay Area, is now officially considered low), if they even reach that benchmark. This new reality then brings about an entire slew of potential realities to consider, like the amount of time that will ultimately be needed to go on fancy trips or plan a nice wedding or buy property or raise kids.

It’s hard, when faced with these realizations, to not feel like you’ve made the “wrong” choices with your life. This is a struggle I often face when I log onto Facebook or Instagram and even when I know I’m not alone in experiencing these sentiments. One of my coworkers’ dream professions is social work, and one of my friends hopes to become a doctor for underserved neighborhoods in other countries. I personally would love to continue working in the non-profit space, which typically pays much lower than does the corporate space.

Comparisons are hard to shake off and the urge to quietly compete with those around you, even harder. That same coworker I mentioned has done his best to be a mini-Karamo from Queer Eye in reassuring me that everyone is on their own path and that everyone’s version of living their best life looks different. But just because you might be living your best life doesn’t mean it’s easy.

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