When You Are Feeling Behind in Life
“I was supposed to have a spouse and kids by now.” “One of my classmates from high school is now a CEO.” “I’m so far behind in my retirement savings.” People naturally compare their life progress to others, and they start to wonder what they need to do to “catch up” to others when they fall behind.
First, let’s define our terms here: “Playing catch-up in the game of life” means that there is a typical path that most people follow on their journey, so if you don’t follow that path and reach the goals that the typical person does by that point, you feel like you have “fallen behind” and have to make up for that by working harder to catch back up.
Example: Many people in the US go to school until they graduate at 18, then go to college until they’re 22, then work until they’re 65 and retire. If you don’t graduate and then realize at 25 that you should finish school, you have to “catch up” by, say, getting your GED and getting an online degree. If you don’t have enough money saved at 45 so that you are on pace to retire at 65, then you need to “catch up” by saving more (note: you have to save a LOT more later in life than early in life, so save early and often!).
There are a couple of interesting things about this state of feeling behind in life:
- You usually compare yourself to your peer group, so it’s not the average person in your society or around the world but people you identify with that you compare yourself to (i.e., you might be comparing yourself to your classmate who graduated with a similar degree and GPA but then became the CEO of a big company 15 years later while you’re only a director). You can also just compare yourself to where you expected to be, so you can be playing “catch-up” because you wanted to have graduated but didn’t at the pace you set for yourself. In either case, note that you are almost always comparing yourself to the one person ahead of you or your ideal trajectory and not to the hundreds, thousands, or millions of other people/scenarios that you are “farther ahead” than. Not only that, but you are only comparing yourself in one area whereas there might be five others where you made more progress or had more experiences than your “competition”.
- “Catch-up” is a relative term, so it’s kind of meaningless unless you care about it. For example, I don’t have kids while most of my peers do, and I have no desire or need to “catch up” by having them now. It’s only when you have a goal but are behind in the progress you are making that you feel urgency to try to accelerate it. It’s up to you whether you let yourself be pressured by external factors or not. In conjunction with the above, this feeling is mostly due to a set of beliefs and assumptions about what was “supposed to” happen in your life and so your perspective is skewed and biased at best and completely flawed and erroneous at worst.
So what can you do when you feel this way? Several things:
- Choose to refocus your efforts – While The Tortoise and the Hare taught children that slow and steady wins the race, the part that is deprioritized is that the hare was able to catch up through focus and effort. In fact, in many pictures of the story, he would’ve won if the course was just a little longer. So you can choose to put other priorities aside and make more moves in the area that you want to shore up.
- Test your assumptions – The person ahead of you might be lacking in other areas where you are not, making their additional progress the result of sacrifices that you didn’t (have to) make. Alternatively, you might have had setbacks in life that you didn’t anticipate and so are doing just fine considering. Even more important, you could’ve had a set of circumstances where you should theoretically have set you back more than it actually did, and it could be that you’re actually ahead of where you should be or where millions of others are in this area of life.
- “Leapfrog” – If others make progress one way, there might be other approaches. You can also use your “behindness” as a means to make progress quickly. For example, people who are older and haven’t found a spouse yet will find that others at their life stage are also willing to find the right person and accelerate the time to marriage and starting a family. Hiring managers often make assumptions based on your age and will likely give you a higher salary or title based on your experience even if you didn’t have as senior of a position or as high of pay in your previous role. Finally, you might tap into new sources of income and invest all of it to catch up on your life/retirement savings. There are often creative ways that can get you additional progress elsewhere; just be careful not to treat these like “shortcuts” in that you get careless since they do have risks associated with them (in the above cases, risk of selecting the wrong person, not being fully qualified, and the risk of losing money or burning out, respectively).
- Relax – Life is supposed to be a journey that you want to make the best of…and that might mean one that you enjoy the most just as much as it means one where you accomplish the most. Plenty of people realize that they want to do certain things in their lives and so find it okay to take it easy on themselves elsewhere. Some people take a pause on their career to travel. Others take time off to start a family. Some people change careers to something they enjoy more even if it pays less. Some people are less hard on their children so they can spend more quality time with them. While it can be the right approach to dig in sometimes, it can also be the right approach to take a break or at least give yourself one once in a while.
- Be Patient – Sometimes, things are random or come when they come. If you missed a promotion while someone you compare yourself to got one, then maybe you just ignore everything (neither push harder nor slack off—just continue) and keep “playing your game” (as they say in sports). You’re not other people, so you might not have to change but will maybe get there in your own way and time without having to change at all. Oftentimes, you “catch up” shortly thereafter by getting a promotion the next year or finding that right person and you didn’t have to change anything.
In short, there are many things that you can do in life when you are feeling this way. This feeling is good because it tells you about your desires, beliefs, and experiences. You might want more in an area, which is great to know. You might believe that you should be doing better, at which point you can figure out whether you can change how you’re approaching the situation. You might not be getting the experiences that you need to make progress and can see what others are doing differently. In any case, you have choices at your disposal to make your future the way that you want it. Make the right ones for you, and get yourself to a place where you feel better about where you are and how far you’ve come.