If life is a climb, college might have been my peak.
Last week, visiting my college campus, I thought I peaked as a college senior. I was with some friends and roommates from senior year, back in Boston while the leaves were still sweet-colored and the air not yet bitter cold. “That was as good as it’s ever been,” I said, as we reminisced on our old shenanigans, ate breakfast potatoes, and drank mimosas like we’d done for so many weekends over the course of the past school year. “I have never been better than I was when I lived with all of you.”
Later on, catching up with old friends, I thought I had peaked when I was someone’s girlfriend. I was bemoaning being single in a sea of postgrad “dating” that threatened to drown me. “Maybe I’ve already peaked in love,” I said, recalling the ghosts of relationships past and all the ups and downs that came with them. “Maybe that was as much as I could have hoped for.”
And then one night, sitting in a Spanish bar in New York City, I thought I peaked when I studied abroad. I was with to a girl I’ve called a friend for seventeen years now, and we ate patatas bravas and drank Alhambra Especials and got choked up with laughter and nostalgia. “I peaked in Spain,” I said, as we swapped stories about our semesters abroad. “I was a completely new version of myself. I’d never been that happy before.”
Now I’m at home, on a weekend, back in my childhood bedroom after four years of college-level independence, still trying to make it feel like home again. And I’m wondering if you only get to peak once.
I will never say I peaked in high school. I spent high school wishing desperately for self-confidence. I would look at the girls around me, in my classes, on my teams, in the hallways, and I never measured up in all the ways I wanted to. I could only see all the ways in which I would never be on their level.
And then I got to college, and somehow, early on, I decided that Boston College was too big to compare myself to anyone except—myself. I had no interest in striving for any “level” except my own happiness. Sure, I still spent some nights lonely, and some days beating myself up over whatever circumstances, and a lot of time second-guessing myself. But the standards I set were largely my own, and those four years were endlessly more rewarding for that. If I have been my best self anywhere, I was my best self in college.
Removed from the college bubble and re-planted in a new life, the field is wiped clean again. I have to again make a real, conscious decision about where I fit in and how I stack up. There seem to be metrics in place for who’s “winning” post-grad—high-power job? committed relationship? best apartment? coolest city?—but there’s no prize. New York is enormous, and social media is a daily tidal wave, and there have been days when I feel so small. I don’t text back, or I get cranky for no reason, or I’m hard on myself for the words I don’t say, the actions I don’t take, the things I don’t have. If other people believe I’m living up to those unspoken metrics of post-grad life, and if the myth arises that I have it all together, I don’t debunk it—it’s a myth I really, really want to believe.
But even if I spend days feeling otherwise, I know I get to create my best self for myself, the same way as it came about in college: against nobody’s standards but mine. Like Liz Gilbert says in Big Magic, if I choose, if I commit to choosing, I can make joy my main metric for success.
I’ve found immense value in going to work in a job I love, spending eight hours a day talking about books. I’ve found satisfaction in daily workouts, even if sometimes it takes a half hour of lying on the floor before I can pull on a sports bra. I’ve found joy in continued learning—it’s not my beloved philosophy classroom, but it’s listening and conversation and a subscription to the New York Times. I’ve found that I can feel on top of the world if I wear red lipstick, or buy high-top Converse, or listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, or go for a long walk. If I look in the mirror close enough these days, I’ve found that my best self looks back.
I’ve found that I can still be the best version of myself, outside of the place that brought that best self to realization. And the peaks I’ve thought I reached have never been the top of what I can be.
I’m in front of my mirror, about to go to bed at 10pm on a Friday night. It’s been a long, albeit fulfilling, week at work, and I have zero plans this weekend. I’m looking forward to sleeping in, cleaning up around the house, feeling rested for the first time in too long. I lean away from my reflection and smile. “You might be at the peak,” I tell myself. “You’ve worked to be where you are and you deserve to feel damn proud of it.”
But I know I haven’t peaked once and for all. Really, I hope I get to peak over and over again, throughout this year and every year to come. I hope the only comparisons I ever make are when I seek my best self in my reflection, and I hope I always know how to be proud of whoever I see looking back. And I hope I keep building a kind of life that feels like joy and mountaintop moments, no matter where I go.