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Twenty-six-years-old and the living is easy - reflecting on being a year older

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Reflecting on a a birthday
I've been a bit distracted this week, and not just by the Dublin Divas. Not only did I turn 26 this week, but I'm also doing a review with the youth group I work with, and recorded videos for the 10th anniversary of Dáil na nÓg, an event I've attended twice, the first time in, gulp, 2002. And, with Michael D Higgins being inaugurated today, I've been reminiscing about the last time a President was elected.

I actually remember it quite vividly, because it was the same date as my 12th birthday party. And that night, after my party (three hours of indoor football, followed by cake eating) I went to Eason’s in Derry to buy a book I’d long coveted with my card money (some things, it seems, never change) and took to reading it while watching Mary McAleese’s acceptance speech. It certainly doesn’t feel like 14 years ago.

Now, as I stare into turning 26 and it stares back into me, birthdays aren’t so much a pretext for putting scoops of ice cream in a large glass of coke and pretending to be your favorite goalkeeper so much as it becomes an inventory on how your life is going. I’m not sure how I rate.

On one hand, I’ve had the chance to do things 12 year old me would not have imagined possible, and it’s only really when you take a step back do you realise how far you’ve come. On the other hand, most of the world’s top sports stars, actors and popstars I see about the place are now younger than me. A lot of said stars can dive into their pits of money like Scrooge McDuck, boast of winning myriad world championships and step out with jaw-droppingly good looking other famous people. I have not much money and fewer awards to my name. I’m not stepping out with anyone, jaw-droppingly good looking or otherwise. I don’t even have a cat.

While I’d describe my outlook on life as generally sunny, I feel a lot of pressure. Sometimes I feel anxiety that I won’t get to where I want to be in life, other times I’m out and out terrified about it. A lot of the pressure is internal, as I’ve always had a very clear idea of what I’ve wanted to do in life (something for which I actually feel quite lucky). Some of it is immediately external, in that family and friends and colleagues have always seemed to have very definite ideas as to where I’d end up. My biggest fear is that, for whatever reason, I don’t fulfil that prophecy. But some of that pressure is also cultural.

In ways the problem of pressure to be successful at a young age is not dissimilar to that of body image. Sports and pop stars are given enormous credence in popular culture, arenas of achievement where being over 35 gives you the status of a veteran, or even a retiree. We have popular music talent shows where teary fortysomethings claim “this is their last chance”. We have TV modelling shows where girls in their late twenties, even if they’re Christy Turlington facsimiles, aren’t even considered. With such a message surreptitiously being delivered at every turnabout, small wonder I often see the podium after a grand prix and think “Christ, I am wasting my life”.

But when I have such moments of (increasingly frequent) raw panic, I always try and step back. I may not be worth much, but I’d hope I’ve done things of value, particularly for other people. The setbacks, near-misses and frustrations of my own career seem rather small when you consider the throngs of potentially talented people who’ll never even have a chance of getting in the game. I also take comfort in the fact that in the history of everyone who has ever been successful there was a time when they weren’t, and that not everyone’s time comes right away. The actor Jon Hamm worked as a waiter and a designer on a porn set when most of his contemporaries were getting cast in Dawson’s Creek and Party Of Five, but becoming Don Draper is probably worth the long apprenticeship. Dancing judge Len Goodman is a massive transatlantic star but he was hardly in front of a camera until his late fifties. And how many films have you ever seen featuring a 30 year-old Morgan Freeman?

It's good to reflect now and then, but too much of it stops you from doing anything new. And as long as you can do something you enjoy, and that others can enjoy too, then everything else is just scale.

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