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One of the toughest parts of scholarly training is wondering whether life is passing you by. While some graduate students have had substantial work and life experience before taking on an advanced degree, spending one’s early adulthood in school is very common. According to the 2021 Survey of Earned Doctorates, published in 2022, Ph.D.s in the United States are earned at a median age of 31.4. Science degrees come a little earlier, humanities a little later.

Finding yourself still in student mode while siblings, friends, former classmates and internet stars accomplish their own professional, life or Instagram goals can generate negative emotions from which it is wise to stay away. But as everyone surely heard at least once in grade school, “It’s not important what they do, it only matters what you do!”

What Can You Do?

One way to avoid being distracted by what other people are doing is to do more yourself. Dare to dream. How deep is your bucket list? Some items on it will probably require years of planning and saving. But how well stocked is it with dreams you can achieve this year? Executive career coach Caroline Ceniza-Levine recommends the exercise of making a list of 100 dreams to workers who find themselves stuck when it comes to thinking about what they would like to do next. I see it as a great exercise for the rest of us, too.

The dreams Ceniza-Levine suggests listing are the usual kind: travel, accomplishments, pleasures, ways of being. The exercise is challenging not because it asks you to list dreams but because it asks for so many of them. If 100 dreams are easy for you to write down—scholars are good at overachieving, after all—try for 200. Go to the point where it gets difficult, and then challenge yourself to write down substantially more.

Think big and think small: climbing Kilimanjaro may have been a memorable part of your to-do list since you were a child, but have you forgotten other long-ago dreams—say, playing the harmonica well or visiting every state capital? Are there cars that you dream of driving? Have you ever thought of renting one for the afternoon? Your list does not have to be perfect, or permanent. Once you write those dreams down, you will probably find yourself following through on them.

A Thousand Regions in Your Mind Yet Undiscovered

Henry David Thoreau coined this phrase about a thousand regions, and if coming up with 100 dreams feels like a stretch, try breaking them into categories. What dreams do you have that are about achievements? If you dream of running a marathon, maybe dreaming of the 10k and half marathon was always part of the route to your big accomplishment. If your bucket list is all about travel, have you resolved to see the wonders close to you?

Do you aspire to memorize a lengthy text? Could you accomplish other dreams to prepare for it—whether spiritually or in learning the tricks of memory? Have you always meant to read an author’s entire oeuvre? Put the individual works on your list, and accomplish the big dream one book at a time.

Think about your year ahead. Will you be attending your professional society’s meeting or traveling abroad to present a paper? What career dreams can you accomplish along the way? Have you looked at what nonwork interests you might explore in the places you will go this year? Have you truly gotten familiar with all that might interest you in the place you live?

Endeavor to Live the Life Imagined

Do not fill your list with the things you think you should want. Do not use it as a scold: New Year’s resolutions are so last month. A to-do list with 100 items is not meant to be completed right away. Write down dreams that excite you, challenge you in a joyful way and provide many pleasurable moments to look forward to. Write down small adventures that will give you what makes you happy—it might be a physical challenge, learning, seeing new people or trying new things. Part of travel is finding the familiar in places you had never been, but part of staying home is finding the unexpected in a place you thought held few surprises.

A career is only part of life. When you look back on your life someday, what else would you want to see that you have done? Do you want to sing, dance or invent the perfect—to you—oatmeal cookie? We have put ourselves in challenging, often competitive work lives, but we do not need to excel at everything. If you have always wished you could do a handstand, perhaps practicing until you are the best doer of handstands in your very own bedroom is enough. Learning to ride a unicycle is a fine dream all by itself: you do not have to aspire to mountain bike on one. Enjoying all of your city’s parks with your family is a big enough aspiration. That their children’s children’s children would enjoy such pleasures might have been the core of your grandparents’ dream.

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