Mathew Jedeikin/Dose

What happens when Boy Meets (Real) World.

When I was younger, I wanted to be the best at everything. I was competitive with my peers, but especially with myself. I lived for setting seemingly impossible goals and finding ways to not only achieve but to exceed them.

The need to compete is still something I feel. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve learned not to be so hard on myself, and to accept that there are ways I can’t win in competitions with my younger self. On the flip side, I get to enjoy new milestones and achievements I couldn’t even have imagined a decade or two ago.

As a student, my ambitions were always lofty: surpass my peers and graduate high school and then college at crazy-young ages. I pushed myself to take summer and winter intersession classes—anything to get more credits. Then, when I wasn’t busy studying, I was in front of my computer building websites and selling ad space on them.

Deep down, I was trying to create a diversion.

I wanted people to think I was a brilliant, perfect student/teenage entrepreneur. Hell, I wanted to convince myself of it. Deep down, though, I knew I was trying to create a diversion, one so distracting that it would prevent people from seeing what I considered to be a shortcoming: the fact that I was gay.

As a teen, it was hard for my to embrace that part of myself. Classmates picked on me, threw food at me in the cafeteria and beat me up in phys ed classes. It was awful, but it increased my drive to succeed and to get out of high school as quickly as possible. So I took classes at a nearby community college that gave me both college and high-school credits. Like, major two-birds-with-one-stone-type shit.

I got my high school diploma when I was 16. I sold my web business for 25 grand when I was 17. I finished work on my bachelor’s degree when I was 19. I was years away from being of legal drinking age when I graduated college, but that didn’t stop me from feeling like I could take on the world.

And for my first few post-college years, that’s exactly what I did.

On the personal front, I came out to friends and family. For the longest time, my sexuality was the elephant in the room—something we all knew, but never discussed. It felt great to finally be honest about who I was.

Professionally, I experienced success early. After spending a few years building up my digital marketing resume, I started my own agency. I wasn’t dating and didn’t have much of a social life, so I could dedicate literally all my time to landing new clients and providing kick-ass marketing services to them.

Because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. I had this notion that being a small-business owner would secure my place as a successful adult. And to a certain extent, I was right. I made enough money to put a down payment on a house in my early 20s. I was living the American Dream, y’all. Or so I’d led myself to believe.

We had a couple of good years. Agency revenue was growing, and so was my team. I loved hiring and training people, and feeling like I was a cool boss. You know—not the regular kind of boss, the cool boss.

But then the business went under, and not quickly. It was more of a slow and painful death. Two full-time and three part-time salaries were dependent on me landing new business, but I stopped being able to do so. The stress was too much, and I didn’t have any life whatsoever outside of trying to keep the business up and running.

Shutting down that agency for good was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. Firing people who had believed in me and become my close friends was painful. It was difficult to move on from what I viewed as a large failure.

As an adult I was finding it more and more difficult to meet?—?let alone exceed?—?the goals I set for myself as a young, hyper-driven college grad.

So I moved. Literally. I left Sacramento and relocated to San Francisco, trying to put my failed businesses behind me. I found a full-time job, convincing myself that this would allow me to leave work at the office and to expand my social, and hopefully, romantic lives. It didn’t happen according to plan, though. I struggled with the standard nine-to-five schedule, and being surrounded by new startup companies and fellow young entrepreneurs gave me a desire to start another business of my own.

Again, I failed. I went to countless startup pitch events, found a few cofounders, and even got people to sign up for our “marketplace.” We never got funding, though, and it didn’t take long for the concept to fizzle. The business wasn’t going anywhere, and I knew it. One by one my cofounders bailed, then eventually I just let the domain name expire, unable to pull the trigger and shut down the site myself.

For reasons I couldn’t comprehend, as an adult, I was finding it more and more difficult to meet?—?let alone exceed?—?the goals I set for myself as a young, hyper-driven college grad.

It was clear to me that something wasn’t working. I was looking exclusively to work for fulfillment, because, I mean, it had worked so well for me in my teens and twenties…hadn’t it? Only—and keep in mind it took me awhile to realize this—it actually hadn’t. I’d been pushing myself to the point of near-exhaustion trying to compete with and outdo the accomplishments of my younger self. But I couldn’t keep it up. I simply didn’t have the time or energy.

I had to stop competing with my former self, because my motivations were shifting. I had come out to my friends and family, so I stopped feeling the need to hide who I really was. Somewhere in my mid-twenties, I got to a place where I could genuinely be myself around friends and family. I was loud and proud! I started putting myself out there, dating more often and beginning the slow process of finally allowing love and intimacy in my life.

Over time, as I decided where to direct my energy, my priorities shifted. After moving in with my now-husband David, I rediscovered my love of cooking and was surprised by how much pleasure making dinner for the two of us brought me. Instead of staring into a computer screen from the minute I woke up until I fell asleep, day after day, I found myself doing things like spending hours in the kitchen making a big Friday-night dinner. And you know what: It made me happy. Baking and cooking, playing with our dog and cat, watching Netflix snuggled up on the couch with my man—they may seem like the obvious pleasures in life, but for so long I’d deprived myself of them in my relentless pursuit of success.

I’ve learned that success can be defined in a number of different ways.

I’m not as young as I used to be, but that’s a good thing. I’ve accepted the fact that I can’t reverse time…and honestly, I wouldn’t want to go back to a time when I defined myself solely by my career and scholastic achievements. I’ve learned that success can be defined in a number of different ways.

A number in a bank account doesn’t mean you’re happy. For me, it’s more about the smaller things these days. Like seeing my husband smile while we talk about the child we intend to adopt in the future, or receiving an email from someone who was inspired by something I wrote. I feel fulfillment in my life even though I’m definitely not on the path I once imagined for myself.

It’s good to challenge yourself, and to even compete with yourself, but personally, I prefer to compete with myself in totally different ways then I once did. I try not to get caught up in trying to live up to the impossible expectations I had for myself as a teenager. I mean, why set yourself up for failure? Instead, I’m competing, and more importantly succeeding, on whole new levels. Ones I hadn’t even thought possible for myself.