I’m sitting on the rooftop of my college house on Atwood Street; it’s a brisk night in early March. It’s been a rough day, so I lay back and ponder, letting the Slightly Stoopid playing from my laptop intervene. I’m a sophomore, but I’m behind in credits. I’ve failed business calculus twice already and I’m sporting a rather unimpressive GPA. I’m nervous. I’m frustrated. I’m depressed. Time’s running out. The real world is right on the horizon. I have to grow up, don’t I? What the actual fuck am I going to do with my life? So I ponder more, hoping some examples of others’ path in life will calm the anxiety.

Meet Rob Gronkowski—the New England Patriots’ iconic, star tight end. He’s 6’6 inches tall with crew cut brown hair and 265 pounds of the kind of muscle that makes you feel bad about yourself. Wearing number 87, he’s so ripped up, at first glance it appears he might not even be wearing shoulder pads under his jersey. The endearingly nicknamed “Gronk” signed a contract in 2012 for fifty-four million dollars. Yeah, I know. That’s fifty-four million McChickens. The full time athlete, part time party boy is on every frat boy’s twitter timeline, every sorority girl’s instagram feed, and every pop warner footballer’s bedroom wall. He’s 26.

Twenty-six? Only twenty-six? That’s almost a full decade before I’m even eligible to run for president. That’s only one year after I can legally rent a car alone. That’s only one year until Kurt Cobain and the rest of the ’27 Club’ “burn out instead of fade away.”

So, what does it mean to be twenty-six? Should I be married by then? Should I have a career? Should I have a house? Is it an age? Is it an obligation?

How long even is 26 years?

26 years ago Duran Duran was on the radio and Dead Poet’s Society was in theatres. 26 years ago gas per gallon was three cents short of a dollar. 26 years ago was the first release of Microsoft office and George Bush Sr. was in the white house. Holy fuck, thank god it isn’t 26 years ago. But I digress.

But what does it mean to be 26?

Well, it means you’re one year older than a quarter century, but you’re not quite a prime number yet. It means you’ve been legally drinking for five years, voting for eight, and you’re four years away from a mental breakdown. Shit, I’ve got a lot to get done by the time I’m 26.

Gronk’s mega-success with money, athletics, fame and women really isn’t calming my nerves. If anything, it’s made them worse. So, who else is 26?

Just one month shy of the big 2-6 is America’s sweetheart. With gorgeous, mysterious eyes and blonde hair, supplying the soundtrack for anyone from teenage girls in their bedrooms to grown men stuck in traffic—the one and only, Taylor Swift. Named in Forbes Magazine’s ‘100 Most Powerful Women,’ worth more than 200 million dollars(200 million McChickens), and so famous she took her music off Spotify, she’s doing everything right. The epitome of the American Dream. A young, central Pennsylvania girl, worked hard and it paid off. She’s rich and famous now. In one month, she’s 26.

So then what does it mean to be twenty-six? Should I have a nice car and an expensive wardrobe? Should I have it all figured out? Should I be rich? Should I be famous?

Our culture has rules for this kind of stuff, right? There must be an instruction manual on the correct way to assemble the pieces of your life. You know, like a six-drawer dresser from Ikea. So, the people around us, like mom, dad, and really any random bystander in our life expect a lot to happen by 26, right? Rich, famous, on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, in graduate school. Whatever it may be, it seems it is important that it does one thing—make money. Stretching outside the norm is a risk. I only have one life, no do-overs, so if I do everything just right the first time, I’ll be rich by 26. I’ll have that car, the four-bedroom colonial and a bearable nine to five. Playing it safe is the key to happiness. After all, dreams are dreams for a reason, right? Pursuing them is a waste of time and money.

So while Gronk and Swift followed their dreams and didn’t take the easy road, that’s not what’s glorified. That’s not what’s idolized. What we care about is how much money they make each year and how famous they are. How much their autograph is worth and what magazine they are on the cover of.

Is that what it means to be 26? Or can it be done differently?

Meet Geoff Vanover. From the suburbs of Philadelphia he was raised catholic, went to private school and received a full college scholarship. He was on the perfect path to be “26.” More than grateful for his opportunity growing up, but labeling the environment as “poisonous”, things are different for Vanover. He’s always wanted to be a musician. From a young age he’s written riffs and lyrics. Now he lives in South Philadelphia where he is a chimney sweep to pay his bills and a rapper to pay his soul. On his music career: “I’ve never gotten a check, never made a penny from it.” Vanover has a certain aura of happiness. The kind of happiness of a three-year-old toddler that just discovered a slinky. It’s genuine, no faking. He loves what he does. He can’t buy as many McChickens, but, nonetheless, he is twenty-six.
Now this approach, this is the twenty-six years I might want to live.

Geoff Vanover wakes up at 5:15 every morning. He wipes the last night’s dreams from his eyes and puts his hair that hasn’t been cut since September of 2013 up into a bun. He checks his perfectly groomed mustache in the mirror and places his thick-rimmed eighties style glasses on his face. Geoff leaves his South Philly apartment on Fourth Street and heads to Northeast Philly to pick up his work truck. He’s back in South Philly by seven in the morning to sweep chimneys. The day ends when the jobs are complete. When he gets home, Vanover makes music—any kind.

“In the evening I could be jamming out writing raps, really any type of music I can get involved in…even if I’m just chillin’ in the studio lending a baseline,” said Vanover. Remember, like the others aforementioned, he too is twenty-six.

I guess that seems all good and fun, but I should probably do what everyone else does right? Work hard and it’ll pay off. I don’t know. I’m confused. I’m stressed. I’m worried. How much time do I have to make sure I’m doing this “real world” thing the correct way.

26 years is a while, so I have plenty of time to do things perfectly though, right? Well not exactly.

26 years is less than one third of the average lifespan of humans today. 26 years is a mere one tenth of the amount of the time since John Hancock signed the declaration of independence. And 26 years is a tiny one fifth of the amount of time since Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

And I’m supposed to be a fucking millionaire by then?

By 26 medical school students make their first real pay check, law students are finally attorneys and the average woman is almost married. Oh yeah, and by 26, you can’t ride your parents’ health insurance plan any longer.

So, what does it mean to be twenty-six? Scratch that. What should I have accomplished by the time I’m 26?

Because, you see, my research is telling me being 26 is not an age. Being 26 is an obligation. An obligation to appease a culture. A culture that is flawed. A culture that encourages me to stimulate an economy with a stable career and capitalistic motives. A culture that says “fuck your dreams, go make a paycheck.” A culture that says you can’t be an art major because it doesn’t make any money. A culture that creates pre med pricks that condescendingly ask, “what are you going to do with a media communications degree?” A culture that says being in a band is merely a waste of your time getting in the way of your studying habits and work schedule. A culture that says college takes four years, any more and you’re a fuck up. The same culture that preaches “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The same culture that considers itself “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The same culture that preaches the American Dream. Well, the American Dream is a pyramid scheme. And I call bullshit on all of it.

It seems by a certain age, I’m expected to have and have done certain things. It seems by a certain age, there are certain requirements. There’s a rubric of sorts. A criteria that I am being graded on. If I don’t have an A in these criteria by the time I’m 26 I might as well associate myself with you know, the ones who didn’t make it. The deadbeats. Or even worse, those without a college degree. It seems I should have ‘accomplished’ certain goals. I should be ‘successful.’ By 26, I should be thinking about a family, a mortgage payment, maybe even a vacation home.

We’re conditioned to believe that our world is like a ticking time bomb. If we don’t act fast, we won’t make it out alive. We idolize these people who get rich quick, or have it all figured out before they’ve even turned three decades. And if they didn’t do it the normal way, what matters is that they’re making money. But, you know how it is, there’s a certain way of doing things. A conventional way of getting things done. You go to college, you get a degree in something practical and you can get a good job, start a family, gain twenty pounds and join a country club. You’ll be miserable because you really wanted to be a writer, or a painter, or maybe even a trumpeter, but you’re an accountant and god damnit that pays the bills.

So before you close your browser because I’m just another counterculture millennial with no sense of how the “real world works,” I want you to seriously ask yourself:

What does it mean to be twenty-six?

To me, it means something a lot different than a safe job and a new Toyota Camry. It means following your dreams for 26 years and beyond, no matter the monetary reward. It means you have plenty of time. It means slow down. It means maybe in your 20s you might not have your shit together yet. Being twenty-six can’t be defined by tech moguls and financial geniuses. Being twenty-six should be defined by people like Geoff Vanover and my own father.

“When I was 26, I was working for someone else, getting ready to launch my own business as a photographer. I wasn’t sleeping much,” my Dad said.

Meet David Campli, my father. Photographer, husband, brother, son and dad. Some time in the 1970’s he decided he wanted to capture family memories for a living. So he pursued the art. 40 years later he continues to perfect his craft.

“My dad wanted me to stay at the Acme. ‘You make good money as a cashier there,’ he told to me when I wanted to go to art school.”

It’s a few months later, in the fall of this year. I’ve changed majors several times at this point and, well the real world is even closer. Guess what, I still don’t have my shit together. I’m a junior, but I’m behind in credits. I’ve finally passed business calculus but my GPA would imply otherwise. I’m nervous. I’m frustrated. I’m depressed. My thought is interrupted by a cold gust of wind and a tapping on the window from my roommate. He slides up the old window and it creaks. He carefully maneuvers his head out through the three by three space and asks,

“What are you doing?”

“Just thinking,” I respond.


“What does it mean to be twenty-six?” I ask.

He responds with a facetious laugh, “don’t you have work to do?”

That’s when it hits me. I realize what I’m going to do with my life. I’m going to appease a culture. A culture that believes in pursuing whatever it is that supports me. And that’s what supports me, existentially, not financially. I’m going to do what makes me tick. I’m going to write. And if takes me a while to get good at it, so be it. And if it takes even longer to earn a decent living from it, so be it.

I realize in that moment that having your shit together is overrated. Because what do you really find out from having it all figured out? Because in the midst of chaos, in the midst of failure, in the midst of absolute uncertainty that’s when you find yourself. So I put the anxiety on hold and I enjoy the view, because I realize now I have plenty of time.

So, what does it mean to be 26? I ask myself. It means next year you’ll be 27. But, the most important part isn’t what you’ve accomplished in those years, it’s that those years have made you feel accomplished. So do what makes you tick, it just might take a little longer than 26.