An inordinate amount of weight is placed on age. It’s why young adults make a huge deal about turning 18, 21, 25, and 30; they’re milestones and rites of passage. For my generation (who I refuse to refer to as “millennials,” because FOH), the latter is the most momentous. To us dysfunctional bastards of the Ronald Reagan era, phone calls from Sallie Mae and other assorted debt collectors may occasionally unnerve us, but they aren’t our greatest fear. That designation is reserved for turning 30. Although every age after 27 tastes like ass when you speak it, the number itself isn’t even the real catalyst for the anxiety — it’s turning 30 without having accomplished anything.

As that albatross looms closer to the heads of fellow ‘80s babies, we find ourselves struggling to balance aging with career goals and landmarks like marriage and parenthood. On a personal level, I find myself battling an internal war over finding value in personal accomplishments while seeing others roughly my age stroll down the aisle, start families, and live “normal” lives. At this age, concepts like “success,” “happiness,” and “the right path” have never felt more vague.

***

Chased the good life my whole life long/Look back on my life and life gone/Where did I go wrong?” —Kanye West

808s & Heartbreak was my least favorite Kanye West album upon its initial release, but I’ve grown to like it in the six-and-a-half years since he went left for the first time. Of late, I find myself listening to “Welcome to Heartbreak” the most.

Although Kanye was dealing with the dissolution of an engagement and the death of his mother, the actual heartbreak he was referring to was regret over sacrificing human moments like fatherhood and weddings in favor of satisfying his burning ambition:

My god-sister getting married by the lake
But I couldn’t figure out who I wanna take
Bad enough that I showed up late
I had to leave before they even cut the cake
Welcome to heartbreak

This was Kanye, at the age of 31, realizing that, perhaps, everything he spent his formative years and beyond chasing was frivolous in life’s grand scheme. A little over a year after turning 30 and reaching a generation of kindred dreamers with Graduation’s “I Wonder,” an aggressive reminder of life’s fragility had him questioning everything, maybe even more than his confrontation with his own mortality did. There’s a special kind of guilt that you feel when you put personal objectives ahead of the people who’ve supported you.

A few years back, I left my cousin’s wedding reception in Philadelphia to hustle back to cover an event in D.C.; I was 25, and my writing career had just recently become a tangible thing rather than a dream. Just a month ago, I elected not to travel to Philly to celebrate a friend’s birthday at his wife’s urging so that I could interview Wale — an opportunity that fell apart at the last minute. I’ve lost count of the number of graduations and family reunions I’ve missed because I had “something else” to do, and the more I think about it, the more contrition I feel for placing my career first.

While I identify with Kanye’s remorse over his lack of work-life balance, he’s pushing 38. He has about a decade on me, so I have a stronger connection to two of his disciples as it pertains to this struggle: Drake and J.Cole.

During our individual quests for prosperity, we’ve each found ourselves neglecting or feeling distant from friends and family members. Drake, whose music constantly reflects on his life in the moment, has admitted to an obsession with “being the best out.” On Nothing Was the Same’s “Too Much,” the 28-year-old opened up about how being the bread-winner opened a fissure between he and his extended family. Prior to debuting the song on The Tonight Show in September 2013, he advised his loved ones that he simply “[wants] the best for everybody.”

Drake may have earned “two mortgages, $30 million in total” before the age of 30, but that achievement came at the expense of familial unity.

Meanwhile, J. Cole released his most contemplative album to date, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, a month before turning 30 in January. “Apparently,” its lead single, strikes a similar sentimental chord. Cole, who has previously confirmed the irony of him being candid in front of TV cameras while brushing his family off, admits his mistakes and thanks his mother and girlfriend for putting up with his selfishness.

Like J. Cole, I left my hometown for college and have remained gone because the lofty aim I’ve pursued lies elsewhere. When I have conversations with my parents, I always remind them that they didn’t raise me to be ordinary, they raised me to be exceptional. Yet, in looking back over the years, I realize that I’ve spent so much time trying to make my family proud of me that I’ve stopped operating like a normal person. 2015’s theme has been me pushing myself to my creative zenith, and, during May’s first complete week, I can feel the toll it’s taken on me physically. I might look younger than my age, but I damn sure don’t feel it.

Worse, I know I’m not alone. I know for a fact that there are other accomplishment-obsessed people my age wearing themselves thin because of an internal motor which propels us towards satisfaction. But what happens when that hunt not only leaves you burnt out, but yields diminishing returns?

***

As much criticism as my generation receives for allegedly being entitled, self-absorbed, and occasionally shiftless, I’d contend that the cutthroat job market has actually forced many of us to work harder. We pursue our dreams so fiercely because we don’t want to be accused of accomplishing less with more options at our disposal. So while the aftershocks of the recession have us postponing homeownership and marriage, a good portion of us feel as though we have a smaller window to accomplish everything. The closer we get to 30, the more the need to have made something of ourselves before that age tightens around us like a boa constrictor.

However, we must consider what the real motivating factor is. Of late, I’ve asked often: Do I write my ass off because I truly enjoy it, or so people can Google my name and see where my head was at in my 20s? Who cares what you’ve accomplished if you’ve never stopped to actually enjoy those accomplishments with the people closest to you? Time moves forward, and people aren’t around forever — an honest reminder that J. Cole shared on “Love Yourz.”

The following segment of the song’s final verse is why I can still listen to it five times in a row, five months later:

I mean this shit sincerely
And as a nigga who was once in your shoes, living with nothing to lose
I hope one day you hear me
Always gon’ be a bigger house somewhere but nigga, feel me
Long as the people in that motherfucker love you dearly
Always gon’ be a whip that’s better than the one you got
Always gon’ be some clothes that’s fresher than the ones you rock
Always gon’ be a bitch that’s badder out there on the tours
But you ain’t never gon’ be happy ‘til you love yours

Earlier this year, while eating dinner at a friend’s house, I realized I was the lone person at the table who was single and without a child. One couple is older than me; another the exact same age, and the other was actually a little younger. After admitting to feeling like a man-child, each of them reminded me that I’m the only one with a non-stuffy career, and that some of them live vicariously through me. Although I laughed, my inner-conflict was unwavering. The bylines I’ve amassed and the semi-interesting things I’ve created pale in comparison to the actual lives they’ve created and families they’ve started in addition to being successful. Despite having age and upward mobility in common, I still feel far away from where they’re at.

***

Aaliyah was wrong — age is far more than a number, especially to my generation. We’re the ones who created the quarter-life crisis, and the ones who define ourselves through youth. Credit that to the influence of popular culture, and the idolization of people like Kanye West and Pharrell: Two men close to 40 or past it who still carry an adolescent aura. We never thought we’d get older, but it’s happening, and it’s scary. As we cling to the pipe dream of eternal youth, we wrestle with an intense need to flourish.

Whenever I hold my best friend’s 7-month-old son, his Russell Wilson-esque tuft of hair and grin traces of his genetics, I think about how badly my parents want grandchildren. As much as I want to grant them their wish, I have to acknowledge my addiction to my craft. But as I’ve learned to accept the futility of racing against time, that addiction has begun to wane.

Thirty represents a review of what you’ve done more substantive than the end-of-year evaluations you begrudgingly endure at work. As my peer group inches closer to it, we must establish a medium between conceding to its magnitude and appreciating the delicacy of life. Mastering that balancing act truly signals adulthood.