Life’s Ordinary Habits: In Conversation with Rainesford Stauffer, Author of An Ordinary Age
By Rachel Schwartzmann
Ordinary Story is a monthly series by Rachel Schwartzmann that features musings and conversations on one of our favorite ordinary habits: reading. In the fourth installment of this series, Rachel speaks with reporter Rainesford Stauffer about her new book, An Ordinary Age, and the ordinary habits that are important to her in reading, writing, and life.
While the fascination with young adulthood in America has become an ordinary part of cultural discourse, Rainesford Stauffer is pushing this narrative in new and vital directions. Stauffer regularly reports on the experiences of young people, and you may have seen her bylines in outlets including The New York Times, Teen Vogue, and WSJ Magazine. Recently, Stauffer translated her journalistic prowess into her new book, An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional.
In An Ordinary Age, Stauffer doesn’t shy away from the pressure and disillusionment that often follows pursuing one’s “best life”—an idea that’s particularly pervasive in emerging adulthood. To that end, the book explores navigating work, home, relationships, social media, spirituality, and self-care with accounts from young people, expert analysis, and Stauffer’s personal reflection. Page after page, Stauffer illuminates the current landscape with engaging reporting while reminding readers to recognize the merit of ordinariness at this time of life.
“Ordinary” may take on different meanings depending on who you ask, but one thing is certain: An Ordinary Age will endure as a guidebook for the ages. I spoke with Stauffer about the book’s development and the ordinary habits that are important to her in reading, writing, and life. — Rachel Schwartzmann
What’s an ordinary habit that’s getting you through life right now?
I think that there are so many little ordinary habits that have been transformative in my own life. I think the two that feel most prevalent to me right now are learning to put lines and boundaries between my work and my identity, which is certainly an ongoing learning process since work does take up a lot of time.
I’ve also been trying to open up to people more. I’ve been trying to be more forthcoming when I need help or when I need advice, or honestly, just when I want to be friends with someone. I’ve been trying to reach out, learn new things, and be really present in those relationships.
I first came across your work via the essay you wrote for The New York Times titled “The Sterile, Efficient Life of a Millennial.” There was one line that resonated with me. You write: “The idea that young people like me are always on the go, always in transition and always on masks that we might actually desire slowness, want to relish an experience, or enjoy taking a moment to feel comfortable and human instead of curated and optimized.” So much has changed since that piece was published. I'm curious if there's been something noticeable to you in the discourse around slowing down since then (aka before the pandemic)?
That’s such a great question. It’s funny because I wrote that essay when we either just sold the book proposal or I was still working on the book proposal—so it was something that I’d been thinking about a lot anyway. In many ways, ordinariness—or ordinary moments—was an idea that I was curious about and was hearing in other conversations. This desire to slow down, wondering when you were going to feel good enough, what kind of habits you could bring into your own life that would foster that, what kind of policy or structural changes we need to make that happen. I think there was a lot of conversation, at least in my world, about that impulse.
Now, I think that those conversations have increased tenfold. I think that we’ve seen firsthand time and time again that work is not going to save us at the end of the day. Work does not always have our back. I think we’ve seen that some of the accolades and accomplishments, or things that we’ve been taught will make us happy, and safe, and secure definitely don’t. I think we’re reckoning with what ordinariness looks like in a world where we’ve been told—repeatedly—that that’s settling. And all the while, we’ve been told that we’re settling, but really what we’re yearning for is to have basic needs met, to feel safe and fulfilled in the context of our lives. That shouldn’t be an extraordinary thing, but I think that we’ve seen over the course of the last year that it’s still just an incredible rarity for most of us.
As we talk more about An Ordinary Age, I want to start in the middle of the book. At the beginning of the chapter “Who Answers When You Call,” you open with an anecdote about a journaling habit that you adopted as a way to cope with loneliness. Could you talk about that habit and how it’s informed your life today?
Absolutely. Loneliness, I think, was one of the defining feelings in my young adulthood. It’s still a feeling that’s very prevalent in my life now. And I think that one of the greatest gifts that reporting the book has given me is the realization that loneliness can be a very ordinary feeling—it’s not an individualized failure. It’s a sensation that a lot of us are going to experience in some capacity at some point or another.
So in the introduction to that chapter, I talk about a habit that I picked up when I was doing reporting work for other pieces or just in conversations with friends. I was listening to how other people described loneliness and how they felt that it manifested in their own lives—and I just started writing it down. It took a lot of different forms: I typed notes on my phone. I sent myself emails. I definitely wrote things down in a journal to kind of keep a mental log of what this felt like. And I think that impulse was there for two reasons. Number one, hearing other people talk about being lonely made me feel less lonely. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone in that feeling. And two, it struck me that the people I was speaking to were often talking about very different topics as kind of the primary topic of conversation: They were from different locations. They had different circumstances. They were even technically of different ages. And we were all describing this common feeling.
I think that commonality actually brought me a lot of solace during a time of life where I felt very lonely in the fact that I felt lonely, which might sound silly to say. But I think when we think of narratives about young adulthood—and about our twenties, in particular—it’s this kind of grandiose, adventuring, revolving door of social circles, and new people, and best friends, and very specific ideas of what that looks like in popular culture. And that’s certainly not to say that those things don’t exist. But I think that instead, what I was looking for was a more nuanced understanding of what it meant to be lonely during a time of life where so much is changing anyway, and why community is a really grounding force as you go through those different transitions.
You thoughtfully insert yourself throughout the book when sharing bits of your own story and experiences. I think this particularly came across for me in “A Waiting Room.” I love that you referred to home as a “collection of pauses” in this chapter. Can you talk about the significance that this section holds for you overall?
I’m not even sure if I’m supposed to have a favorite chapter, but that’s the one that I had a pretty significant relationship with just because my relationship with home defined a lot of my young adulthood. And it’s one of the things that has changed the most as I’ve grown up.
Growing up, I felt like in order for my life to really begin, I needed to move, and I needed to move far away, and I needed to do it by myself. I didn’t learn until much later—or realize until much later—that every element of that hyper-individualistic “go it alone,” you have to find yourself somewhere else idea, stood almost in total opposition to what I actually wanted to do. I’m fortunate to be very close to my family. I really love a sense of community, and being around people, and trying to help or serve where I can. It was just not in my nature to do this sort of solo quest into young adulthood that I felt was necessary to moving up and moving onward in the world.
Honestly, it’s taken several years to kind of unpack what that means in the context of my own life—where I live, what I want out of a sense of home. I think that home, for me, feels like something where your worth is not inherent in any singular thing. I think that even in terms of friendships or hobbies, or work, we have a sense of obligation in terms of who we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to show up in those spaces. I think one of the things that’s so precious to me about home is the idea that you can exist just as you are.
In a lot of cases for a lot of people, it’s kind of this relationship between where do I think I need to end up and where am I right now? One of the things I loved most about reporting that chapter was hearing how diverse the answers to “where I am now” were. It’s people that took a lot of pride in decorating their apartment, that even just financially and personally having a space that was theirs was really important to them. There were people who were experiencing houselessness or housing insecurity that described community spaces (or senses of community) and friendship as kind of their idea of home. And I just think the multiplicity of places that can be and sensations that can bring up is really powerful during this time of life. Because, you know, we talk a lot about transitions. We talk a lot about young people moving up and moving on. And what I loved most was how many people articulated a version of community, a version of roots, their version of getting to stay somewhere for a while.
I believe that An Ordinary Age should be required reading for young adults across this country, but what are some lessons that readers in other age groups can take away? How can readers who have aged out of emerging adulthood engage with the book?
I thought a lot about parents, or teachers, or people who were interacting a lot with young people. I hope, in terms of those audiences, that they have a new lens through which to look at the young people they know and maybe what some of those pressures feel like.
But I think even looking more broadly at this idea of a “best life”—which we know is deeply embedded in inequitable, often racist systems, which we know is so heavily tied to capitalism and these institutions or structures that no longer serve us—that’s not just young adults who are impacted by that. That’s truly everyone. I think that the pressure to be a “best” self and to follow a certain timeline for your life and to do things in a certain way—while yearning for the stability, and fulfillment, and security that that’s supposed to bring you—I think at this point that’s almost a universal sensation in some way or another, regardless of age.
So I hope that when readers of all ages are engaging with this book, they can think back to their own young adulthood and how the transitions in their lives have brought them to the point they’re currently in. Much like I would hope that young adults walk away from the book knowing that their ordinary selves are good enough as is, I’d hope that for any reader—because I just don’t think that that’s a message we hear enough.
The thing about young adulthood is it’s definitely a time that’s right for transitions, but I also think as we move through our lifespan and as we continue growing up, there are all kinds of transitions or moments where we’re having to think about who we are, what we value, what barriers are in place to us having that, how we feel as opposed to how we’re supposed to. I think that those things are ripe for renegotiation at all points in our lives, and I hope that people walk away from this book feeling that it’s okay to look twice at some of those expectations.
How has writing this book made you a better reader?
I don’t think that this book, or honestly anything I’ve written, could exist without everything I’ve read. I should probably say upfront that I read a lot of journalism and non-fiction work. I’m still working on getting back into the fiction groove and looking forward to doing that. But I think getting to look at the way a piece of writing is structured, who it talks to, what voices it brings into a space—it’s just masterclass after masterclass. I think this is actually the plus side of social media. Now I don’t just follow publications. I follow specific writers and editors and get to kind of follow their work wherever they go.
But I think structurally, in terms of how what I’ve read impacted this book, I had to do a lot of reading and a lot of soul searching in terms of how much of myself I wanted to include and really tried to seek out models of that—whether it was in reported essays, whether it was in people’s books. I have a difficult time talking about myself, even in writing, and so that didn’t feel like the most natural thing first. And so I think that was a big takeaway from the things I read during this time.
I also got great recommendations from sources that I spoke to over this entire two-year period of things that they were reading and things that had informed their lives. It really made me think not only about the stories that we read and consume, but also the stories we tell about ourselves and narratives of our own lives and how impactful those are on our identities.
I would be so interested to see what’s on their reading lists! Have any books taught you to appreciate or seek out ordinary moments?
I think the book that immediately comes to mind is Little Women. It was a book I read a lot growing up. I probably read it too early and really didn’t understand a lot of what was going on until much later, but I was obsessed with the idea that it was these sisters. I am one of four kids, so I really felt like the family dynamic was something that I related to in my own way. As you grow up, you got to see siblings and peers reckon with very different life choices from one another and how that impacted their identities, and in turn, their relationships with each other. I just remember thinking—honestly, I think even in my early teens—how fascinating it was that ordinary lives and selves and being at home could be this interesting.
I was really drawn to the family dynamics and the interpersonal relationships in that book. Now, even in the journalism I read, I feel like that’s probably the most ordinary element that I’m drawn to. Getting to hear the little details about people’s lives that a source either brings up in a quote or a journalist makes the brilliant decision to pull into their description. It’s those little things that tell you about someone’s outlook on the world, or their character, or what they value that I think always stand out the most to me.
Do you have any advice for building a consistent reading habit?
I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is to read when you can and to read widely. I think that over the past year, especially, I went through a lot of shame in my reading habits because I just wasn’t reading as much as I used to. I’d sit down and think, “I can’t knock out three or four chapters at a time in this book. I don’t deserve to read it. I’m not ready for it.” Instead, I’ve found building reading into little points of my day—whether it’s 15 minutes at night, or this is a super weird one, but sometimes I’ll read when I’m drying my hair just because it’s a great way to pass those 20 minutes or so. I think looking for those tiny instances and not feeling bad that you can’t read as deeply as you want to is really key.
I also think that always trying to read new things, always trying to look at stories or articles and think: whose perspective is missing from this piece, and where can I go find it? That’s been really invaluable to me as a reader—just in terms of seeking out new publications or books—staying curious about whatever it is I’m reading and how the story is shaped.
There’s so much more we could speak about, but I want to close out this conversation with a statement you made at the end of An Ordinary Age. You write: “And somehow, now, I find myself discovering, again and again, it’s not just the overeager yeses but the thoughtful noes—what you say no to—that make a life...” I'm curious if you have a "no" that you hope becomes ordinary as we come out of this time?
I think the “no” that I hope becomes ordinary as we make our way into whatever phase comes next is the expectation that we have to do everything alone—and more so than that—that we should. I want to clarify: I don’t mean spending time by yourself, which in many cases can be restorative and exactly what we need. But this idea that we’re meant to achieve alone, we’re meant to explore alone, we’re meant to endure alone, I think really silos off our feelings and our experiences from how we interact with them in terms of identity, our relationships, our community.
One of the things that stood out so strongly to me throughout the conversations I had while reporting the book was how many people found ordinariness and ordinary community with each other. It was moments of figuring out how to ask for help when you needed it, or how to say that you were lonely and extend a hand, or to set a boundary at work and needing support in doing that.
I think that as we move forward into whatever this next iteration holds, I hope that saying no to doing it all alone becomes something that we’re a little more comfortable saying and that we’re given the resources—whether it be in work, in school, in our personal relationships—to actually say that no. And to get to have the space in our lives to say: “I’m not in it alone. I don’t have to go it alone. I’m going to open myself up to people who can bring fullness and richness—and sometimes assistance—to my life.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Purchase An Ordinary Age