7 Things I Didn't Learn Until I Turned 30: A Retrospective
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"Ah, but I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now," go the lyrics of Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages." When I was in my teens, turning 30 meant something. I grew up weirdly enamored with artists who didn't live beyond three decades. I went to Catholic school. One's 30s were sacred ground. Christ lived to 33. Jim Morrison to 27, along with the rest of the 27 club. The last thing I expected to think on my 30th birthday was—Sylvia Plath was just a kid.
When you’re in high school, you're sold a dream of your 20s. It's this glowing "best days of your life" bumper sticker of a thing that, in my experience, barely resembled actual reality. At 17, 23 sounded a reasonable age to have one's act together. There's even a line about it in Reality Bites (arguably the single best celluloid meditation on post-graduate angst ever). I related to Lelaina Pierce ad infinitum. I, too, believed "I was really going to be something by the age of 23."
As an artist in my 20s, I mostly aspired to emulate prodigies. Young wunderkinds were romanticized ideals. Hemingway and Fitzgerald both penned masterpieces in their 20s. I thought real talent looked like Mozart. At the age of 33, I find Bukowski's publishing of his first novel, Post Office, at the age of 50 to be more inspiring. The older I get, the more enamored I become with grit, with earned things.
There is much to be said for the bravado of youth. It is a wild thing. Don't get me wrong, I loved my 20s too. I loved them the way a vacation gone completely sideways can end up the story you dine out on for months. They were chaotic and beautiful, and I don't want them back. My peers don't always share my opinion. Aging occurs differently to everyone, I suppose. Me? I'll take my 30s over my 20s any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Here's why in seven parts.
You know the one I mean. The apartment wherein even when life was always stuck in second gear, yet it still generously allowed for a massive rent-stabilized pre-war walk-up. Yes, Monica's apartment on Friends allegedly boasted a whopping $200 a month rent due to some creative paperwork with her grandmother's 1940 lease option. The real rent would run somewhere in the ballpark of $5000.
There will be no love lost in the housing department upon graduating to 30-something life. In my 20s, I resided in a wildly charming historic studio apartment. James Dean used to live there once. It was tiny, and the roof leaked. It was the most space I could afford, and I could barely afford it. Forgoing roommates, entry-level salaries mean also forgoing luxuries like square footage and gym memberships. (I put a treadmill in my kitchen.)
For most, living quarters will vastly improve alongside your career. I didn't truly learn how to nest until my 30s. The joy of curating a personal space was something I grew into over time. Start collecting art. The pieces I bought for $100 back when that meant skipping dinner for a couple weeknights in a row are still among my most prized possessions.
Oscar Wilde famously quipped, "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his." The older I get, the more I revel in my mother's soothsaying ability to predict behavior and offer sage advice. I was a willful kid. In my 20s, as a precocious-by-nature youth, I was often the youngest of my group of friends—the baby.
A funny thing happened on the way to my 30s—I got younger friends. People got married; I stayed single. Colleagues got promoted; I switched careers. My mother had two kids by the time she turned 30. It is a reasonable age to settle down. Most of my friends would not self-identify as "grown-up" at 30. Arriving at the age your parents were when they raised you is surreal and enlightening.
I hail from Texas. It is a land of many idioms and colloquialisms. Chief among them was once uttered to me in response to a dating situation in my 20s. It was told, "Honey, don't go to the hardware store for milk." The reference is fairly self-evident. Just as one would not expect to score dairy products at Home Depot, so must expectations be kept in alignment with tangible results—for everything from career to significant others.
True happiness comes from being present and accepting things as they actually are. Meet people where they're at. See your job for what it is. Understand all behavior is useful. Know your payoffs. Set your boundaries. Practice empathy, and by all means, go get what you need. Identifying unmet needs is a key problem-solving principle in marketing. With practice, it will be rote behavior for your brain by your 30th birthday.
The human brain has a separate mechanism for the experience of happiness and the memory of it. This TED Talk breaks it down cognitively in 20 minutes. In his speech, Daniel Kahneman ingeniously offers up a story of a man recalling a symphony concert. "He said he'd been listening to a symphony, and it was absolutely glorious music, and at the very end of the recording, there was a dreadful screeching sound. And then he added, really quite emotionally, it ruined the whole experience," says Kahneman. "But it hadn't. What it had ruined were the memories of the experience," he continues. "He had had the experience. He had had 20 minutes of glorious music. They counted for nothing because he was left with a memory; the memory was ruined, and the memory was all that he had gotten to keep."
You'll marvel at the brain's ability to remember great things that end poorly (relationships, jobs, fashion missteps, what have you) as all-around bad. Then there will be the painful people, places, things you'll recall with nothing but rose-colored glasses. Experience begets wisdom. And yet you will assuredly repeat any number of mistakes until said wisdom gets a functioning foothold. Enjoy the ride, and don't get too hung up on endings. In the immortal words of T.S. Eliot: You are the music while the music lasts.
From the music festival where my best friend and I spent the wee hours of the morning wandering about Chicago in a fruitless search for a hotel room upon being locked out of our friend's apartment to bad breakups—know this: The road to great stories is oft paved with tears. Experiences that in the moment were wildly stressful became absurdly funny down the line. Failure is a remarkable teacher. If you let them, your most epic fails will leave you steeled with a sense of resilience and self-reliance. The ability to recover from mistakes trumps perfectionism every time. It actually exists. Taking risks is the only way to truly grow.
Pros ask for guidance. Whether you're in a fight with a friend and need some hand-holding toward finding forgiveness or simply looking to improve your performance at work, don't be afraid to admit when you need a support system. You can either be humble or be humbled. No phrase diffuses tension quite like, "I need your help." I spent a large portion of my 20s avoiding vulnerability at all cost. "Show no weakness" was a mantra. Owning up to your blind spots and seeking out the right mentors will jettison your success in any area of life. Get your trusted confidants on lock. Even the Godfather had a consigliere. Find your Robert Duvall.
There was an invincibility in my 20s that was replaced with something greater. When you're young, you don't know what you don't know. That naïveté can inspire great leaps of creativity and expression. Humility and drive will serve you just as well. You will become enlightened of your own shortcomings. You will lose people. New opportunities will come, new people, new possibilities. Change is the only constant. The trick is to remain conscious and attuned to how you are changing. Be intentional with your growth. In your 30s, the friends who have wandered the streets of Chicago with you may still be there. Mine are.
Fill us in on your thoughts on growing up in the comments, and shop a few favorite inspired reads below.
Originally written in Portuguese, The Alchemist has been translated into more than 67 languages. The allegorical fable follows the story of a young shepherd as he sets out of a journey to Egypt after having a recurring dream. It also features one of my favorite quotes…
If what one finds is made of pure matter, it will never spoil. And one can always come back. If what you had found was only a moment of light, like the explosion of a star, you would find nothing in return.
Bukowski's poetry walks the line between darkly nuanced and wildly cool. It is among my favorite de facto gifts for Gen-Z friends.