I turn thirty today, and it seemed worth a moment of reflection.
That said, I’ve struggled to decide what I want to say. On the one hand: I’m actually quite happy to be thirty. My twenties were a great decade, but I’ve gotten tired of the reflexive condescension people throw your way when they realize you’re a twenty-something.
I had a conversation about this in the grocery store the other day after getting IDed. The woman did a little double-take when she saw my birthdate and congratulated me on looking so young. I laughed, but the truth is looking young doesn’t help me in business settings when I need to be taken seriously. (Not to mention I don’t think there’s a man alive who would enjoy being told he looked like a teenager on the eve of his thirtieth birthday.)
But back on the subject of my subject, the thing I most worried about with this post was coming off too positive. There’s a salty side of me that rolls eyes at bubbly, rosy, gushy life updates. It’s the same cynicism I think we all feel when we talk about the pressure to be perfect on social media, to put up a front and pretend everything’s great when we’re really dead inside.
Or maybe it’s that public happiness feels like gloating—a boastful way of showing off that you’ve got your life together, and shouldn’t everyone congratulate you for it. It’s weird, isn’t it, that there’s so much negativity about happiness. That here I am, struggling to write about my life because I don’t want to seem too positive. But that’s a subject for another day.
Because today’s topic—turning thirty—doesn’t have a lot of positive writing around it. On the contrary, I think I’ve spent the last half-decade trying to mentally prepare myself for turning thirty, because so much that has been written on the subject (particularly for women) is depressing.
Thirty, I am told, is the age at which a broad mind and a narrow waist change places. You can’t trust anyone over thirty. And by now my eggs are deteriorating, so if I want children I’d better find someone and settle down within the next five years. But as I do so, I should lie about my age because, according to reports on dating app statistics, men may age but they still want to date women in their twenties.
True, there’s been more published in recent years about how thirties are the new twenties, but I’m not buying it. Not just because I don’t think it’s true, but because I don’t want it to be true. We’re all aging. I don’t want to deny it—I want to embrace it.
Not that this has been an easy thing to learn how to do.
For me, anxieties about aging have never been about growing old. Instead, they’ve been about staying ahead of the curve.
Up until I turned twenty, I felt ahead of the curve. I studied above my grade level, got a job, nurtured my talents. Most importantly, I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and I felt like I was speeding down the road toward achieving it.
And then, like the proverbial hare, I took a break. I finished high school, dabbled in culinary classes, and went to work in Germany for a year. Midway through that year, a sense of falling behind settled in. My peers were in college, some of them with graduation already on the horizon. I signed up for an online literature class while still abroad and started exploring ideas for college.
When I finally matriculated at the University of Edinburgh, it was as a “mature student.” Starting Uni at twenty-two meant being the oldest of my peer group for most of my time in school. I struggled not to regret the years off I’d taken. Ironically, being ahead of my friends in years made me feel behind in achievement.
I remember saying as much my first summer home to a former employer-turned-friend. I’d nannied her children during my time home between Germany and Scotland, and as sometimes happens when you show up at someone’s house at 7:30 in the morning twice a week for nearly two years, we’d gotten to like each other. I remember expressing to her this anxiety about falling behind.
“I know what you mean,” she said. “When you’re in your twenties, every milestone is so impressive. After you turn thirty, nothing you do is ahead of the curve.”
That thought stuck with me. I wanted to be impressive, to achieve amazing things at a young age. I made plans and lists and pushed hard to achieve them. Then I fell short, and panicked, and that feeling of falling behind settled in again. I came across the last of my “before 30” lists the other day, so impossibly ambitious that I laughed aloud.
What was I thinking? Who was I comparing myself to? Why the sense of urgency?
Don’t mistake me: life is urgent. But there’s good urgency and bad urgency, excitement and stress. And I feel like I’ve spent far too much time living with the second kind, the one that compares my timeline against everyone else’s and comes up short.
I think there’s something in our culture that feeds that idea. It lies in our obsession with genius and our adulation of prodigies. It’s at the heart of a lot of parental angst, even when children are very young. How hard it is not to be overly proud of a child who walks earlier, speaks earlier, reads earlier than other children. I even feel that way about my nieces and nephews, as much as I try not to. Apply that to education or extracurricular activities, and it quickly goes off the hook.
I feel bad for parents who feel this way, probably because I felt this way about myself for so long. Sometime in my younger years, probably about age ten or so, I realized I would never be a child prodigy. I was already too old for it. I remember feeling disappointed. What a sad thing to be sad about at age ten. Where did that pressure come from? Not from my parents, I think. And yet, there it was.
It’s a message implied in story after story. I’m older than most Olympic athletes (notably not Carolina Koster, who is making headlines for being one of the top competitors at 31). I’m older than George Harrison was when the Beatles broke up. I’m older than most professional athletes, pop musicians, and up-and-coming actors. And every day, there are those click-bait headlines about some highschool student who’s discovered the cure for cancer, reinforcing the message that the only thing better than achieving something great is doing it while you’re young.
Some part of me carried that anxiety for years. If I couldn’t be a prodigy at age ten, maybe by twenty? Twenty five? Surely before I turned thirty. I held on to that desire for far too long. Not consciously, for the most part, but there nonetheless.
Perhaps that’s why turning thirty feels like a relief. I’m past being ahead of the curve.
Obviously, age is only one half of the equation here. The other is ambition. It feels incredibly strange, vulnerable, naked to admit that I want to be exceptional at anything. But, like so much of what I’ve skipped a stone over with this post, that’s a topic for another day.
My twenties were a good decade. I began them in Germany, and spent a good half of the next ten years out of the country. I wrote my first practice novel, gained passing competency in German and Russian, and established myself as a successful freelance content marketer. Those are all great things, and I’m proud of myself for them.
But if there’s anything I hope for myself in the next decade, it’s to actively disentangle ambition from competition, to strive toward something great without viewing people I admire as obstacles.
I turned thirty today. I feel happy, hopeful, and optimistic about the years ahead. And I wish the same for you all.