How our thirties can be an opportunity for self-exploration and a springboard for the future
Recorded history and mass media have a special place for great achievements committed by youthful protagonists. We are made to believe that barely-out-of-college kids founding billion dollar companies are not too different from that boy-king in ancient Greece who conquered half the world in a decade. In short, there is a special place in popular imagination for those who commit mighty deeds well before the average person is said to come of age. Going purely by the dominant narratives of the day, a Martian can be forgiven for thinking that wunderkinds are found aplenty among humans. This, however, obscures the more common reality of how most lives take shape as people grow older.
As I completed my own third decade of existence, I started wondering where my own achievements stacked up against the standard expected for my age. This made me look for patterns in the choices I had made in the past and how they had led me to the present. As expected, there were parts that made me wince, but what arose to the surface most prominently was an overwhelming sense of optimism. The thirties seemed to have triggered a feeling of new possibilities, underpinned by a greater clarity about my own self. In the midst of such a transformation, I though it appropriate to pen down an ode for this wondrous decade.
Now, I’m conscious that at some level this could be an attempt to calm the small inner voice that likes to remind me it’s too late. However, this is also an unbiased look at the change I began to observe in my thinking over the past few years. As I attempted to retrace my path to now, I realized I was guilty of hindsight bias: my present self was using the full benefit of its experience to judge a younger me, who probably chose the best course of action given the circumstances then. Maybe this realization was pointing me towards other shifts in thinking that were around the corner.
Speaking from my personal vantage point, the thirties feel like a (bitter?)sweet time. The onset of this decade seems to trigger a reflective mode as you begin to unravel the threads of your past in order to make sense of how you got here. Make no mistake, there is ample opportunity for ruing past mistakes, but there is also hope for the future. For one, you have the benefit of knowing where your true interests lie and things you want to completely avoid. You start letting go of some of the unrealistic expectations you had of yourself. When we’re young and the years are stretched out in front of us like the horizon, it’s so much easier to dream the impossible. But as that buffer begins to shrink, we begin wisening up to our strengths and shortcomings. These constraints work wonders for mental clarity because we are forced to determine what truly matters to us and whether aiming lower is actually the key to real happiness. Some might call that giving up; I’m inclined to believe it’s the beginning of wisdom.
The other significant change is that you are less likely to believe stories others tell you about how the world works and what you should do to succeed within it. In fact, we begin to see that ‘success’, as we have been defining it, is most probably a borrowed notion. This is not to say that the common definition is wrong; it clearly works for the vast majority of people and gives them the life they want. The point is, it’s not the only definition. Having seen the proverbial, well-taken road, we now get to decide whether we want to continue on it or hack our own way through the dense bush. My emphasis here is not on a specific vocation, but rather on the framework of values we want to adopt going forward. For example, ‘Do I prefer the security of a good job or do I want to be my own master, despite the risk?’ At this juncture of our lives, we face a stark choice of whether we want to keep or shed the hand-me-down philosophy we have lived our lives by.
Having made this far in life, we become more confident in our abilities to navigate this buzzing confusion of a world. The imagined monsters that haunted us have hopefully been banished. I think it’s not too radical to say that most of us were goaded into certain paths through appeals to our survival instinct: ‘Do this or else you will forever be mediocre’ or ‘the surest way to success is such-and-such’. We really believed that our very survival depended on believing those narratives. But in your thirties you begin to understand that straying off that script is not a one-way ticket to homelessness. We pick up the nerve to begin poking at the boundaries of the possible. In fact, in moments of quiet reflection we often wonder whether a book on our life would make interesting reading.
Finally, this is the decade when most of us become parents. And God knows, if the arrival of a kid cannot put your life in perspective, nothing ever will. A child will grab your attention by the collar and force it to be in the present. Your daydreams, ruminations, and plans start receding into the background while the superfluous in your life begins to slowly melt away. Time, you realize, cannot be drawn from a bottomless well. Raising your offspring well is the bare minimum; you also begin to wonder whether your own life will be an example they would be eager to follow. This realization just cannot come earlier in your life.
So for those who want it, this decade provides the opportunity to define what we shall be known by. This moment in time is akin to the first summit after base camp where we assess the resources at our disposal and plan our future course of action. In self-knowledge and clarity, we have potent tools with which to shape our future outcomes. In a way, being in your thirties is like experiencing the first full revolution of the circle of life. Our conscious memories of childhood probably begin when our parents were the same age as we are right now. So at the same time we can not only look back and learn from the arc of their lives, but also peer ahead at a future that is within our power to create. The stars are all but aligned, my friends, and the wind is at our backs; may we sally forth with courage.