I recently turned thirty-one, so this piece of reflection has been long time coming. The fact that it took me more than a year to churn this post out says something about the event itself – turning thirty comes with no shock. There is no thunder or lightning, you don’t throw a stone at your mirror and crack it, you don’t wear black and mourn (as I had originally planned to do). It just comes and goes, and you continue to lead your life without really grasping the gravity of the event. Then again, if you are not grasping the gravity, maybe there IS no gravity to it in the first place?
On one of the myriad midnight calls I received on my thirtieth birthday, a friend of mine sang a song called “Turning thirty” for me. My only response was – “There is such a song?!”. We thirties have royally taken over the limelight from the poor sweet-sixteens. No one talks about turning sixteen anymore. Nowadays, people kind-of live their sixteenth year much earlier in their lives. Instead, as our worlds grow wider, distant things come closer, opportunities become more numerous, dreams get wilder, turning thirty is the new benchmark, the milestone, the yardstick by which we evaluate our current state of life and make projections for the future. I have had innumerable conversations in the last year about this very subject. Whenever I tell people my age, they express surprise, encouragement, even consolation. Some don’t know how to react – is it a happy event or sad event? They look around for help. Most conversations, however, end with the same statement – “Anyhow, it’s just a number”. Oh yes? If it is, then why did we spend the last fifteen minutes talking about it? Let’s face it – for reasons both internal and externally cultured by society, turning thirty IS quite an event.
Philosophically, this phase is probably the best and the worst time of our lives. By “phase”, I mean the late twenties and early thirties (27-33), because clever people get into the state of mind a few years before thirty, and foolish people (yes, the same person is capable of both) retain that state of mind long past the unit’s digit has crossed zero. Also, here, I speak primarily for myself, and maybe for those who share, in parts, my sensibilities and maybe even my lifestyle. I’m quite sure the experience is very unique for every person.
This is the best time simply because we’ve lived through the twenties. The twenties is our first taste of adulthood; it is when we move out of the framework of our parents, learn to earn our bread, learn our needs, our priorities, our likes and dislikes. Through this tumultuous decade of learning, by the time we’re thirty, we suddenly go from “learning” to “knowing”. And that is a very empowering feeling. To just “know” yourself well enough, to know your strengths, your weaknesses, your achievements, your failures, your dreams, what you’re ready to settle for, what you’re ready to fight for. Contrary to popular belief, we spend lesser time in front of the mirror trying to look a certain way because we intuitively know what we look good in, what we can pull off. We are calmer, more sporting about jokes on us, less tolerant of things we consider against our principles. We are ready to not make compromises, and when we do make them, we know why we are doing so. Personally, this phase has also seen a tremendous boost in relationships with parents, family and friends because knowing myself better has helped me understand others better. Also personally, this phase came with the liberating feeling of not having to keep up with a certain image I had painted for myself earlier or others had painted of me, to not live up to any expectations but my own, to not have to prove any point to anyone through anything I do. The feeling is inexplicable, the euphoria is addictive, the energy is infectious. Finally, and perhaps the most empowering knowledge is that of life always being in a state of transition. When we are younger, we tend to push for a finality, a climax, a “happily ever after” – the end of final exams will bring the summer vacation, graduation will bring a job, relationship will lead to the grand wedding. By the time we enter this phase, we begin to realize that the finality we worked so hard for was only there to stay a while, and there are now newer challenges, newer experiences, newer climaxes to achieve. There is also a tinge of reality in our high-flying dreams, knowing full well by now that life finds quirky ways of extracting a price out of every high and cushioning every low.
An anecdote will explain this better. Recently, I changed jobs. When I finally decided on what to take up next, I informed friends and family across all ages. The teenagers asked if it was a good brand name, the twenty-somethings asked if the salary was good, the forty-somethings asked if there was a promising career path, the fifty-somethings and above were just happy that I’d found something I wanted to do next. Only the thirty-somethings asked – “So what exactly will you be doing?”. That’s what this phase does to us – it makes us think of the WHAT because by then we’ve figured out the WHY but we’re still unsure about the HOW. We tend to look more closely into the content and the quality of every experience. We tend to assess if everything is worth the while, even if it means the return on investment is just plain happiness. We just need to know that!
Now for the worst. Let’s start with the shallowest. For people who care about how they look, this phase is quite an eye-opener. The early-twenties, I do believe this firmly, is when we look our best, because it comes without trying. There is a certain glow to our appearances, a certain dazzle in our smiles. By thirty, no matter how young or how fashionable or how ravishing we are, it just takes a slideshow of photographs from a decade ago to know that we are not our previous selves. For some more than others, this is a constantly gnawing fact in our heads. For no apparent reason, it comes as a revelation (like we did not know this!) and goes on to become disappointment and further on to depression (not clinical, except for maybe some). This is representative and symbolic of why this phase is also the worst. The revelation does not stop at looks. We realize that we have so much more to do with our lives, and while we feel inspired and energized by our self-awareness, we also know that there is a clock ticking somewhere. We intuitively know that turning forty is a totally different ball-game. It might bring a lot more success, a lot more money, a vibrant family life, a scale and range of a different league altogether. But still – we know it won’t be the same! Therefore, we know that if we are still to be our much-dreamed-about “young and successful” selves, whatever it means for each of us, we only have a few more years to go. I see people deal with this in different ways. Some begin the eventual process of reconciliation and start striking things off their lists, some recalibrate what they mean by success and discover new definitions of achievement, some go into a frenzy to make things happen (personal and professional), some just sit back and let life take its own twists and turns. But whatever our method of dealing with this, it is true that we are constantly living in that full knowledge of the ticking clock, and that is not a very easy place to be in.
It is funny that even as I write this, I know that a decade from today, I will read this and laugh at its naivete. I know by then, I will have seen and learned and experienced so much more that my philosophies will have undergone a tremendous transformation. But that’s the beauty of being thirty – the fact that I KNOW this. A decade ago, I did not say this. In fact, what I would think when I am thirty was not even a subject of cogitation.
I’m trying to find a fitting end to this article, but I guess there is no end. It is just a process. Until we move on to the next article then, so long!