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15 Lessons From My 20s I’ll Live By In My 30s

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I spent the first waking hours of my 30th birthday, 2:00 AM to 4:00 AM, tending to my grandmother. She is visiting for Thanksgiving, staying in the guest room beneath my room. She has dementia, which, in an unfamiliar setting, was producing a psychosis. She thought there was a dead person (I think a dissociated version of herself) in the bathroom. We stayed upstairs watching a replayed mid-level college football game until I was able to get her back to sleep.

A recent study found that people are much more likely to commit certain dramatic acts – run a marathon, start an affair, suicide – at ages ending in “9”, so age 29, 39, 49, etc. The lead researcher concluded, “people audit the meaningfulness of their lives as they approach a new decade.”

I’ve always thought of my birthday as a fun but arbitrary day, so I’ve avoided such “auditing” so far. But I have appreciated writers who’ve marked the occasion by reviewing their outlook. I hadn’t thought to do the same, until I sat with my grandma through those unpleasant early morning hours. The lesson was obvious, but I’ll restate it:

The days add up. Time marches on, and these numbers (30, 40, 50…) are the boot steps. We’re not old, of course, until we are.

In other words, time may be something worth marking, especially while I’m still clear-minded. Hopefully that background gives you an idea of what you’ll find below – a few ideas I’ve come to live by as I cross into a new decade. My wish is that it might be valuable or interesting for you, too.

(1) Nothing changes when you turn 30. There’s no psychological shift. The game-changer will be having kids.

(2) It’s temping to make money and “things” into measuring sticks for our lives. Things like job titles, apartments, clothes, etc. It’s understandable but bad – to “keep score” in life is to miss the point.

(3) Amongst those well-off, most dissatisfaction comes from egoism. “Self-worth, externally defined”, is a fundamental conflict, an oxymoron. The ideal of non-attachment is a valuable heuristic to get through this.

(4) But many parts of life involve just feeling stuck. Big problems, like politics or global economics or climate change, reveal our poorer-nature and our tragedy of the commons. No matter what I do it’s unlikely I can influence these results in a meaningful way. That’s worrisome and hard, and it’s very easy to learn to ignore these feelings. But giving up here is the only unforgivable sin. The way I’ve put it with my friends, “we must still push on the righteous side of the wall.”

(5) “Success” is mostly good fortune and circumstance. If 90% of my success is the fortune of being born in Boston and not Botswana, I don’t think I deserve credit for that 90%. (I’ve written about the concept of VORP as a framework for considering how to create true value on this planet.) In other words, don’t take too much credit when we’re all just part of one big human organism. Also, whether someone believes in this precept or not predicts their political views and social behaviors.

(6) I’m a straight white dude from a privileged background. I’m not the main character in the important historical narratives of our time. The diffusion or re-ordering of power structures, the move of more and more people to Wallerstein’s “center”, increasing fairness and equality – all of these things are happening on a global scale. It’s dumb and small-minded to nitpick, as some in my position do, with the small stuff of a force bending human society towards justice. A good supporting character is an ally.

(7) I don’t have to climb as high as I possibly can. In my 20s, I focused on the career ladder. Now from a decent view, I sort of understand what it would take to get to the tippy-top, and I think I could. Until recently, it never occurred to me to ask, “Do I want to?” Looking at major CEOs, mega-entrepreneurs, 0.01%-ers, the defining trait is single-mindedness, sometimes at the expense of broad views, happy marriages, and sleep. Our society doesn’t really give much voice to anything other than unchecked ambition. But I think it’s perfectly OK to realize that that sort of implacable careerism might not be for me. It’s not a sign of lack of fortitude or ability to choose a more rounded, less outwardly ambitious life.

(8) I’m not going to become my parents. I had an awesome childhood, in the suburbs, with a stay-at-home mom. But if I predict 100 years forward – when my kids would be having grandkids – I see a more urbanized, more often double-income, more cosmopolitan world. So I need to move on from the suburban, platonic ideal of my youth and stay in a setting that is more reflective of what the future likely holds.

(9) Amateur philosophy is not of much use. I spent a lot of my college years and early 20s searching for a vague notion of “truth.” Either I’m not smart enough, or there’s no such thing. Now I work to be wise and to appreciate beauty.

(10) A deep sense of irony is one of my favorite traits in a conversation partner. But too much of that will make us sick. Taking things at face-value is fun and liberating. Don’t be a full-time critic or hater.

(11) Don’t be too mature for juvenile humor.

(12) Giving the benefit of the doubt is a happier way to be. Being suspicious all the time is both unfair and exhausting. I try to assume there’s a lot I don’t know about someone’s circumstance. This is how I want to be treated. David Foster Wallace’s speech “This Is Water” does a good job on this point.

(13) Commitment is the single most underrated value in our society. Commitment is not the opposite of freedom, but the underpinning of unconditional love. Making a true commitment – to a partner, an organization, an ideal — is the most freeing thing one can do.

(14) There will be moments more difficult than anything I’ve experienced to-date. Parents will die, kids will find trouble, a spouse may get ill. The coasts may start flooding, we may go to mega-war, our global food supply may run short. Trusting myself, and having partners and friends I trust beyond doubt, seems like the best bulwark against the inevitable moments of difficulty.

(15) Above all, I must be kind. The most important thing is that I be kind to others every moment I can. TC mark

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