View of Cape Town from Table Mountain, South Africa. Photo by the author.
I turn 35 tomorrow. That’s two more years than Jesus, two less than INXS’s Michael Hutchence. Age is nothing but time, and time, as Einstein so brilliantly deduced, is relative. Depending on who I’m talking to, I’m either geriatric or still wiping breastmilk from my lips (no, I don’t think that’s a very pleasant image, either).
At least one good thing about being smack dab in the middle of my 30s is that it’s the perfect time to pause and consider the years I’ve been on this earth, reflect on the life I’ve been given, and assess the direction I’m headed. You only think you know what’s going on in your 20s, and by the time you’re in your 40s, everyone expects you to have figured everything out. Your 30s, then, is a sort-of buffer zone where you’re pretty much sticking to a life plan, but still given enough wiggle room to make mistakes, adjust goals, and even change course.
It’s also a time when you can choose to share significant life lessons and realizations and not be so quickly dismissed. With age comes experience and while it may not be as extensive as someone who’s in the half-century mark or older, there is value in your words, because, believe it or not, you’ve earned it.
Here then are a few of the things I’ve learned after 35 years on this planet:
- The only person you need to be at any age is yourself.
Of course I’m paraphrasing Troy Dyer (if you don’t know who Troy Dyer is, never mind), but that doesn’t make it any less true. People put other people on a pedestal and practically kill themselves emulating their best qualities, hoping to gain similar achievements, or maybe even surpass them. But in truth, life hands out different fortunes to everyone. While one person is a millionaire at birth, countless others will never experience wealth until they die of old age. Some of us struggle and toil, while others “ride their own melt,” simply hoping for the best.
Occasional jokes aside, I have no hang-ups about my age. I’m very aware that some of us left the starting line much earlier, and others much later. Everyone is negotiating life’s autobahn, and the sooner we realize that cars will forever be in front of and behind us, that we will never be first or last at anything, the sooner we can relax and drive at our own pace.
- It’s okay to break up with friends.
If you’ve kept the same set of friends since kindergarten, consider yourself lucky. When it comes to relationships, the stars align so rarely that it’s become something truly special when you keep people in your life for any significant period of time. But I’ve found that it’s okay to let go, of things, as well as people. Just because you shared a table during lunch in the second grade, or made fun of the same girl’s dress during high school, or went out drinking all night where you shared your deepest, darkest secrets to each other, doesn’t mean you’re bound for life. You choose the people you want to spend your most precious time with outside of family or profession, so they might as well be people you like and who like you.
I’ve had my share of break-ups with friends. It’s not easy, and feels unnatural at times. It’s not like breaking up with a significant other, where things are more defined: you see each other, and then you don’t. The times I cut people out from my life were the times I’ve had enough and didn’t want to put up with their shit anymore. I consider myself a patient, levelheaded guy; it takes an enormous amount of asshole-ry to get me riled up enough to drop years of association and forget any semblance of attachment. Choose people who are inherently good, who will not abuse your generosity, who are themselves selfless and kind, and, most of all, people who will encourage you to be the best person you can possibly be. Don’t give up on people too easily, but when your happiness, not to mention your sanity, are at stake, you may need to rethink the people who occupy prominent billing in your life story.
- Your dreams are your own. Don’t let others dictate your desires.
It’s so easy to get distracted by everything thrown at us through TV, movies, magazines, and social media. We see or hear something, and before we know it, we’re starting to yearn. There’s nothing bad about that; desire is healthy as it keeps us running towards a goal. But make sure it’s what YOU want. Don’t wish for a hula hoop just because you saw someone on the playground with it, especially when what you really want is a bicycle.
People dream of things for themselves all the time—a new car, a house, a wife/husband and/or kids. A better job, a week in Paris, new shoes. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something that you truly want for yourself. Be happy for friends who get married, buy that bungalow inside a gated subdivision, or finally get that much-coveted green card, but if these aren’t your dreams, don’t spend your life chasing after them. Focus on your own needs and wants because life is too short to try to win other people’s trophies.
Hong kong skyline at night. Photo by the author.
- Take care of your body, but don’t be your own slave.
Dissatisfaction with our looks has reached epidemic levels. If you don’t believe me, think about the last time you hesitated getting dessert because of all that extra calories, or the time you splurged on a new pair of jeans because it was flattering to your figure, or how much you agonized about posting that photo because, well, you weren’t sure if you looked your cutest.
I can’t presume to know what goes on in the mind of someone who has had to struggle with weight issues as, thankfully, I’ve never had that problem (although I have been told on more than a few occasions that I was “too thin” or getting dangerously “too plump”). But what I know for sure is that I’ve never had to deprive myself of anything in the name of dieting. I’m aware that practically all the science says that one needs to eat right and engage in some form of regular physical activity to be considered healthy, and I’m not disputing that. But the moment we let this obsessive need to look good in order to gain the approval of others occupy our every waking thought, is the moment we let go of our individuality and become nothing more than drones whose idea of happiness and contentment is hinged on how many “likes” our latest profile photo gets on Facebook.
- Never believe your own hype.
A healthy dose of self-confidence is essential. Who else will believe in us if we don’t believe in ourselves? But there is a difference between faith in our capabilities, and overstating our competencies. One is walking calmly onstage during a singing tilt, head held up high, knowing you’re ready to belt out that piece you’ve been practicing for weeks; the other is telling everyone that no one else in the competition is at your skill level.
I’ve never thought I was good enough at anything and am genuinely surprised when people appreciate, even celebrate, almost anything I’ve done. I know I need to work on that. But I’ve always thought it was better to err on the side of humility. Confidence can so easily morph into arrogance. How you respond to compliments is a good barometer of your personality. I’ve found that people who think too much of themselves are generally those with unresolved self-esteem issues. It’s something to keep in mind the next time someone’s being an ass.
- Doing more for others is actually doing yourself a favor.
The great thing about being more giving is that it provides you with perspective you would otherwise not be able to get. It’s no secret that I’ve grappled with depression. One thing that helped me get through it is focusing on the things that I have in my life that I am grateful for. And although it sounds a little morbid and mean, the gratitude only intensified when I realized how little many other people have.
I’m not rich (far, far, from it), and I come from a simple family, but we live in a country where beggars on the street are a common sight, where people live in wooden shanties beside polluted rivers, and where hunger is a serious issue. The moment we stop to give more of ourselves to others is the moment we understand how privileged we truly are. It works both ways, too: try focusing on everything in your life that you don’t have, and you’ll soon realize that you’ll never, ever have enough.
- Reading books and listening to music is never a waste of time.
This one is pretty much self-explanatory. I haven’t read nearly enough books as I would’ve liked to this year, but music has been a constant presence. At this point in my life, weeding out non-essential people is as simple as asking them whether they like to read or listen to music. If the answer to either is “no,” then I can already tell we won’t have a lot in common.
Books and music are also a good way to expose yourself to the experiences of others and figuring out what you can use in your own life. Because no matter how unique you think your life is and how spectacularly interesting things have happened to you, chances are, someone else has gone through the exact same thing and have written or sung about it better than you can possibly imagine.