1. Your parents usually knew what they were talking about.
When I was in my teens and early 20s, I harbored an intense suspicion that my parents never knew what they were talking about. I still occasionally harbor this suspicion on matters of rap music and politics, but the once-hated phrase of “you’ll understand when you’re older” finally rings true.
In high school, “be yourself” sounded like terrible dating advice. Now it’s the only advice worth listening to. In college, “start saving now” seemed pointless when there was beer to be bought. Now I would very much prefer to have had fewer and less-expensive beers in exchange for a few extra bucks each month.
Unfortunately, there are some things which you can only learn through experience. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re a teenager, but it gets obnoxiously true when you’re entering your fourth decade.
2. There’s no such thing as an adult.
In your late 20s, all of your friends will suddenly start getting married. Around the time you’re turning 30, they will start having kids. These people — who are now in charge of infants — are the people you remember publicly urinating, participating in power hours, and dancing on bars.
Here’s the thing: they’ll still do that sometimes. Remember when your parents left you with a babysitter as a kid? Yeah, there’s a decent chance they did something ridiculous and possibly illegal while you were playing checkers and Mario Kart and going to bed a half an hour before your usual bedtime. There’s no age where the “adult” switch suddenly flips on. You will always be a little bit of a child.
3. People who think fun stops after college are completely wrong.
I can’t count the number of times I heard in college that these “were the best years of our lives.”
This is horseshit. College was fun, but it was a mess. I was still basically a teenager. I was insecure, I was often awkward, and I made just an insane amount of bad decisions. My later 20s, though harder in many ways, were frequently as fun and always more fulfilling than my college years.
Nostalgia is fine, but only so long as it doesn’t get in the way of you enjoying your life now. My 20s were great, but my best days are ahead of me.
4. “Selling out” isn’t as terrible as you think.
As a writer, I still harbor a fear of turning into some sort of hack ad copywriter. My friends who work in politics speak in whispers about turning to “the dark side,” and switching from a public servant to a much-better-paid corporate lobbyist.
At 30, most of us are still fighting hard against “selling out.” But now that I’ve lived as a starving writer, I understand succumbing to the financial relief of taking on some quick ad copywriting jobs. I don’t blame my friends who become lobbyists in order to support their families. I still don’t want to sell out my integrity, but I understand giving in to that temptation, and I’m no longer as judgmental towards the people who do. It’s easy to be poor and idealistic in your early 20s. It’s much less easy when you’re thinking about raising a family.
5. You’ll never understand everything, you’ll never experience everything.
My 20s were spent trying to experience everything. I visited 37 countries and countless cities. I ate new foods that I correctly guessed would give me food poisoning. I tried new beers even when I knew they weren’t what I really liked.
I’m glad I did all of these things. But now I know the truth: I will never see everything. There’s simply too much. There’s not enough time. At 30, the need to be selective with what you spend your life on arises. Mortality is still a long way off, but it’s not quite so far as it was at 20.
6. Being a good person has less to do with knowledge than wisdom.
Along the same lines, I spent my 20s trying to learn everything I possibly could. My heroes were people like Christopher Hitchens, who seemed to have read every great book and studied every great historical event. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that I realized that, well-read as Hitchens was, he did not know everything, and that being insanely literate didn’t stop him from believing some tremendously stupid things, like “women aren’t capable of being funny,” and “the Iraq War was a good idea.”
A piece of knowledge is perhaps best thought of as a brick. Wisdom is the blueprint that tells you where that brick ought to be placed in order to make a sturdy house. Simply having a lot of bricks doesn’t do you much good without a blueprint.
30 is also the age where humility starts to sink in a bit: Hamlet said it best: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
You are your own project. Know your strengths. Know your limitations. Have a plan. That’s the lesson of 30.