I am 30 years old.
My 20s zipped-by in a haze of bad booze and worse hangovers. And I know people say, “oh, you won’t feel any different”, but they’re wrong.
When the clock struck midnight I was hit by the dizzying sense that my life was bigger than me. I don’t know what brand of 13 Going on 30 hocus-pocus was at play, but my age suddenly seemed to hang off me like an adult’s coat off a toddler.
It’s not really worth quantifying this by saying “when I was at school, 30 seemed SO OLD”, because when I was at school, 22 seemed ancient – which just proves that children are idiots.
But unlike any other age, 30 seemed aggressively grown-up right up until the minute I reached it. And even then, even now (a month down the line), I still feel like my life doesn’t match up to the things a 30-year-old is “supposed” to own and do. There’s a little voice in my head telling me that there’s so much knowledge I should have amassed by now.
I assumed that by the time I reached the grand old age of 30, I’d be at peace, full of wisdom and on the right path, whatever that might be. I assumed that I’d get it (whatever ‘it’ is). There are many things I thought I’d know, but still don’t. Off the top of my head, here are 30 examples…
1. What constitutes success? Read a thousand self-help books and they’ll inevitably define success in a thousand different ways. Are you of the ‘lean in’ variety? Or do you prefer to ‘lean out’? Does success look like a lazy Sunday morning in bed, or a frenetic Friday of meetings and talks? Who is the face of success - Beyoncé? Malala? I can’t sing and dance like the former, and I’m not as clever or as brave as the latter.
Success, growing up, seemed as tangible as an orange. If I closed my eyes, I could hold it, I could smell it, I could almost taste it. Good grades, a degree, owning a home and having a career where I swung from one salary band to the next like Tarzan on his vines, all felt within my reach. But the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve come to wonder how money relates to success, and how ‘success’ relates to happiness.
Some of the most ‘successful’ people I know, the ones who are making a real impact on the world, and who are happy because of it, also don’t have that much money. On the flipside, the most anxious and miserable I’ve been is when I haven’t had enough money to pay my rent. Zadie Smith says that being low on cash is an ‘existential threat’, as she explains in her essay Life Writing: “When each bill hitting the mat no longer represents an existential threat you are freed from an inhibiting and oppressive form of daily fear.” Money doesn’t equal success or happiness, but it does equal stability and a sense of potential in life. And surely those feelings constitute their own form success?
2. How Brexit is going to work. I don’t have a clue.
3. Where the line is between confidence and arrogance. We’ve all met those people who are buzzing with so much self-confidence that they practically levitate. Generally, I think a bit of humility is just polite – ‘yeah, everything’s good, can’t complain’ is code for ‘my life is literally a dreamland right now, but I don’t want to rub it in’. On the flip-side, though, there is a school of thought which says that humility, when it takes the form of self-negation – i.e. when you’re constantly saying, ‘oh I’m rubbish really, this was just a massive fluke…’ – can be hugely damaging to self-esteem, mental health and career prospects. Excessive humility is also a trap that lots of women are pushed into (I say ‘pushed’ rather than ‘fall’ because countless studies have shown that women who have the same level of self-confidence as men are often perceived as overly aggressive - we often have no choice but to make ourselves slavishly humble). But still, too much confidence does just make you seem like a dick - even science says so.
4. Am I a good person who does bad things or a bad person who’s good at hiding it? No idea.
5. What to do when someone gives me directions like ‘head west…’ Do I look like I’m f**king orienteering?
6. How Ally McBeal ever got made. If you haven’t seen it… well, don’t bother. I guess you could hate-watch a few episodes, but I recommend you save yourself the mental space and just take it from me, it’s a truly awful portrayal of womanhood. It even prompted Time magazine to run their iconic ‘Is Feminism Dead?’ cover, alongside a picture of Ally’s disembodied head. It’s just so bad.
7. Protein. Even if you don’t want to turn into a giant pulsating vein, as soon as you start going to the gym a bit people are like, ‘EAT LOADS OF CHICKEN/ DRINK THESE PROTEIN SHAKES’. But according to many reports, eating too much protein is a fast-track to early death… but then, I do want to increase my muscle mass, so….
8. How much porn is too much porn? Lots of people argue that there is no such thing as ethical porn, but alongside going for a run and having a nice chat with a friend, it’s a cracking stress-reliever. As a therapist friend once pointed out, it shuts down every nit-picking voice in your head and you become laser-focused on that one thing. But as anyone who’s freelance will tell you, the temptation to succumb to that 3pm porn break can be quite overwhelming. There is a lot of research into the impact of porn on men’s brains, but scant similar research for women. Is daily too much? Weekly? Once a month? The jury is out.
9. Obscure capital cities. Also flags, US states, English counties. All that junk knowledge that’s only ever useful in a pub quiz, but that my parents always seemed to have to hand as a given.
10. The best way to poach an egg. Listen, it doesn’t keep me awake at night, but I swirl like a maniac and add vinegar and all that gumph and they still essentially explode in the pan. Why?
11. Pensions. I know that poverty in old age disproportionately affects women. But still, pensions. I’m clueless.
12. How to stop at just one. See: one episode, one chip, one (large) glass of red, one Instagram story, one KitKat finger (although maybe that’s a bad example because who cracks open a KitKat and wraps up one of the fingers to save for later? How joyless. Imagine what that person is like in bed…)
13. Whether using ‘literally’ figuratively makes me sound stupid… or whether I should embrace the linguistic ticks of my generation and just own it.
14. Whether Hamilton is a musical or an opera. I know, I know, it says ‘musical’ in the title. But I’d just like to point out that they sing (or rap) the whole bloody thing and that according to music laws, this means it’s an opera.
15. How to keep a plant alive. I have one cactus which the man in the shop assured me was practically indestructible, but even that’s looking a bit wan.
17. How to hang a picture. I don’t own a measuring tape, which I think is the first hurdle.
18. How ‘the markets’ work. But I once read that high-frequency trading will lead to another financial crash, which is quite scary.
19. The offside rule. I hate to be a cliché, but…
20. Whether I’ll ever read Middlemarch or Ulysses or Crime & Punishment. I’d like to, but when will I find the time?
21. How to answer the question ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ We all know that you can’t answer this honestly; because in an ideal world, in five years, I see myself as very rich and fat, surrounded by giant, unctuous wheels of cheese and adoring fans. I almost certainly don’t see myself sitting in this grey office, completing whatever bulls**t task I’d need to complete to do this job.
22. How to stop procrastinating … sorry, got distracted by a bee.
23. The appropriate way to be on Instagram. Here I am, cluelessly sending out information into the ether. Does anyone care? Almost certainly not. But I can’t seem to stop.
24. Fertility. Apparently you dry up as soon you turn 30. Stressful.
25. How to rewire a plug. Or, in fact, change the bulbs for the spotlights in my living room. At the moment, all but one remains - the one right over the TV. The entire living room is dark, apart from the bit above the TV, which makes it hard to see the screen properly. And every time I flick the lights on I hate myself a little bit more for being neither handy enough, nor sufficiently organised, to just sort it out.
Although, I guess, re: the plug…when would one actually be called upon to do this? In what circumstances does one re-wire a plug? What has happened to the plug for it to get into such a state? I’m not being facetious - I really don’t know. Surely you’d just buy a new appliance? Which leads me onto my next wondering…
26. If I’m not part of the solution, am I part of the problem? Take waste, for instance. No wonder landfills are overflowing if people like me are merrily throwing away kettles just because the plug needs rewiring. Add to this climate change, animal cruelty, the plight of women in the Sudan, plastic pollution, famine, the conflict in Yemen… I don’t do bad things and I believe in fairness, equality and helping others, but I also don’t do much that affects any profound positive change. I think only minimally about my carbon footprint, I eat meat and my ‘feminist activism’ only extends to the odd march (organised by someone else). Even if I’m not purposefully making the world worse, if I’m not at least trying to make it better, then isn’t that just as bad?
27. If I only take tokes on other people’s fags does that mean that I have to list myself as a ‘smoker’ on medical forms? I never buy my own…
28. What my life’s passion is. The Japanese concept of Ikigai dictates that everyone should have a reason for being. Whether that’s to become a master on the violin or climb Everest or birth-and-raise 12 children, having a thing you’re incredibly passionate about, a thing that has you springing out of bed on a Sunday morning, has been shown to improve life expectancy and even help stave off degenerative brain conditions like Alzheimer’s. The things I’m most passionate about (in no particular order) are: friends, drinks, parties, dancing at parties, chatting with friends at parties. But is being pissed with your mates an acceptable life’s passion?
29. How to change a tire. Anyone?
30. Whether what I don’t know really matters. Admittedly, there are things I’d like to have a better grasp on (pensions, climate change and so on). But, I’d hope that in 10 years time, I’m still writing about the things I haven’t figured out. In fact I’d go one step further and say, be wary of the people who tell you they’ve ‘cracked it’ (whatever ‘it’ is). According to a recent study, the more we think we know about the world, the less likely we are to be open and willing to learn.
“If you think you know a lot about something, even though you don’t, you’re less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to learn how little you know,” said study lead author Louis Marti, a Ph.D. student in psychology at UC Berkeley. And if there’s one thing we definitely don’t need more of in the next decade, it’s uninformed people who think they have all the answers.
Here’s to another 10 years of cluelessness.
This piece was originally published in September 2018