Last November, I tucked away an article from the Science of Us about turning 29. The article called 29 the prime What am I doing with my life? year — one where we search for meaning and reflect on the past decade as a new one approaches. Looming transitions make us sit back and think about where we were, but mostly, where we want to be.
I’m by nature a self-reflective (maybe navel-gazing) person — so knowing 29 was close offered room for pause, and even dread. In my constant churn of self-assessment and refinement, I feared being swallowed up by a pending decade change and its accompanying crisis of meaning.
Here’s the thing. I read a lot, all the time, about how your 20s suck, how they’re the most difficult decade, how they are about just scraping by and figuring yourself out as a quasi-adult who is almost worth something to the world, but not quite. Finally, you escape to 30 (with battle scars and student loans, no doubt), with a husband (+1 for a baby!) and a mortgage and a “real” job or whatever arbitrary milestones and possessions we’ve designated to signify success. Congratulations! You get to be an adult, or at least, pretend at being one.
I despise this narrative. It is frustrating and demeaning and assumes there is only one way to live out our 20s, that they are the time to muddle through versus succeed.
Maybe (I’d suggest, more likely) we’re caught in this seductive story of the terrible 20s and all the times we’ll mess up and how we’re supposed to be messed up before adulthood comes knocking. My 20s have been a long way from perfect, but life is a long way from perfect. In these nine years, I moved 10 hours from home, I finished school, I relocated to a big city, I built an unexpected but adored career, I made my dearest friendships, I gained a nephew, I learned to love my body, I met my husband, I ate over 50 Michelin stars, I traveled far and wide. With exactly one year to go, I am proud of this decade.
Today, as I turn 29, I know it will not be my year of radical transformation or rejecting the past, as I’ve read it should be. Instead, I will consider quietly where my 20s have taken me and how I want to dress their last year to welcome a new decade, 365 days from now.
I’ve changed since I turned 19, on the precipice my 20s, through experiences I have chased and others life thrust upon me. How so? I’m kinder and less rigid — an easier version of myself. I am more self confident — I know where I excel and where I flail — the things I want to learn more about, and areas of knowledge or skill that I am okay pushing aside. I’ve accepted truths about my personality. I hold myself and others to impossibly high standards, which means I have little time for nonsense or flippancy, but also that I can be intimidating and hard to know. I’m not good at small talk and social niceties, but I invest serious time and love in the people I care about, personally and professionally. I am still a perfectionist, but one defined by wanting to do my best work, not pushing myself to unyielding standards that lead to unhappiness or collapse.
One of the advantages of being a dedicated record keeper is the anthologies I have amassed to look back at who I was. Sometimes she frustrates me and sometimes I’m cheering her on. Often I smile and roll my eyes at how green she was and how much she thought she knew. Ten years from now will be the same, and ten more from then will be the same, and I hope this never changes.
While this decade has changed me, no doubt, I am the same. 19-year-old Maria was okay. Her grown up self would tell her to slow down, to let life catch up with her 1001 plans and to watch things unfold. She doesn’t realize it (nor would she ever admit it), but she eventually took my advice, and we’re both happy where this moment found her.
To 29, to growing better and to setting the table for a new decade.
[lead image: a tiny corner of my giant work cork-board, where worlds collide]