Turning 30: The 15 Most Important Things I Learned in My 20s

It’s not quite a mid-life crisis, but turning 30 years old has had a profound effect on me. Looking back, here’s what my twenties taught me

Six months ago I faced the grim reality that I was about to turn 30 years old. I like to think I’m made of pretty strong stuff – I’m not a sentimentalist – so I assumed it wouldn’t affect me. I was wrong, and I’ll be frank; so far I do not like it, not one little bit.

My 30th birthday

It’s not that I’ve gone through any kind of tangible pre-midlife crisis; I just have an aching feeling that I’ve squandered my twenties. Maybe “squander” isn’t the correct word. Dawdle – that’s more suitable; I feel I spent my twenties dawdling, getting nothing of substance achieved in any particular sphere. Of course I know this is completely untrue…well, partially untrue at least. I feel I should have simultaneously toiled both more and less, to have dominated the mutually exclusive areas of work and play to such an extent that I could now look upon my life’s just-begun fourth decade as being “The Decade of Execution”; where all of life’s chess pieces are positioned perfectly and the time to strike is nigh. Alas this is very much not the case.

I’ve mulled and contemplated this list a great deal, but I doubt I’ll ever be truly happy with it, so it’s about as good as it’s going to get. In no particular order, I present the 15 most important lessons I learned during my twenties:

  1. First and foremost; I’ve gotten this far – I must be doing something right.
  2. The best plans have better backups.
  3. Sleep governs everything (Shakespeare succinctly termed it the “balm of hurt minds”). Having always been something of an insomniac I have spent my life surviving on scant amounts of sleep. Up until a couple of years ago I could survive on three hours a night, but then something weird happened – in the space of a few months I suddenly stopped being able to function while sleep deprived. I went through something of a repose menopause, and now if I don’t get at least six hours then I am a bore until my missing sleep is restored.
  4. Bite off more than you can chew, then spit some out.
  5. Use all of your holiday allowance. I estimate that in my career to date I’ve surrendered over three month’s worth of vacation days by leaving them unclaimed at the end of each work year, never to be seen again. If you work in a place that allows you to carry days over or be remunerated for them instead then that’s just dandy, but I’ve never been that fortunate. Once they’re gone they’re gone, and now I wish I’d taken every last one of them.
  6. Learn how to say “No”. From a young age we are indoctrinated into believing that “No” is a naughty word, that it is better to grin and bear things rather than actively refuse them. I don’t know how many work and social events I’ve attended over the years that I did not want to be at, but to which I was simply too polite/afraid to refuse an invitation. I’ve learnt my lesson now; if I don’t want to do it, I don’t do it, and I am a zillion times happier for it. Do things willingly, or ignore them wilfully.
  7. The sound volume of your sneezing is directly proportional to your age.
  8. Get your “Sow-to-Reap Ratio” right. At the age of 21, upon graduation from university, I vowed to make the rest of my twenties a solid period of investment; to work hard now so that I could laze about later. I estimate my twenties’ Sow-to-Reap Ratio to be 90:10. This turned out to be far too harsh, because now I feel I didn’t have enough fun during my twenties. With the benefit of hindsight the ratio should have been more like 75:25 or 70:30. I should have allowed myself more “me” time, I just didn’t live enough.
  9. Reading is the greatest hobby there is. Books are better than TV, cinema, video games and listening to music. Books are just bloody brilliant. I partake in all of the above recreational activities, but reading is undoubtedly my favourite. Read more.
  10. You don’t need to know everything.
  11. Breakfast is vital. I’ve always been a breakfast fan, but only recently have I gotten truly fanatical about how much it sets the pendulum swinging for the rest of the day.
  12. As you age your tolerance for alcohol consumption increases, but hangovers and the recovery time required afterwards also increases: you don’t get to have it both ways. I’ve never been a huge drinker, but when in the mood I’ve put away a fair bit in my time, and still I didn’t get my first proper hangover until I was 27; for the majority of my twenties I thought I was some kind of superhuman – an indestructible Captain Scarlet of spirits. How naive I was.
  13. When it comes to clothes, discover what your “style” is and what suits your body shape and skin tone, then work from there. Prioritise clothes that fit well over expensive brands, and learn to accept that some garments will just not look good on you, no matter how much you want them to. Looking good on the outside makes you more comfortable on the inside.
  14. If you preferred your school days over being at work then you’re in the wrong job. I hated school, so for me pretty much any job is better than being back there.
  15. Whatever you do in life, do your own thing.

Where Memories Reside

The sell-on value of childhood toys provides a nice little windfall

I’m in a constant process of household refinement – specifically truncation. I’m trying to reduce the physical clutter of useless possessions that make my house feel heavy. I often use the analogy of mass when describing my mission to rid my house of unneeded items; when I remove something I say that I am “reducing the weight of the house”, and enjoy the feeling that my home is steadily becoming leaner and more healthy.

Earlier this year I sold a batch of my childhood toys. As a youngster I had a fixation on farm machinery – whenever we drove past a field where a combine harvester was working I would make my dad stop the car so I could watch it doing its thing. I think I liked the gross mechanisation, the pure, unadulterated industry. This farm machinery fascination extended to the toys my folks would buy me, so it was inevitable that I would end up with quite a collection of Britains farm models (plus one or two highway maintenance guys, and a cement mixer).

Most of my childhood Britains toys

On Ebay I received a fair chunk of change for my collection, and I was happy to be rid. But it seems selling treasured childhood items isn’t for everyone, as one or two people have told me that they “would hate to sell off their memories”.

I don’t share this view. For me the memories don’t reside in the objects themselves, the objects were just the medium used to deliver memories of childhood happiness into my mind. Don’t confuse this reasoning for a lack of sentimentality; it’s an objective willingness to not cling to things that don’t have the power to create memories for me any more.

When I was seven I had my fun with them. They are play-damaged, and if they still hold value for someone then that is splendid. In selling them there are winners all round – someone else gets to enjoy them (in this case an avid collector who prizes their rarity, who will endeavour to restore them), and I get a combination of the cash, the freed space, and the satisfying knowledge that they haven’t been wasted, for to reuse is better than to recycle. They’re starting a new life somewhere.

I can think of few other things in my life that have had such a fantastic return on investment; giving hundreds of hours of joy when I was a child, and recompense as an adult now that I have passed them on. Owing to their strong construction they will, in all probability, outlive my existence on this planet. In a way, rather than them being a memory in my mind, I am a memory in theirs.

What I Gathered from Reading “The Joke”

Czechoslovakian literature makes for chin-rubbing life lessons

I have recently finished reading The Joke by Milan Kundera. I read it because I was wondering what the song Same Bastards by Shinobu was going on about, and I’m glad I heeded my curiosity, as it was a worthy read. I draw attention to one paragraph, which I think sums up the human condition in a rather tasty little morsel.

For all my scepticism, I had clung to a few superstitions – the strange conviction, for example, that everything in life that happens to me has a sense beyond itself, means something, that life in its day-to-day events speaks to us about itself, that it gradually reveals a secret, that it takes the form of a rebus whose message must be deciphered, that the stories we live in life comprise the mythology of our lives and in that mythology lies the key to truth and mystery. Is it all an illusion? Possibly, even probably, but I can’t seem to rid myself of the need to decipher my life continually.

The Joke, Part 5, Chapter 1, by Milan Kindera

The Joke, by Milan Kundera