Like most people of my generation, I’m quick to say that my 20s, frankly, kind of sucked. There’s a cultural consensus that modern post-college twentysomethings are in a strange extended adolescence, full of “the contradictions and anxieties that come with being over-educated, minimally employed, mostly single, and on your own,” according to the Tumblr turned book F*ck! I’m in My Twenties. What’s less acknowledged is the moment when it all starts to turn around.
My 29th year was when things started to click for me, personally and professionally. I finally found the courage to quit a job I’d long hated and leave a city I liked even less. I was still working really hard, but felt like I was finally gaining some traction. It was around age 29 that the number of fucks I gave about other people’s opinions dipped to critically low levels. Which freed up all kinds of mental and emotional space for the stuff I was really passionate about.
I don’t think I’m the only one. The late 20s and early 30s seem to be a turning point in many modern women’s lives. For a while I’ve been taking note of creative women I admire who come into their own and start producing amazing work on the cusp of 30. Margaret Atwood and Joan Didion published their first books at age 29. Patti Smith recorded Horses at 29. Tina Fey was 29 when she was named head writer of Saturday Night Live. bell hooks published her first major work, Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, when she was 29. (No wonder everyone loves a 29-year-old.) Oprah had just turned 30 when she landed her first TV talk show. Martha Graham was 32 when she opened the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance. Diana Vreeland landed her very first job in magazines at age 33. Dorothy Parker published her first volume of poetry at 33. Almost none of the so-called greatest novels of our time were penned by writers in their 20s.
I don’t mean to imply that you are, by comparison, a failure if you’re turning 30 and have yet to create your own New York dance academy or make head writer of a venerated American TV variety show. I’m just noting that, for so many women, our 20s are a warm-up decade. Thirty is when things start to get really good. I think this has something to do with the fact that many women won’t really go for it, pour their whole selves into something and push like hell to make it work, until they’re convinced they can crush it. Creative breakthroughs and professional successes require a significant amount of confidence, which is something that most of us spend years building up.
“It seems to me that the years between eighteen and twenty-eight are the hardest, psychologically. It’s then you realize this is make or break, you no longer have the excuse of youth, and it is time to become an adult — but you are not ready,” writes Helen Mirren in her autobiography. Mirren, for all her tautness, is 69 and probably describing the dynamics of a very different generation. But she’s right about the psychological difficulty of your 20s. Women, in particular, feel pressure to make professional strides so they don’t fall behind if they have kids in their 30s — all while trying to meet a person they want to raise those babies with.
But even for women who realize they still have a lot of things to figure out, around age 30 a sense of acceptance begins to settle in. It’s when many of us experience our first big career payoffs, and allow ourselves to exhale a little because for once it doesn’t feel like we’re building our lives from scratch. On the cusp of 30 — in stark contrast with prior milestones like college graduation — you’re set up to finally start living your best life, or at least a realistic approximation of it. You realize you’ll never be a wunderkind, and you’re okay with that. In general, you give way fewer fucks.
The hard truth is that even if you manage to stop holding your life to a culturally defined timetable, other people will still try to assess your progress. “Lately, I’ve been fielding a torrent of unsolicited pep talks from older people offering me advice on turning 30,” wrote Megan Greenwell at Slate last year. “Usually, their words of wisdom boil down to ‘don’t panic about finding a man.’ But what they really mean is, ‘don’t panic about finding a man yet.’” Yes, transitioning to your 30s means transitioning to a new set of expectations and stereotypes. At this age, though, you’re so much better equipped to deal. By 30, you’ve either gotten pretty good at playing by the rules, or figured out how to sidestep them.
This is not to say entering your 30s is a magical, confident frolic through the financially secure, mid-century-decorated life you’ve built for yourself, despite what BuzzFeed lists may have told you. Even for women who don’t consider themselves particularly conventional or competitive, it’s still easy to slip into measuring your life’s progress against other people’s. To notice the younger woman at work who’s already accomplished what took us half a decade to lock down, and think, “I’m so far behind.” Or worse, “She’s gunning for me.” But all you have to do is remember the sort of insecurities you felt in your 20s and remind yourself that she probably doesn’t see herself the way you see her.
Writer Alice Munro once described your early 30s as “an age at which it is sometimes hard to admit that what you are living is your life.” I think that’s hard at any age. What gets easier with each passing decade, I suspect, is not comparing yourself to how other people are living their lives. As I age, I fully intend to give fewer and fewer fucks about how I’m supposed to be, or when I’m supposed to accomplish certain things. It frees up head space for the sort of creative thinking I’d rather be doing. Munro, of all people, should understand that this is a skill that takes time to acquire. She published her first collection of short stories when she was 37.