thinking out loud
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Life lessons I’ve learnt by 33

Before my 33rd birthday earlier this year, I wanted to write something smart like “33 life lessons I’ve learnt by 33”, but couldn’t get past 15 without going into a mental meltdown. It didn’t feel right to force myself to state the obvious just because I wanted to hit a certain number. I mean, at 33, I know better than to say things just for the sake of saying things because that’s what I did in my twenties. It never impressed anyone then, so why would it now?

So I relaxed, poured a glass of wine and pondered – what did I learn that I would gladly teach my younger self? Not that my younger self would listen, but…

30 is not the new 20

Getting older and old is uninspiring, and I can perfectly understand why no 20-something wants to think about building a lifelong career, getting serious about a relationship or opening a savings account, when they’ve just broken free from parents and teachers. I was that 20-something myself and I wanted to enjoy life before I became a boring adult who thinks about mortgages, children and pension.

But think about those things you must, because what you do in your 20s catches up with you later, and so they matter. Really matter.

Dr Meg Jay gave a great Ted speech a few years ago, where she argued that 20-somethings must treat their young adulthood seriously, because “80 per cent of the life’s most defining moments take place by the age of 35. That means that 8 out of 10 of the decisions and the experiences and ‘aha’ moments that make your life what it is will have happened by your mid-30s.” I could not talk about the ’30 is not new 20’ topic better than her, so see the full video below.

There is an argument that her speech is too heavy because she practically says that you have to do and achieve this, this, and that before you’re 30, and that is impossible and frankly unnecessary for most people because everyone is different. I hear that, but I believe her point is deeper than that – you have to start making conscious rather than right decisions as soon as you can, about your career, about your relationships, about your future.

I know from my own experience how much harder it is to change the course of life once you blow those 30 candles on your birthday cake. With years of marketing experience, I can’t just decide to start a new career in, say, logistics. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it is much harder because I’d need to rewire myself and compete with a whole new generation that is ready, willing and able to take that first logistics job with lower salary expectations. My single 30-something friends find it harder to find someone to date let alone settle down with because the pool of available partners becomes drier than it was in their 20s. Saving for deposit in your 30s is a much more depressing experience – ok, I live in London, where people in their 40s are still saving, but my point is that starting to save as soon as you can helps secure a brighter future.

20s are great. It’s the decade of most fun and least commitments, but it’s also the decade that cements the foundation of the rest of your life. You know what happens to houses with rubbish foundations. So build yours with care.

Your body begins to change.

Younger readers, I have two news for you. Wrinkles and grey hairs are real, and that’s bad news. There is good news, however: good skincare routine and hair dye can delay and cover those signs of ageing, so you may still need to show an ID when you buy alcohol.

But there’s another change creeping over everyone that may go unnoticed for years, and that is: your body begins to slow down in your late 20s, and unless to keep it healthy and active, it will show.

I am, for example, naturally slim, and in my 20s I struggled to gain weight when I needed to. Pasta and cakes late in the evening would just swoosh through me like they never happened. Not anymore. They stay on my stomach and thighs unless I shoo them away with exercise. It was an arduous mental challenge to accept that keeping active and watching my diet in my 30s is not some fads preached by Cosmopolitan but a necessity.

No one gets fat and unhealthy overnight, it takes months and years of body negligence. I’m not talking about clinical cases of obesity and I’m not preaching about some perfect body image, but I’m certain that everyone has their own body shape they’re most comfortable with. And when that shape begins to change over the years – because it does! – you will have to decide if you want to live in someone else’s body or if you push yourself to stay in yours.

There’s nothing wrong with comfort zones.

Speaking of being comfortable. There is this mantra drilled into everyone’s heads that real life begins outside of your comfort zone, so you have to kick yourself out there.

And it’s not wrong, just look at the history of the humankind: we went from the comfort of living up in the trees to learning to walk upright, then to building shelters, then to farming lands and animals and so on, until recently when we learnt to build rockets to push people as far out of their comfort zones as the Earth’s orbit.

What is wrong, however, is how literally people interpret “get out of your comfort zone” and walk away from the job that begins to feel dull, from the relationships where passion ceases, from the familiar environment that no longer seems challenging. After the premiere of ’50 shades of Grey’, there was news of wives leaving their husbands of 20+ years, when the ideas to spice up their sex lives ‘and be more like Christian Grey’ prompted less spousal enthusiasm than hoped.

There are jobs, relationships and environments that lead nowhere, and it’s best to change them before they drag you down into decades of misery and unfulfillment. But there’s a difference between walking away from what you know will never make you happy and walking away from what you think had become less exciting when you first started.

I’ve been married to my husband for 4.5 years. When we first began to date six years ago, we lived in different countries. Our meetings and partings in the airports were much more romantic and emotional than the routine of weekly food shopping now that we live together. But would I change the comfort of sneaking under my husband’s arm to watch Netflix together for the floods of feelings a new relationship might bring? Not in a million years.

There are people and things that make us comfortable – that cosy jumper with scruffs, that sofa with a dent in the middle, that old friend who always makes us laugh. Just because something is comfortable doesn’t make it wrong. Comfort zones are different, and no one should leave theirs just because a poster in a hipster coffee shop says they should.

We all need people and things in our lives that don’t push us anywhere but instead help us keep our feet on the ground.

We all go our different ways.

Until about 20, we share big life moments with our friends at more or less the same time – the first day of school, first kiss, first day at University – and it conceives this idea that everyone’s life follows the same timeline. Then the 20s happen, and suddenly there’s no such thing as “the right time to [insert whatever]”: some get married and have children before they even graduate, others become hedge fund investors and buy their first home by 25, there are also those whose ‘gap year to see the world’ extends indefinitely and so on.

And then there’s you: single, still living with your parents and still in an internship and too poor to buy a Ryanair ticket for a short weekend away. Is there something wrong with you? No.

It takes time to recognise and accept that everyone goes their own way and there are many paths to happiness.

I’m Russian, and my parents were the victims of the Soviet propaganda of a properly happy life: you do well in school, then go to a University where you meet your future spouse, you two get married and start a family, then get a job (or rather, get appointed to a job by your loving government) where you work for 35-40 years until you retire. And then you die. Anything different was anti-social and punishable. When my mother was still single at 23, she thought something was seriously wrong with her and because she was petrified that she was running out of time, she married the first good man she met. My father is a good man, don’t get me wrong, but ours was a loveless family that fell apart as soon as more liberal ideas about life and happiness became popular.

There’s no universal checklist you need to tick off as you get older. The road to happiness is different for everyone, and just because someone walks slower or faster doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your pace. You’re fine. Keep walking.

Success is a mix of luck, decision and action.

The reason a lot of people do not recognise opportunity is because it usually goes around wearing overalls looking like hard work,” – Thomas A. Edison.

Where you are is where you’ve decided to be. And because indecision is also a form of decision, sometimes people end up in sad places if they don’t act on the chances life throws at them (a.k.a. luck).

No one can control when opportunities come – when that dream job posting pops up or when that great guy walks through the door. But when they do, everyone can seize them or find excuses to let them slip away. I know people from both sides, those who claim their luck and roll up their sleeves and those who believe that life will provide and they only need to wait for that jackpot to fall into their hands. The ‘claimers’ are much further ahead in life than the ‘waiters’, and the distance only grows with time.

Luck means nothing without decisions and actions. The older I get, the better I see that my current place in life has been defined by a mix of ‘the right place, the right time’ moments and my decisions to act on them or not. Some of those actions and decisions were stupid, naive and wrong, but they were mine. Looking back, I’m grateful that I have never let myself drift somewhere but captained my way.

Successful people aren’t lucky, they’re proactive and decisive. Go get lucky now.

This entry was posted in: thinking out loud

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Hello! Whatever brought you to my blog, I hope you found something interesting to read. Writing to me is more than just sharing my throughts with the world, it's my way to make sense of my own thoughts in the first place. There's something about putting my mind to words that make things simpler and easier, and I think it shows in my posts. Occasionally, I write about lifestyle things, but more often I 'think out loud'. A little bit about me: I usually describe myself as 'a Russian, living in London with a British husband and working on Spanish brands in a French company'. It's as fascinating as it gets because I'm just your normal 30-something young woman trying to enjoy life as much as possible. Happy reading, Elena HJ

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