When I turned thirty a few years ago, I panicked and wore black for a week. However, the fear of losing my youth was not what kept me up at night, but the disappointment that I was still living an unsettled life. While I watched my friends and relatives live the societal ideal of graduating college, building a career, getting married and having kids, I was still trying to find myself. As my birthday drew nearer and passed, I became obsessed with one question: Had I wasted my time all these years?
Five years earlier, I had finished graduate school with a master’s in international relations and thought my future was bright and going somewhere. I was twenty-five then and made arrangements to return to the same east coast city I attended college. The plan was simple: I would move in with two old college friends who were co-habituating, quickly find a job in a humanitarian NGO or nonprofit and start living a fabulous life.
Predictably, my life did not go according to plan. I moved to the city after September 11 when most charities and nonprofits were implementing hiring freezes and facing shrinking budgets. Outside year-long paid internship with a publication, I spent two of the next three years either unemployed, temping, waitressing or struggling to make ends meet. During the periods of unemployment, I spent most days sitting on the couch, with my roommates’ cat curled up next to me, watching a corny, melo-dramatic, Lifetime movie where Joanna Kerns was being beaten up by her alcoholic husband.
I would allow myself to become absorbed in the predictable plotline to avoiding crying over: the 100 resumes I sent out which received no replies; the rent due in five days which I couldn’t afford; and fielding daily phone calls from my mother lecturing me about “networking;” and not being hired by a prospective employer because I was “overqualified.”
Socially, my life was not progressing well either. Although I enjoyed spending time and going out with my old college friends, drama and conflict was common place. A week would not go by without an argument breaking out. Also, I was perpetually single and seemed only to attract odd male specimens, perfect guys with no chemistry, or dysfunctional guys with chemistry. This probably would not have bothered me so much, except I was living with a relatively, happy co-habituating couple and it seemed like everyone around me was getting engaged.
After three years, I reluctantly made the decision to move back to my home state and in with my parents. Logically, I knew this was the right decision because my career was going nowhere, and my social life had grown stale. At the same time, I felt like the ultimate failure: I was twenty-eight, unemployed, single, had $300 to my name and all worldly possessions fit into my parents’ truck.
Despite my doubts, I soon realized that moving home was a wise choice. Although I missed my old life, I was pleasantly surprised how quickly my circumstances seemed to improve. Within weeks of moving back, I met a guy who would be my on again off again boyfriend for the next two years. I was able to find gainful employment both in the family business and elsewhere. After eleven months of living with my parents, I had enough money saved to move in with my best friend.
By the time I turned thirty, I knew I had come a long way in two years, but still felt my life was in limbo. Although I was happily living with my best friend and had landed a lucrative job as an executive assistance, I was still concerned that I had not yet found a “career.” Furthermore, I had just broken up with my boyfriend for the final time and was heartbroken. I still felt like a failure.
A week after my thirtieth birthday (I had resume wearing color by then); I had dinner with my parents and, afterwards, shared my feelings of discontent with my mother. My mother listened very carefully and swiftly told me, “Snap out of it! Stop being so hard on yourself!” she advised. “Think about how your life has improved during the past two years. If you have learned from your mistakes and improved your life, accordingly, then you have been successful.”
I thought her words of wisdom for a long time and took inventory of what I had learned during the past five years—from the insignificant to the profound. For instance, I knew I never wanted to be roommates with a couple again and preferred cats over dogs. I realized that getting married does not indicate a stable relationship. I learned to be more assertive in the workplace and how to ask for what I want. I learned returning home to live at twenty-eight isn’t the worse thing in the world- for a year anyway. I learned that friends can be your family and your family can be your friends. I learned you can fall in love with someone who truly sees you for you, but that doesn’t guarantee you will be with that person forever. I realized my true career aspirations of entering a helping field and started making plans to return to graduate school.
If we are to use my mother’s definition, I was a success at thirty. Despite my many disappointments, I had evolved into a stronger, more confident person whose main priority was to be good person and live life well. Hence, I spent less time comparing myself to others, obsessing about my shortcomings or trying to please people. Instead, I started to pursue my artistic endeavors, which I abandoned long ago, such as writing, singing, acting and painting. I focused my energy on the people I love, living in the moment, fulfilling my life’s purpose, being open-minded and respectful to others, as well as learning at every opportunity. For once, I was excited about my life and could finally appreciate that I didn’t get everything I wished for.