Turning 31 is pretty unremarkable when compared to the milestones of, say, 21 or 30, but with each passing birthday, each year has a theme unlike the last.
Thirty years is a lot of time, and it’s a broad enough range to see numerous trends, both advancements and declines. For me, it’s been noticing the intricacies of the seasons, the nuances of each decade, and the mind-boggling rise of technology from floppy disks to ChatGPT. Time not only builds a perspective but also widens the reference point.
The thirties have also felt like an ambiguous stage in life where you’re not considered old or young, and society slaps you with the label of adult and says, “Alright, it’s time to get your act together.”
But what does it actually mean to be an adult? Is it a level of responsibility? Buying a house? Back pain? Okay, yes, by law, in most of the US, you’re an adult at 18, but does anyone truly feel like an adult at that age? I certainly did not.
Even with society drawing such explicit lines for this term, I feel that being an adult is more of a mindset, an intentional shift in how a person navigates the world. It’s an awareness that you’re solely responsible for the sequence of choices that lead one to the next. ‘Adulting’ is a lifelong progression of learning, failing, and figuring out the journey ahead.
Every birthday, I review my past year and the activities, moments, and choices I made. Instead of taking a recap approach with this article, I’m sharing areas that I struggle with and continue to work on. All of which are centered around decision-making and making better choices.
If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I shared in the past about perfectionism and its double-edged effect on creativity. It’s been a gradual process of re-wiring my brain, which for so long has been mired by the process of seeking perfection and getting only disappointment. Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, points out that getting anything down on paper, no matter how crappy is the first step:
“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.”
When it comes down to working on a project, an art piece, a song, or a story, any progress is good progress. And it’s not that I think striving for perfection is bad, but when it begins to interfere with the flow of ideas, then it becomes an issue. It takes a diligent eye to know when the perfectionist side is starting to take over. As David Foster Wallace, in an interview, describes this balance, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”
Whenever there’s a hard or intimidating task, the mind has a tendency to raise its warning flags and declare, “Oh no! This is not good! Avoid! Avoid!”
But how much potential is left untapped if difficult things are always avoided?
During my first marathon, I was moments away from dropping out of the race. Reaching halfway, I stopped and hid in a port-o-potty dealing with GI issues, fatigued legs, and a head filled with frustration. I took off my race bib and decided I was done.
Yet, with the demoralizing feeling of failure, there was a little thought that arose in my head, and it slowly became more prevalent. You can finish this.
I didn’t want to listen to this thought, but the more time passed, the thought lingered and grew in my mind until it finally convinced me to at least give it a try. After ten or so minutes, I stepped out of the port-o-potty, clipped my bib back on, and returned to the course, trudging through the last half of the race, slowly taking it mile by mile. It was extremely painful, and there were still more points where I considered dropping out again, but I kept telling myself, I can get this done.
After what felt like a lifetime, I crossed the finish in disbelief.
Despite the slow result, this race reminded me how much the mind affects my decisions and surroundings. I didn’t think I could ever finish a marathon, but after slowly checking off the miles, I actually did it.
The mind can obscure potential with a facade of uncertainty, worry, and fear. But just as the mind can be powerful in avoiding tough things, it can be equally persistent in pursuing them.
One of my favorite ultrarunners, Courtney Dauwalter, describes the mental journey of pushing your potential as the pain cave.
“[Being in the pain cave is] not always going to feel great, but that’s going to make us better. We’re going to get better from visiting it.”
Okay… Okay… I know this mainly pertains to running, but this has applications in many other fields too. Making a film, writing a book, building a shed, or having a difficult discussion the list goes on...
“When it feels scary or sounds too hard, that’s the thing we should probably try to do.” – Courtney Dauwalter
The older I get, the more I realize the importance of the little moments, the quiet times where I am fully present.
Often, much of my time is consumed with rushing to the next thing, worrying about this or that, my mind fixated on the future. Even while writing this, I get distracted thinking that I need to send an email, do this errand, or finish the myriad of other tasks that I need to get done. Worse, this future fixation has been during times with family, and friends, robbing myself of the joy of being present, moments I will never get back.
Mr. Rogers's Emmy acceptance speech is a powerful reminder of just taking a moment to be present and have appreciation. While on stage, he asks the audience to pause, stop, and take a moment to appreciate the present moment and the people that got them here:
“Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.”
Some of the most special moments in life occur during peaceful moments—times when we are completely focused and present and when we are surrounded by those we hold dear. I try to constantly remind myself that not only is my time limited but that the present holds a special value.
Being an adult is a lot like being lost in the woods with only the torn remains of a map. It’s up to you to figure things out, and you’ll never have all the answers, but each step gets you closer to discovering what is best for you.
Like I said, 31 is nothing special, but it’s another year and another chance to pave the way to smarter and more intentional choices. Focusing on action over perfection, seeking the hard and scary steps, and embracing stillness are all areas that I hope to continue to get better at. What are some areas for you? We can all learn, especially from each other. Let’s share what pushes us forward and makes us better collectively.