The week following my 29th birthday I began to think obsessively about the final year of my twenties, the approach of a new decade in my short window on the earth, and how I was shaping up to all the expectation of turning 3-0. I walked to the Watertown Public Library and wandered the vast rows of biographies, looking for some new incredible standard of a person I could compare myself to.
Nolan Ryan? No, I never was a big baseball fan, and besides, I’m generally skeptical of people with two first names. Hilary Clinton? Nah, probably too political (notice how I refrained from millions of possible punch-lines there?). John Adams? I saw the HBO series in preparation for my move to Boston a few years ago… pretty much have his entire life down now. Plus, that book is so thiiiick…
I left the library without a new book in hand, but when I returned home, I spent another hour searching Amazon for something with the age “30” in the title. Not ready to make the commitment of a purchase, the next day it was back to the library to pick up a newly reserved copy of 30 Things to Do When You Turn 30, a series of essays from thirty different authors and their personal take on reaching the monumental age. The font was printed at a magnified size that caused me to review the cover and confirm that I hadn’t checked out a “large letter” copy. What does this suggest about the thirty-year-olds that are meant to be reading this stuff?
As it turned out, there were a few good stories in the book, and some even more impressive mini-biographies about the contributors telling them. You know, the type of background stories in which you end up comparing yourself to the age at which the incredible person founded their groundbreaking company or wrote their first Billboard single or lost their right arm in a ski accident before becoming a famous artist. In general, the book read like Chicken Soup for the 30-Year-Old’s-Soul. I mostly found myself shocked by my own all-too-familiar tendency to contrast my success with other people’s.
I’m not sure where exactly the impulse comes from, but it seems to be shared with most of my peers, many of whom have recently hit thirty or will soon do so. Whatever the case, it seems like we should have something great to show for ourselves. Settled deep into a dynamic career, raising a few little munchkins, or at the very least, maintaining a decent knowledge of self. Why is it, then, that we never seem to live up to the self-inflicted hype? Is it that maybe we actually shouldn’t?
I was cruising Facebook some time ago, catching up on other people’s lives as told in witty <100 character sound bytes. Ahhh Facebook. It’s the perfect proponent for unnecessary comparison. At least in its imaginary world people can put their best foot forward for all to see… and judge. There are so many words that simply add to the already cluttered Internet. And still, everyone has those “friends” who expose themselves rarely enough to still spark interest. Many of the “friends” I’ve blocked out of sheer “update exhaustion” could learn from these standard-setters. Therein lies my friend Neil.
Neil is one of those people who is clearly smart even before you see his test scores (which, by the way, thoroughly prove the point). He wears his curly dark hair with Einstein similarity (or as he prefers, the “eccentric designer” look), though not for that reason. He’s got small, perfectly circular glasses he pushes back up his nose with an occasional flare of the nostrils or squinting of the eyes.
I used to think that everyone who had glasses was smart. That’s why Sarah Johnson always beat me at times-tables in second grade during Math. Then in third grade I got glasses but felt no reformation in my intelligence. What a shaft to my theory.
Fortunately, 14 years later I met Neil and realized my hypothesis was still in tact: here was a genius that coincidentally wore glasses (one can only wonder what happens when he takes them off at night). And if the glasses and the wildly intellectual-looking hair wasn’t enough, Neil played the accordion. Unarguably genius. The successful pursuits of Neil’s life showed the fruit of a life lived on purpose. Most undeniably genius.
That’s why I got a strange sense of encouragement the day I read Neil’s (ever-rare and always insightful) status update:
By age 30, Michael Jordan had been a 4 time NBA MVP, Michael Jackson had released the best selling album of all time, Michael Bloomberg had graduated from Harvard Business School, Michael Phelps was Michael Phelps and Michael J Fox had Parkinson’s. I’ll be 30 in two months and my name isn’t even Michael. I’m a crisis waiting to happen.
I noticed there was a long string of comments, primarily from well-wishers whose responses were filled with encouraging words obviously copied and pasted from Hallmark e-cards. If Neil was such a genius, shouldn’t his friends have some decent insight into his quandary? Initially I tried thinking of other “Michaels” I might sarcastically add to his list to improve it. Then I felt even more pathetic because of my inability to do so. Regardless, if Neil felt this way, surely I was justified to feel the same. Then I saw an especially long comment from a friend who clearly lived up to Neil’s standard.
On the other hand:
1. Rodney Dangerfield – He sold aluminum siding for years while he struggled as a writer and comedian. He didn’t get his first big break until he was 42.
2. Al Jarreau – The famous jazz vocalist didn’t release his first album until he was 38.
3. Julia Child – Her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published when she was 49. Her television debut came a few years later when she was in her early 50s.
4. Charles Bukowski – The famous novelist/poet worked at the post office for years. He was 49 when his first book was published.
5. Laura Ingalls Wilder – Her first book, Little House in the Big Woods came out when she was 65. It was the first of her 8-volume Little House series.
6. Stan Lee – He was in his early 40s when he created Spider-Man and most of his other legendary superheroes. His partner, artist Jack Kirby, started drawing The Fantastic Four when he was 44.
7. Colonel Sanders – Didn’t franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken until he was 65.
8. Robert Duvall – He was 40 when he acted in The Godfather.
9. Raymond Chandler – The famous novelist published his first short story at age 45. His first book, The Big Sleep, came out when he was 51.
10. Buckminster Fuller – The visionary architect and inventor didn’t truly begin his career until he was 32. Instead of committing suicide after going bankrupt and losing his daughter to pneumonia, he decided to conduct “an experiment…to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all of humanity.”
Wow. No “Michaels” in this guys rebuttal, but impressive nonetheless. Maybe there’s hope for me after all. Sure, I’m looking at entering my 30’s much the same way I did adolescence – with not much to show for myself – but it seemed like there were a few others in the same boat.
Legend has it that Julius Caesar, sometime in his early thirties, was serving as a low-level public official in Spain when he came across a statue of Alexander the Great. One of his companions took notice that Caesar was about the same age as Alexander when he died. Caesar paused, then burst into sudden tears, depressingly contemplating Alexander’s conquering of the known world at age thirty and lamenting his own seemingly failed attempt at existence.
Julius went on to do alright for himself, despite being murdered by his closest friend… (little downer there). The opposite of my friend Neil, Caesar was balding, and chose to wear a wreath around his head for most of his life to hide the fact. I would love to be wrong, but I’ll bet if he lived a few more years and ventured back to Spain, Caesar would have still cried at the foot of Alexander, unsatisfied with the extent of his empire and unimpressed with the length of his hairline. Most of all, still stuck in the quicksand of comparison.
That’s not where I want to be when I’m an old man. Nor as I turn 30.
Two thousand years ago there was a no-name man around my same age living just off the Sea of Galilee in Roman-occupied Israel. People must have whispered about his extreme potential and the lack of success he had to show for himself… doing the same menial manual labor his father did before him, no wife to call his own (let alone kids), and no books to show for the wealth of knowledge in his head. But that was what made Yeshua so incredible. From what we can piece together in our limited knowledge, he wasn’t anxious about turning 30 and making sure he had proof that he was something important. As a young man, he knew an anxiety-free rest in his soul that most people don’t discover over a lifetime of strife.
Looking back over the past 30ish years, I’m feeling thankful for amazingly rich memories with all sorts of friends in all sorts of places, overwhelmed by my wife’s incredibly lavished love, perhaps even beginning to settle into a career that seems to fit me better than most things I’ve tried up to this point. But much more than all this, I’m searching myself for the contentment that marked that no-name Jew in his no-name village, happily hitting nails into a piece of wood for a living. I want to be defined as a 30 year-old at rest in my own present-state, brimming with assurance that the best is yet to come.
A fresh update from Neil a few months after his previous one, just in case you were curious:
I’m about a month from 30. I shaved my beard, which bought me at least 4 years. Next, I’m going to quit bathing, buy a scarf and a fixed gear bike. I’ll be a college kid by September, just you wait and see.