I’m always freaking out about life. In middle school I panicked about high school, college, my starting steps of my career, and so, of course, when I was in my late 20s, not having met a few of the key indicators that I was doing Good Enough, I started to panic.
Does anyone know what they’re doing in life? In order to try to find out, I asked around. I asked women my mom’s age if their 30s were ok. I asked my friends if they felt a kind of terror when thinking about that digit flipping. I brought it up obsessively, as I tend to do about the latest thing I’m freaking out about. “Stop. Thinking,” a friend has ordered me.
How I wish I could. I wish I could have the days go by, one at a time, like in some other cultures where people don’t know their birthdays or even exactly how old they are. Why are we so obsessed with counting and measuring in America? There’s just too much data to consider. I’m always trying to analyze it to make sure the numbers are coming out right. Should I have more in my retirement at 30, have I seen enough countries, do I have enough LinkedIn contacts?
Being young, I always thought that older people had this bemused look on their face when listening to this panic. Now I know it’s because they’re looking back in time, and their own freaked out selves, and grinning about how glad they are that they don’t have to freak out like that anymore.
One man in particular grinned at me this way, on a picnic table bench, as I ruined a perfectly lovely afternoon on the beach, fretting about the future.
“Listen,” he finally said, and because he had a full calf tattoo of muppets characters, Miss Piggy and Animal and Kermit, I thought he was the kind of person I’d want to listen to. “These are your power years.”
I shut up for a second, and considered if that could be true.
“In your 30s, you know what you want, you know who you are, and you know how to get it.”
Read more: Why your thirties is the best time of life
All this time I’d been looking back, thinking about how I looked not-as-good in a tank top these days, how I felt old in a dance club, how I had missed some of the check-the-box experiences I’d wanted to have in my 20s, like backpacking Europe for a summer.
It was one of those conversations that only lasts five minutes, but reverberates in your soul long after. I started acting as if I were entering my power years instead of leaving my prime.
I knew what I want, he’d told me, and I realized I did. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a traveler. I wanted to be happy.
You know who you are. Did I? Maybe. I knew I was bad with money but good at going after what I wanted. I was an anxious wreck but working on it. I knew who I wasn’t: the perfect party girl I’d tried to be in high school, the saint I’d tried to be by joining Peace Corps, the serious journalist I tried to be at the newspaper. I was an artist.
I know how to get it. My resume had some actual experiences on it that were in my field. I didn’t have to wonder if I’d ever get my degree or an impressive internship. I’d gotten them. I had those stepping stones laid in place. I just had to keep working hard.
Read more: The one travel talent of people in their 30s
Operating from this paradigm, I realized being in your 30s is about the joys of adulthood we anticipate as kids but forget to enjoy. We get to choose. We are full-on grown people, capable of deciding that we’ll drive a crappy car if it means we get to go to Japan next year. We get to dedicate ourselves to kicking ass at our job so we feel confident we’ll get hired back if we backpack South America for three months. The training wheels come off, and we are fully capable of driving our own ship.
I’m halfway through my 30s now, and I consider the last year the best year of my life. Because when you flex your power, you get stronger and stronger to form your story. It’s a rollercoaster of your own design.