On living your 20s

Eight months today…I’ll be 30 years old.

A lot of my friends are freaking out about turning 30. I’m not. I’m excited.

(Permission to refer me back to this quote, and perhaps this photo, in March.)

I was obsessed with the 30 before 30 project for a long time. For someone who doesn’t believe in new years’ resolutions, I make a hell of a long “to do” list at the end of every December. For someone with obsessive-compulsive list-making scheduling disorder (I’m not disclosing anything Aisling and Clare don’t already er…suspect), readers, let me be the first to tell you, those lists are dangerous. You’re ambushed from every angle by the things you’re supposed to have achieved by the time you’re 30. I started making a tick list. I started doing the things on that tick list (learn to drive. Learn to kayak. Do the 30-day Bikram yoga challenge) until the realisation dawned that I have 37 WEEKS left to achieve 30 Great Acts.

Readers, that is terrifying. And financially impossible. And sent me into a wretched panic. How the ruddy hell am I going to complete weekly activities such as learn to skydive, trek through Tibet, teach a village of blind Ecuadorians to see? I’ve left that bad boy too late, haven’t I?

Those lists? They perpetuate the myth that doing is more important than living, or that the two are one and the same. Those lists don’t take account of the importance of doing nothing, taking stock, or even, hell, making mistakes (believe me, monumental f*ck-ups aren’t just for teenagers).

Meg wrote a good post about turning 30, the conclusion of which was that she “lived the sh*t out of her 20s”. I tried to do the same with my 20s for a long time. Because that’s what I thought I had to do. But for me? That too simplistic a way of looking at it. Your 20s, hell you, are more sophisticated and complex than that. You can’t live the sh*t out of something all the time, because if you do that, what’s left?

I was kind of a mess at 20. I had just had my heart broken (not broken, that’s not fair. More like annihilated), I was living in France going a wee bit off the rails, and every so often I read my diaries from that time in my life, free and hedonistic it may have been, but I wouldn’t go back there if you paid me.

The 8ème arrondissement of this city did not know what hit it.

I knew exactly what I wanted, you see. I was an old soul with barely anything left to learn. Marriage was an outdated institution. Buying a home tied you down. Love was a concept packaged and sold by Hallmark, and the closest I swore I’d ever get to it again was a torrid affair with a hippy on an Indonesian beach. To stop travelling would be to stop being curious. To work a 9-5 job would be to lose my soul.

I am not the person I thought I was going to be when I was 20. In my early 20s I lived hard and fast, chopping and changing career, boyfriend, house, hobby… culminating in a career I’m proud of, a life in what some call the world’s most exciting city and a husband who is my equal and opposite and who I couldn’t be without. It’s been a hell of a decade. But reconciling what I’ve become with what I wanted to be ten years ago has been one of the longest, most painful processes I have ever battled. Ten years ago I lived with such conviction. I knew what was Right. I knew that other people were Wrong, or Misguided. I lived with passion and certainty that came at the expense of self-mockery, of compassion, of acceptance.

Rather than my successes shaping me, I firmly believe it was my failures that put in the hard work, who made me sit up and see what I could become. During my 20s I made some absolute crippling mistakes. I turned down a placement working in Africa for two years. I repeatedly avoided repairing family relationships for six years through sheer stubbornness which led to an irreparable family rift. I nearly wrecked what would become my marriage. I deliberately built walls between myself and my best friend because I couldn’t handle how much we were changing – and nearly destroyed that one, too.

We’re all told to live like there’s no tomorrow. And that is a hell of a hedonistic, appealing way of living. For about three weeks. But if I hadn’t done the above, if I had just gone on achieving, there’s simply no way I’d be the person I am today. I wouldn’t have learnt humility, I wouldn’t have learnt how to get back up again, I wouldn’t have learnt that you can play hard and fast with yourself all you like but never with others. I wouldn’t have learnt what it’s like to risk everything you value on a pipe dream, I’d never have known crippling fear, despair or learned how to say sorry and mean it. For is there any quicker way to realise your own insignificance?

So I guess that’s going to be my 30 before 30. Not achievements, but lessons. Groping through in the dark, getting it wrong, saying sorry, and finally getting it right.

And look! Benjamin Franklin agrees: At twenty years of age, the will reigns; at thirty, the wit; and at forty, the judgement.”

Roll up, roll up! Comedy show opening in March! Book early to avoid disappointment!
Categories: Family, Friends and Relationships, Life Experience, Written By Anna
19 interesting thoughts on this


  1. Posted July 12, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I truly believe this. Its the mistakes and the tough times that teach us the most. Through them you learn who you are, and they make you who you are to become. It also makes you appreciate the good times more, and the people around you.

    Even though I'm only half way through them, my 20's wont have been all that exciting. My teens were horrible and emotionally exhausting and, I guess, this decade is a recovery from that.

    I love that you turned your mistakes into something positive. I've seen people become bitter and pessimistic because of whats happened in the past. Positive thinking and action is the way forward!

    P.S. As soon as you have dates for your comedy tour, let us know.

  2. Posted July 12, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Shut up. You lived in Lyon too? Did anyone *not* live in Lyon??

    Oh, and, erm, yes. To everything. I constantly worry that I'm not making the most of my 20s, not partying enough, not travelling enough, but fuck it. You only live once and there's no point wasting time second-guessing yourself. I loved living in France but I wouldn't go back to that time either if you paid me.

    Onwards and upwards, my dear. Onwards and upwards.

  3. Posted July 12, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    YES, that's the spirit. *shouts from the over the divide* IT'S GREAT OVER HERE!

    I've been in my 30s since October and it is awesome. All my friends in their 30s say it beats the crap out of their 20s, and they're not wrong. You don't know who you are in your 20s, you flounder round trying to tick all these boxes and you exhaust yourself trying to prove something about who you are, and what your achievements says about you (or at least I did, I had some rotten, dark, horrible times). And Anna is spot on, you learn from all this. You realise that each little bit of yucky makes you stronger and teaches you more about who you are and what you want. In fact, everything that happens to you shapes you into…. well, a person who is going to have a MUCH better time in their 30s. Because you have now developed the confidence of somebody who knows what they're about, who they are, what they want.

    It's much better on this side, you guys! Come on in, the water's great!


  4. Posted July 12, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    This is good timing – as of today, I officially have less than a month left of my twenties. Eek.
    But what you say is so true, Anna, and makes me feel a lot better about things. My twenties have been pretty great – especially compared with my teens, which were by and large horrid – but I've also made a lot of mistakes along the way, which have, thankfully, got me to where I am today. And I think my twenty year old self may be a little surprised by some of the decisions that I made, but I think she'd also be pretty excited to know of all that lay ahead.

  5. Posted July 12, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Ah ladies you are all so SANE. And wise. There's such a lot of pressure and expectation associated with turning 30. Bollocks to it all. I don't think there's ever a point where you have all the answers but know I am a much, much more well-rounded person now than I was ten years ago. Like a ripe Camembert, improving with age.

    Kirsty – yep, Lyon. Six months of madness, it was!

  6. Posted July 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Now I feel really old, as someone who has 11 months left of her 30's… I feel in a little limbo at 39 and am looking forward to being 40(can't quite believe I wrote that.) I absolutely loved being in my early 30's – even though I was single and at times really did want to be with someone, as friends all paired off, but I think I learnt that being in a relationship wasn't all that defined me and made life good. I'm not so sure how I'd be feeling about my 40's if I hadn't met the lovely Warmth.
    A huge hurrah from the other side – it's fantastic whether single, in a relationship or married.

  7. Posted July 12, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    There are all sorts of relevant and sane and sensible things being said here, and actually Penny and JHD, I can't wait to join you on the other side when you sell it like that (not long for me either). But I just have to say, Anna, I shall now forever think of you as a stinky old piece of well matured camembert.

    You're welcome.

  8. Fee
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Ah, I've just turned 29 and my thoughts are turning towards the big 3-0 – both in the superficial sense (jetting off to Vegas to celebrate) and in the GAAAAAAH sense.

    I too had a big list of things I wanted to do but I have decided to prioritise things such as 'open a savings account' and 'have wine in the house and don't drink it immediately' rather than the slightly unobtainable 'live in Polynesia for a bit' and 'own a Birkin bag'.

    Anna, those lessons learnt in your 20s will no doubt pave the way for some fantastic 30s – I hope mine will too.

    (And I fully intent to pack my bags for Polynesia the day I retire!)

  9. Posted July 12, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Fee: 'have wine in the house and don't drink it immediately'

    Trying so hard. Still no easier at 30. Sorry. Maybe 40? Here's hoping…


  10. Fee
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I suspected as much! Hee hee!

  11. Posted July 12, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I'm not yet halfway into my twenties, and am both dubious and excited by all this talk of 'the other side'…. That's a whole post in itself though, methinks!

    If I can be half as wise as you ladies, I'll be happy. Though I think even that might be pushing it…

    Oh, and re. the wine. It's a belief held firm by my entire family that I'm turning into my mother, one that I cheerfully accept. 'cept she's 46 and there's never a bottle of wine in her WINE FRIDGE (I joke not) for longer than a week. She's like the oracle of the Australian and New Zealand white grape. So yeah, Penny and Fi… That one might not be a safe bet…! (I realise I've just made the mothership sound like a total wino. Oops. She's not. Promise.)


  12. Posted July 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Aisling, I'm with your mother on this one. What's the point of having wine and not drinking it? Just another thing to get dusty on the shelf. Drinking it helps keep my house clean and tidy. I shall not cast my eyes around the living room at the papers on the floor and the shoes that aren't where they should be…Ok, fine…drinking the wine just makes my house seem clean and tidy…till the following morning.

  13. Posted July 12, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    What a post. You have inspired me to write something (although far less profound).

    My 20s have certainly not been so thrilling.

    I always looked forward to my 30s as I saw it as a time of reaping the rewards of my youth.

    Now, the reality is so very, sadly, different.

  14. Posted July 12, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Man I wish my 20's were like yours Anna!! I am 27 but evidently closer to 30 than to 20 now which scares the bejeesus out of me (no particular reason its just always been my 'danger' age somehow).

    I wish I could look back on my twenties with wisdom and a great sense of learning and accomplishment. Except I don't and probably not much is going to change in the next 3 years to make that happen either.

    The only things that happened were, I graduated in a career that I no longer have any desire to be in really. I ditched the worst excuse of a man ever after 7years. I did meet my soul mate and now reason for being (one tick) and we are planning our wedding (another tick then). I had no money for the first 5 years of them. I have not travelled very far at all. And I am still no nearer to being the more confident, assertive less of a doormat person I really want to be.

    So, I am penning all my hopes on my 30's being the 20's I never had, but better (sorry for the rambling). Brilliant post Anna and I wish I could write even half as eloquently as you do!

    P.S. I also wanted to be super slim and fit all throughout my 20's…I may just be getting there,slowly! Alex84 xx

  15. Posted July 12, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Great post. I'm two weeks into my thirties and loving it.

    Definitely feels like all the pressure of doing 'amazing' things is off and you can finally please yourself and for me that means still drinking wine when it comes in the house (that wine rack never stands a chance) and taking up an officially aged pursuit: quilting – although never at the same time….

  16. Posted July 12, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Im 30 in April and not liking it one jot! But determined to enjoy it all the same. I HATED my teens, loved my twenties and want celebrate growth rather than lament my lost youth. A woman i know in her late 40s has a massive blow out party every year with obscure fancy dress. They laugh, not cry. Sounds good to me!

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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