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Staring Down Thirty, and the Death of Precocity

I never had grand plans for 30 - until last year I hadn't really thought about it at all. No visions of a house, a husband, a kid, or a dog. I didn't picture myself traveling the world, curing a disease, or making a million dollars. The fact that I have a great job, got married, and own cats made me feel pretty great - look at all these things I've accomplished! I wasn't going to worry about 30.

But now that I feel myself hurtling towards this birthday, I've started to feel the panic that I've heard about on TV and from older friends. I'm becoming Joey Tribbiani, yelling, "Why, God, why? We had a deal! Let the others grow old, not me!" It's not a feeling that I haven't accomplished enough, though - it's a fear that I'm going to lose a part of myself come February. I realized recently that a huge part of how I define myself is inherently time-sensitive and I think 30 is its expiration date.

I've always been precocious. I spoke early and well. As a kid I preferred the company of adults and loved nothing more than hearing about how mature I was. I was an amazing kid. In high school my portfolio of accomplishments was almost ridiculous and I loved the idea of being special. So special. But I wasn't like the other kids, obsessed with their own awesomeness - no, I was humble and I knew that there were other people who might be smarter, prettier, or more talented than I was. As long as I got plenty of attention I was willing to share. I made sure everyone knew that. In my modesty I was The Specialest.


I learn fast and pick up new skills easily so I was able to get a jump on my peers, for better or worse. On the "worse" side, I developed a drinking problem so bad that I needed to get sober shortly after my 24th birthday. I started a career young and bombed at it spectacularly by 25, the same year I got married (the marriage, at least, is going fine). Even my body seems to be racing ahead: my stomach and thighs are zig-zagged with stretch marks from weight gains and losses, I sprout a new chin hair each year, and I'm starting to notice lines around my mouth that weren't there a year ago. I truly am ahead of the pack, but it's catching up.

30 is not a magical birthday. I don't expect to be any different at 30 than I am at 29, but there's something terribly symbolic about it: it represents the end of young adulthood. I permitted my late twenties to pass by in a rush, barely noting my advancing age. 26? I'm practically still a kid. 27? I'm still doing so great - look at my sweet job! 28 - I know what a 401k is and I have one. 29! I got a promotion! But 30? What could possibly be impressive for 30?

I've jokingly described myself to friends as "a machine that runs on praise," but it's pretty much true: I thrive on and require constant external validation. In my twenties my older coworkers shower me with compliments and both mothered and mentored me. That's how I know that I'm good at my job. I strive to seem remarkable and usually it works - people remark on it. "You're so accomplished and poised for your age!"

But here's the thing: "for your age" expires. Eventually your fast ascent to greatness (or at least competence) slows and everyone else has a chance to catch up. Someone who is remarkably put-together for 27 is just another capable adult at 30. This fear - not of how little I've accomplished but of how unimpressive it will be soon - is what's on my mind as I stare down 30.


As a typical self-obsessed Millenial I know that allowing the praise and attention of others be such a big part my identity is immature and I think about it often. A better me would be proud of myself, confident in my abilities, and excited to challenge myself. But this is an area in which I've never been precocious - I've lagged behind. I lack the identity to weather the whims and shifting attentions of others, and I feel defined largely by what people tell me about myself. When they tell me I'm smart and clever, I am smart and clever. When they fall silent... I crumble. I am missing my center.

Part of my rapid ascent to outward adulthood was that quick ability to learn and impress, but I've never had to fill in the gaps. It's like memorizing a recital piece without knowing how to read music or tune your instrument. It's running before you can walk. In college I wrote great papers and got great grades - but I didn't do half of the reading. That career I flopped at by 25? I was such a precocious new employee that I was promoted far beyond my actual abilities. I SEEMED capable, but lacked the experience and skills to follow through and it blew up in my face. I sprinted when I should have jogged.


So this is the downside of precocity: it is based on promise, not on actual accomplishment. It is shiny and fresh but it doesn't last. It's the antithesis of "slow and steady wins the race." I have always seemed wise beyond my years, but I'm still trying to backfill the emotional maturity and sense of self that I should have been building slowly my whole life. I've spent 29 years now scrambling to cover for my limitations and to make good on the promise I showed and for 30 I want to stop.

In preparation for my 30th birthday it is my goal to start building what I've so far only sketched out. It won't be a quick task. I want to learn to work hard and be proud of myself, even if no one else is. I wish to stop overselling myself. I hope to learn what is great about me without needing to be told. These are noble goals, sure, but will I be able to follow through? Will I be able to fill the space that precocity was taking up? Am I capable of improving myself when there is no glory at stake - when I am doing it only for me?


I'd desperately like to say, "yes, I will work hard, I will forgive myself when I struggle and I will celebrate my successes." But instead I think, "yes, I will do this thing. I will be great at it. Seriously, you'll never meet someone as well-adjusted as I'm going to become. I have such noble goals." And in reality, I will remain the same person I've always been. I struggle to deal with change and shy away from hard work - that's the thing that I do know about myself, without being told. But with that knowledge I have a place to start, something to anchor myself to and work from. A center.

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