Last month, I turned 30. I feel like it’s the beginning of a new adventure. As I look back upon my twenties, I realise how far I have come with self improvement this past decade and built a life that I can be happy to live.
I remember at 20 thinking about all that I would want to achieve. The reality is quite different from the dream, but I’m happy with the outcome. At 20 I really thought that by 30 I’d be married with one or two kids. I had dreamt of that scenario so many times as a teenager and through my early 20s. Well, I’m now 30, not married and have no children. But it doesn’t mean life hasn’t been sweet. As soon as we let go of our expectations and focus on what is within our lives, we can really make something good out of it. It doesn’t mean we should give up on dreams, but neither should we relentlessly pursue a dream like marriage and kids just for the sake of those two things. They are the types of things in life that should happen with the right person rather than running to a strict deadline 🙂As I look back at the past decade, it is interesting to see how fruitful my 20s have been and what were the defining moments. At 20, I was enjoying university life but felt so insecure. I lacked any self confidence and spent time trying to care for others whilst not taking great care of myself. I’d suffered anxiety and depression for some years by that point, but finally took action to improve my situation. It was the start to a path of recognising the good in life.
At 21, I was suffering from exhaustion with my degree, working non-stop from 6am until midnight with an hour or two (if I was feeling generous) break during the day, including weekends. I was determined to get a good outcome for my degree and was obsessed with perfection. I had tried to balance out my feelings of insecurity with getting good grades, as if that would fill the gaping void I felt inside. Having had an unfortunate timetable where all of my chosen subjects ended up in the first semester of the year, I had to learn to let perfection go, but it was a hard lesson and one that I’d have to learn many more times.
By 22, I was living in China. I moved to where I knew no one and did not even know the language. It was the worst and best few months of my life at that time in equal measure. I met some amazing friends and gained a new sense of independence and self confidence. It was important for me to take that journey. Being a British Born Chinese, and having suffered racial attacks when I was young, it left an imprint and confusion over my cultural identity. I always wondered why I was racially attacked as I thought myself as British as the next British person. So if I was attacked, then who was I? Was I British? Was I Chinese?
Shanghai was the highest occupancy place I’d ever lived in and yet a place in which I felt rather lonely. There was too much going on out and about for my liking and when I came back to London, I felt like it was empty even though I’d always previously thought it busy! My lesson learnt from my spell in China was that I am British…with some Chinese habits…Heck, I learnt that I’m the label I began with, British Born Chinese 🙂 The difference is that I’m not confused anymore.
At 23, I was working my first ‘real’ job. I was having a mini crisis over the fact that long summer holidays were officially a thing of the past. I made a new best friend who I’d spend lunchbreaks with sitting on beanbags in the communal area. Life was good, if not a bit daunting entering the ‘work forever, until retirement’ stage of my life. But at least I had a good friend to keep me company.
At 24, I moved into my own flat. That space still exists within my heart, like a secret hideout when things get too much. For all its paper thin walls and crazy neighbours, the next 4 years were to be the most indulgent of my life. I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted and answer to no one. One of my secret favourite things to do was put on music and dance and sing. It felt liberating. I hosted many a party in the flat – Eurovision, a tea party, Halloween and a Christmas dinner where I had over 10 people crammed around my fold out dining table.
Looking back on this Facebook post I found from the day before I turned 25 made me laugh: “Tomorrow I turn 25. As a person who’s achieved everything that I want within my means, it was truly satisfying to complete one last thing – a couple of fiendish sudokus. Man I was such an intermediate…now I can join the sudoku big guns 🙂 “. But that’s the truth of it. I think my dreams are pretty simple and at 25 I felt free and happy. All I ever wanted out of life on a personal level were those two things. I didn’t have and was nowhere near my original dream of marriage and kids, but I realised I had wanted those things because to me they represented happiness. But I was already happy, so the dream did not really matter to me anymore.
I can’t remember anything about being 26, but I do know that I was probably learning for the final time not to go overboard with my work hours. Unfortunately every year I suffered one or two weeks of exhaustion due to burning both ends of the candle. At some point between 24 and 26 I had burnt myself out so badly that I woke up and found I could not move my legs. At all. Eventually I was able to walk slowly with a walking stick and it took a year to make a full recovery. Medically there was nothing wrong with me. I had a vitamin D deficiency, but it perhaps wasn’t so shockingly low to have caused such an issue. That year was eye-opening as I realised how much I took for granted. As a person who loves walking as a pastime, not being able to walk really mentally tested me perhaps more so than physically. It taught me to appreciate things in my life a lot more.
By 27, I decided I was going to take one last stab at finding love! I was always so busy with work and in honesty, I’d grown used to my self indulgent lifestyle. I was always perhaps ‘too emotional’ for a relationship. I never really had a good sense of who I was and put too much onus on a partner to make me happy when I was in a relationship. We need to focus on sorting ourselves out to bring our best selves to any relationship. That means not relying wholly on someone else to make you happy, and not to overthink things and analyse relationships to death. It also means being ok with being angry or disagreeing sometimes rather than hiding it away. It’s about fully accepting yourself before starting a relationship. I can’t say I’d learnt all those things yet at that particular time, but my last ditch attempt at a relationship paid off. One evening, I was messing around and wrote a ‘wish list’ of 23 points that I’d like to find in a partner. I thought it was impossible and laughed after writing it. 2 months later, that very man was in my life and we have been together since. Best of all, as I hold perfectionist tendencies still, it is good that I have no idea of why my partner loves me. I used to focus so much on being a person or emphasising an aspect of myself that I felt whoever I was in a relationship loved the most. Not knowing the precise aspects of why my life partner loves me means that I can only be me. Not what I feel I ought to be nor an overinflated version of an aspect of myself.
28. I was feeling like 30 was edging ever closer and felt like I’d stopped accelerating in my learning of life and all that it contained. It disturbed me slightly, but I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. I changed jobs and the newness of it did me some good, with more opportunities and chances to learn things opening up to me. Later in the year, I moved to a beautiful house outside London.
29. Almost there. The final year. The year that I feel like I ‘grew up’. All my learnings had been accumulating to a point and after some troubled months, I reached boiling point and I learnt two lessons that I’d been struggling with for all of my life. I learnt to let go. To let go of my troubles or to let a situation be what it would be. I learnt acceptance. I learnt patience. I learnt a new level of understanding. I gained some wisdom, but I was gaining it all along.
And now I’m 30.
When I think about ‘growing up’, I think about how we always continue to learn and grow each day and we never really are ‘grown up’ because that suggests an end to our learning. So long as we’re always seeking out opportunities, we can really build upon that growth. But I feel each of us can perhaps spare more time on self awareness and focus on learning more deeply about who we are. The more we become wise about ourselves, the happier we will be. Suffering is caused by lack of Awareness, Acceptance and correct Action (what I dub the ‘Triple A’ 🙂 ). If we are able to build our awareness first of ourselves and then others and the outer world, accept the good and bad, then act calmly and kindly to ourselves and everything and everyone around us, then we can know great happiness.