When I was in my late twenties, a 30-year-old acquaintance told me she was pregnant. In most populations, this would be considered a fairly normal occurrence, and the proper response would include one part squealing and two parts envy. But my immediate response was not to ask the due date or inquire about possible names. My immediate response was shock: wow, babies having babies. Let me repeat: she was 30. If this were a Jane Austen novel, a 30-year-old woman would already be a mother of four or an avowed spinster with an unhealthy interest in cribbage. And if this were Paleolithic times, a 30-year-old woman would, statistically speaking, be dead. But like many urban women under 30, I still believed that ovaries were entirely ornamental and that real life was something that happened tomorrow.
I wasn’t the only person under this delusion. Few of my New York friends were married, let alone packing diapers. And despite our claims that we lived in New York because we were so career oriented, we mostly dabbled in professional life without much direction. We all claimed that we were working in administrative positions because we wanted to write or direct or act, but, with very few exceptions, no one actually did any of these things. In theory, we were all very creative. In reality, we mostly just went to brunch. We existed in a perpetual post-college phase—a term that seemed increasingly ridiculous when we started receiving notices for our ten-year-high-school reunions. Even though we logically knew our parents were settled into careers and families by our age, we still considered ourselves firmly within our salad days. But then 30 hit, and something started to shift.
It wasn’t the traditional wrinkle-and-biological-clock-induced panic. We didn’t suddenly start believing the skin care advertisements that told us we would wake up on our 30th birthdays and instantaneously transform into Golem. No, this was more of an arithmetic-induced panic. Because no matter how many studies we read about freezing eggs or the increased frequency of delayed marriage, we still knew that we would be staring at 40 candles in ten years—at which point our lives would be half over. Because math, as it turns out, is a dick who doesn’t care about studies of delayed-marriage patterns. We weren’t just out of college. We weren’t slightly older-looking 21-year-olds. We were adults who, quelle horreur, would soon be creeping into middle age.
But this didn’t signal a wave of mass depression. Instead the 30th birthday turned out to be an inexpensive but rather effective life coach. Within a year, one friend finished her book proposal and landed a three-book deal, another carved out a viable existence as a freelancer, and two others produced web series. Friends left underpaid career paths or moved to cities with more affordable real estate. And engagement announcements appeared at my door almost as regularly as take-out-sushi menus. It wasn’t as though these accomplishments magically materialized overnight—clearly, a decade spent reading, writing, and dating was at play here—but suddenly everyone seemed to be facing a deadline and responding in kind.
Obviously, everyone’s life didn’t magically improve. Some of us were still flailing, but now we were at least flailing with purpose. Because we understood that time was no longer cheap. Although we knew that we were exceptionally lucky to have jobs, four walls, and a roof in a city where the average monthly rent is over $3,000 and the median household income is $50,000, we also knew that we had better start taking these numbers seriously.
People often talk about the infinite sense of time we experiences in our twenties as a gift. But it’s really just the gift of one more hour to waste playing Candy Crush. Because when there are no deadlines, there are also very few accomplishments. When you imagine that your decisions aren’t meaningful and that life is always something that will happen later, it’s tempting to let weeks and months pass where you tell people that you’re, say, writing, when in reality you’re just composing the answers you’ll give Terry Gross when she inevitably interviews you following the publication of that fantastic novel that currently exists only in your daydreams.
In my twenties, I certainly fretted about my future, but, if I had been honest, I would have had to admit that I always believed that life would simply happen to me. Once I finally met the man who would shuttle me into a one-bedroom apartment, then my life would begin. Or once someone older and more established offered me a fantastic creative opportunity—with little effort on my part—then my life would begin. My actual day-to-day existence was all just foreplay. It comprised the early chapters in the biography that everyone speeds through eager to get to the good stuff.
But then I turned thirty, and I realized none of these things were ever going to happen if I didn’t start making difficult and sometimes painful choices. And it’s a relief. Because your twenties can be like standing in Ikea surrounded by far too many underpriced cardboard chairs, paralyzed and unable to do anything but nosh on waxy Swedish chocolate. It’s comforting when you can throw up your hands, book it out of Red Hook, and take the subway some place where the chairs are more expensive but also significantly more solid. It’s nice to finally admit that you don’t really like sitting on cardboard. You’re too old.