March 25th, 2011 / 11:05 am

On Aging and Anxiety

Today is the very last day of my 20s. I feel like a hot wreck. Whereas I know that age doesn’t really mean anything and we age every single fucking day, it seems monumental.

I remember one of the first conversations I had with Joyelle McSweeney. I was 25. I had just graduated with my MFA. I hadn’t even submitted my first book manuscript for publication (though I was getting ready to), and she said something like: “Oh, I’m so old in comparison, it’s ghastly: I’m thirty!” In my head, I thought to myself: “Fuck, if I do even half of what Joyelle has done by the time I’m thirty, I would be grateful!”

Well, boys and girls, here it is: thirty.

I remember turning twenty. I was excited. To me, it meant leaving the disaster of my teens. It meant maturing and developing. Why is thirty so different?

Well, I guess the short answer is that turning 30 is no different than aging, which again, happens on a daily basis. It’s just that when I was younger, 30 seemed so big, so adult. I thought I’d have my shit together by then. I imagined I would be wearing slacks and blouses. That’s superficial and pretty silly, but still. I didn’t think that at 30, I’d remain confused.

I guess I’m speaking to the mythologies we create in our own heads about “adulthood.” I don’t want to undermine my accomplishments. I’ve done some stuff, sure. I’ve published some books, and I recently got a dream job. Essentially, I’ve done all the things I wanted. And yet, it seems inadequate.

The carrot’s moved:

I have Weber’s Protestant work ethic and guilt so engrained in me that no achievement seems sufficient. There’s always more that should’ve been done. There’s always more that needs to be done.

I don’t know. What do you think about aging and accomplishment? Do you have anxieties about getting older? How often do you feel your buckets of accomplishments are simply inadequate?

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  1. DJ Berndt

      Damn, and I’m anxious about turning 25.

  2. Roxane

      I usted to have anxieties about turning thirty and then I turned thirty and it was a real relief. My thirties turned into the most prolific and successful years of my life and fortunately I have some time left in this decade. At the same time, I have many of the anxieties most writers my age have. I look at these wunderkinds in their late teens or early twenties who are so damn confident and who are doing such amazing things and putting out books and starting presses and publishing on their own terms and I just marvel at how connected and productive they are. The only thing I did during my twenties was behave badly and write badly and accomplish very little. It certainly gave me a lot to write about but its easy to start to feel like I’m way behind the curve. Rationally, I realize this is ridiculous. We do what we do when we do it and there’s nothing productive about feeling inadequate. It is so useless to sit around worrying about what everyone else is doing. It is quite difficult to be rational. I feel inadequate about my accomplishments on a daily basis and then I slap the shit out of myself to facilitate the extraction of my head from my anal cavity.

  3. lily hoang


  4. lily hoang

      In five years, will you write a similar post about me, DJ? Happy 25, when it comes. 25 was an amazing year for me when many magical things happened that I could have never predicted!

  5. Alec niedenthal

      I’m no veteran to aging, so I have nothing to add here but: happy birthday Lily!!!

  6. JimR

      I wish I knew where that “way behind the curve” feeling comes from! I showed up for college in a panic because after serving in the military I was way behind my classmates in high school. It took me a while to figure out that I gained more in the detour. But you’re right it’s hard to remain rational about it.

  7. kb

      My best friend and I hav always chided each-other that we have to be “men” by the time we hit 30. I honestly take this somewhat seriously though I don’t know what being a “man” is, exactly, I suppose (as opposed to a 30 year old boy [I think there’s a line about that in Fight Club somewhere]). I think might mainly have to do with being ethical, which is even more vague… I have a year and a half to figure out what man-ness is.

  8. drew kalbach

      sometimes i feel behind the curve and i’m only 22. which i realize, after typing that, is actually insane.

  9. Amber

      My thirties so far (three years in) has been so much better than my twenties I can’t even begin to tell you. It’s cliche but I feel like a real person, like I’m supremely confident in who I am and I don’t have to take shit from anyone or pretend to be anything I’m not. Twenties were fun but angsty. I don’t have time for angst any more. It’s nice to suddenly wake up one day and all the bullshit is sort of washed away and you’re like, oh, okay. That’s who I am. Now we can move forward. That’s how thirty was for me. (Oh, and you have the same nice little perk that I have–we look young which can be a bitch but after thirty, it’s actually pretty sweet.) Happy happy happy day tomorrow! Enjoy every minute of it.

  10. NathanH

      Because writing typically involves years (decades) of head-banging struggle, there’s a natural inclination to feel jealous of authors who break through at a young age. Whenever I start giving in to that envy, I remind myself that the larger goal is not just to break through but to build of a consistent body of work. I also behaved badly, wrote badly, and accomplished a big fat zero in my twenties, but beyond developing source material, I also gained insight into universals like regret, poverty, and at least three-hundred different modes of failure. Should Tea Obreht or any other young writer go on to an uninterrupted, forty-year run of quality work, then we can all tip our hats and appreciate how that 5-10-15 year head start allowed them to accomplish more than most peers. But ten years from now, there is equally the chance that life/family/money/substances will interrupt anyone’s forty-year run, or worse, having not spent their twenties behaving badly and accomplishing zero, success might doom some of these twenty-year-old wunderkinds to delving in that peculiar literary canon, the novel of the stagnant academic/author who does something unhinged in order to recapture their youthful promise.

  11. alex crowley

      Happy pre-birthday, Lily. This was pleasantly reassuring to read (along with the comments) as I’m turning in my MFA theses on my 30th birthday and tend to feel “less accomplished” than a good portion of my peers. You’re totally right about Weber, too.
      Enjoy your weekend!

  12. Andrewworthington

      i have anxiety about turning 23 and i am 23

  13. Carolyn DeCarlo

      this sounds like my future… i’m 23 and will hopefully graduate with my MFA at 25. i have friends/peers telling me on a daily basis “Oh, I’m so old in comparison, it’s ghastly: I’m thirty!” wonderful. but to speak to those mythologies about adulthood for a second, i recently found a play i wrote in 7th grade that had me and all of my friends happily married by age 20/21. so, i’m so happy some of those mythologies never came to be.

  14. lorianlong

      i can’t wait to die.

  15. Frank Tas

      Your past two comments on this site make me want to know you.

  16. M. Kitchell

      i turn 25 in 2 months, i am excited, i hope magical things happen to me

  17. SCS

      Cliche aside, age (as in a number) is truly irrelevant except if you are 100 or 2. In many countries there is no word for birthday. As you (or at least I) get older you find out that there children who are 50 and mature-ass people who are 15. To feel inadequate is to be human.

  18. SCS

      Cliche aside, age (as in a number) is truly irrelevant except if you are 100 or 2. In many countries there is no word for birthday. As you (or at least I) get older you find out that there children who are 50 and mature-ass people who are 15. To feel inadequate is to be human.

  19. Frank Tas

      This is supposed to be in reference to lorianlong

  20. DJ Berndt

      I turn 25 on New Year’s Eve. Yeah, New Year’s Eve is my birthday.

  21. Aaron G

      I agree with everything you said, Roxane. The point of light for all who, like Lily, are turning 30: life keeps getting better. Early 30s are what you wanted your 20s to be. Ie, if the allure of your twenties was to escape “the disaster of [your] teens,” image your early 30s as the time when all that you’ve been working hard for, all your creative kinetic energy, manifests. One decade’s like planting, the other reeping. I wouldn’t go back for a second, even though I have, like Roxane, some anxieties.

      And no accomplishment will ever satisfy me, because there is no satisfaction except in the doing. That’s the real joy there, doing making things.

      Happy birthday, Lily. You’re on a tear, btw.

  22. Anonymous

  23. Guestagain

      Hard to resist responding to this in a general way, although I tried. There are a stack of adages and bromides that apply here which are cheesy at face value but do stand the test of time. Hindsight is 20/20, the past stretches out, widening the perspective and surface area of potential regret, which is very bad stuff, people swallowed up in regret turn to the pipe/needle/bottle, whatever. I think applying what we know today to judge that person in the past isn’t fair to either of those people. Youth is wasted on the young is a nice one I identify with, having spent out most of my youth a wasted criminal jackass, although I cherish every second of it. The past is something that probably happened. There is only probability in the past or future and the present really doesn’t exist. Ultimately the goal is to become an authentic individual, to find “original face” and this is where the best work comes from, whatever it is, and no external validation is required from institutions, peers, or anyone else. Achievement oriented individuals are rarely satisfied by definition, this is a good thing, the only way to move is forward. Then there is this entry in Groucho Marx’s diary: “Today, I did not hang myself”.

  24. Jason P

      “The only thing I did during my twenties was behave badly and write badly and accomplish very little.”

      There should be a club or something.

  25. Jason P

      “I didn’t think at 30, I’d remain confused” – from my perch atop age 38, there is always confusion but there is eventually less of it.

  26. Kevin Spaide

      If you think you’re confused at 30, wait until you’re approaching 40. I’m way more confused than I used to be. I also forget what I’m talking about sometimes. Happy birthday!

  27. Dawn.

      The only reason I have anxiety about aging is because the majority of my peers already have Bachelor degrees and/or are enrolled in MA/MFA programs and because of bad financial circumstances I haven’t been able to return to college and finish my BA, so I’m walking around with half a degree, aka nothing much. If all goes well, I’ll go back next year, which is exciting, but I can’t help feeling bitter. I shouldn’t be bitter because I’m only fucking 23, that’s young, I should be happy. I suppose no matter how old you are you can feel desperately behind.

  28. Julian Z.

      When I turned thirty, as a person continuing my future, I was happy. My twenties were mediocre at best. As a writer, with an unpublished novel and a many thousands of rejections my thirties seemed to look brighter, that with all the work I had done and living made the new work look that much more interesting. A few published stories in the Tyrant and some readings down south I felt more of a writer. As a person, my thirties have given me a better sense of understanding of who I am, and in turn will spill over into my work. Who knows, we’ll see.

  29. jackie wang

      published in the NYT at age 17. you put us all to shame!

  30. jackie wang