On Turning 30

There is nothing more authentic than who we are or the choices we make when our hearts are full—when we know with utter certainty that we have enough and that we are enough. In the warmth of love, all doubts, fears, and insecurities melt away and the path forward becomes clear.

On Turning 30
Photo by Johannes W / Unsplash

I just turned 30 on New Year’s Day. For me, the months leading up to turning 30 were tough. Intellectually, I know that 30 is an arbitrary number, and I know that it’s an arbitrary life milestone. Still, without realizing it, I attached a lot of pressure and expectations to the number 30. Deep down, I was worried that I might even be a bit disappointed by how I stacked up against those expectations. The journey to letting go of my expectations and re-orienting on the larger journey of life is what I’d like to share here.

Some of my expectations for 30 came externally from society or cultural upbringing: should I be on my way to marriage by now? Should I be thinking about having kids? Should I have bought a house or some other property by now? Should I be at a certain point in my career by now? I know people my age who are doing or have done all of these things. I try not to buy into stories about cultural defaults, but it’s still hard not to compare from time to time.

Other expectations came from within and, in the hardest moments, would come to life as anxiety, playing on my insecurities.

I questioned where I am in life. Am I poor compared to my peers? Is my apartment too small for someone turning 30? Do I have enough? Will I ever have enough?

I questioned my career progress. Will people still pay top dollar for my skills? Am I falling behind?  Am I a wash out? Am I an impostor?

I questioned my relationship. Is this the right person for me? What if I don’t know? Is it OK to still not know?

I questioned my relationship with myself. Am I a better version of myself today than I was 5 years ago? 10 years ago? Have I already peaked? Do I still love myself? Can I still love myself? Am I enough? Will I ever be enough?

Even for a self-aware habitual over thinker, all of this was kind of a lot. I’d sometimes wake up from anxious dreams and have trouble falling back to sleep.

One night my subconscious started to fight back, however. I was awoken that night by a particularly anxious dream. Semi-conscious, I lay in bed in emotional vertigo, scared and not knowing what to do or where to go to seek comfort. As if on cue, a part of myself I had forgotten about intervened instinctually, and the image of a deep red sunset filled my mind.

I would have recognized that sunset anywhere: it was the sun setting over the French countryside just outside of Bordeaux. I had experienced that exact sunset during the summer of 2018, at the end of my first week at Plum Village, France. I remember sitting atop a hill in a circle surrounded by friends, passing around instruments to make music, and sipping tea one of the monks had brought along to share, all while a flawless sun set in the background.

It was a beautiful, joyous moment. A perfect moment—the kind I suspect we get precious few of in our lives. In that moment, I recall feeling deeply and unconditionally loved and accepted. I felt abundant love for the people around me, despite having met them barely a week ago. I felt so incredibly whole and fulfilled as I cried tears of joy.

That memory may be one of the most treasured of my 20s. It had been a long time since I had touched it. Replaying it then as I lay in the dark, I found a light to follow. I woke up that morning asking myself: what would it look like if I loved and accepted myself unconditionally?

That question stuck as I started thinking about how I wanted to pass my 30th birthday. Of course, I also felt anxious about the planning. Most of the stereotypically flashy things that came to mind for turning 30 felt empty, hollow, or vain. I wanted to do something memorable and meaningful, but nothing quite seemed right, or big enough, or good enough. I struggled for awhile, and kept putting off planning something.

One day, still thinking about that deep red sunset, I searched for upcoming retreats at Thai Plum Village. I was surprised to learn that Thai Plum Village was holding a holiday retreat over the week between Christmas and New Year’s. If I chose to attend, I would pass all or part of my 30th birthday at the monastery. I had originally returned to Asia in 2019 with the intention, among other things, of paying my respects to Thich Nhat Hanh, who was still in residence at Thai Plum Village at the time. COVID-19 threw a wrench in those plans, and, though I knew I wanted to find my way to Thai Plum Village someday soon, I hadn’t really considered celebrating my 30th there.

I hesitated for awhile. Then I thought: if I’m serious about learning to love and accept myself unconditionally, what better gift can I give myself than a return to the last place I experienced those feelings? It also seemed symbolic to close the loop on my original aspiration to visit the monastery in Thailand—as if going would finally mean putting the fear and scarcity of the pandemic behind me.

I eventually booked the retreat, but continued to have doubts. Would this be meaningful enough and memorable enough? Would I be disappointed if it weren’t? Spending New Year’s Eve in a monastery felt like a pretty big departure from my previous New Year’s tradition of experiencing a different year-turning celebration somewhere new around the world. After all, the monks and nuns wouldn’t do anything to celebrate, right? Maybe I should pick a retreat later in 2023, so I could do something else for my birthday?

Even up to the week before I left for the monastery I continued to have doubts. I didn’t start packing until the very last minute. I wasn’t completely emotionally committed to going until I was on the plane to Bangkok and could no longer turn back.

When I arrived at the monastery, I was assigned to a tent. Not even a tent to myself—I was assigned the left side of a tent to be shared with a tent mate. The showers were all outside and there were bugs and critters everywhere. I’m terrified of critters—seriously, shamefully so. They’re probably why I never enjoyed camping growing up. Yet here I was at Thai Plum Village, sleeping in a tent and hanging out with the frogs and ants in the shower getting ready to turn 30.

I wrote in my journal the next morning, “I’m worried I have too many expectations for this place, this retreat, this experience. I can’t stop myself from comparing my experience here with the experience I had in France. Since my 30th birthday will pass here, I’m feeling some pressure (from myself, of course) for this to be as amazingly positive an experience as my last Plum Village stay.”

The tent was the first of many expectations I needed to let go of at Thai Plum Village—indeed, I had stayed in a bed in a dorm at Plum Village in France. It didn’t take long to realize that all of these expectations, spoken and unspoken, were making it hard for me to enjoy the experience in front of me. As much as I could, I let them go that first day, remembering that I wasn’t in the same place as before, that I wasn’t with the same people as before, and that I, myself, wasn’t even the same person as before. I committed to surrendering myself to having this experience, this time, free of expectations.

Not unexpectedly, expectations became something of a theme for me that week. It wasn’t hard to see how my expectations for the retreat served as an allegory for my broader expectations in life—the pressure I put on myself borne from those expectations was certainly preventing me from fully appreciating each step of my life’s journey. Worse, I only consistently gave myself love and acceptance when those expectations were met—by definition, conditional self-love.

As I settled in to Plum Village, I found the courage to face the difficult emotions I knew I had been avoiding. Outside, I had been filling every free moment I could with entertainment to distract myself from thoughts and feelings I feared would be overwhelmingly negative. Here, though, cut-off from habitual distractions, surrounded by nature, stillness, and a community of compassionate, loving people, I knew I would be safe to experience them. I knew in my bones that I would be OK.

When I examined my expectations more deeply, I found that many of them didn’t make sense—not just because they often set the bar unrealistically high, but also because they fixated so much on the destination. Start a successful independent business. Speak 5 languages at a conversationally fluent level. Run, bike, and swim as fast or faster than I could when I was younger.

Sadly, the voice of my expectations—my ego—has little understanding of or appreciation for the journey. It thinks in binary—I’ve either succeeded or failed. There is no partial credit. There is no in-between. It seems to believe that growth occurs in discrete and comically large steps.

The voice of my expectations also has no patience or compassion for failure, or for struggle. I’ll choose to challenge myself with the tallest mountain I’ve never climbed, and the voice of my expectations will be surprised, shocked even, when I try and fail, or when I slip and stumble along the way. It won’t ask if I’m OK. It won’t help me up. It will just point to all of the other people climbing this mountain who didn’t fail, who didn’t slip, and who didn’t stumble.

Still, the voice of my expectations is well-intentioned, if harsh and occasionally misguided. It has served me well in the past—helping me to go to the college of my dreams, obtain an enviable job in Silicon Valley, and complete an Ironman triathlon in my early 20s. Perhaps that’s why I’ve had such a hard time letting it go.

Deep down, I suspect that I don’t trust myself to strive for things without these expectations. I’m afraid that without expectations I’ll lose sight of the top of the mountain, or that I’ll give up before I reach the summit, or that I’ll never choose to climb tall mountains in the first place. The grandest irony is that the pressure, disappointment, and self-doubt I sometimes feel from expectations and missed expectations are perhaps the only things that could eventually make me quit. After so long listening to that voice, I admit to sometimes feeling tired, worn down, and burnt out.

At Plum Village, I was offered an alternative in the form of the word “aspiration,” which contrasts beautifully with the word “expectation.” Where expectations can be heavy, tight, and sometimes suffocating, aspirations are light, spacious, and airy. Where expectations pressure, aspirations inspire. Where the word “expectation” implies a destination, the word “aspiration” encompasses a journey.

We aspire for or to be things that are difficult, but ultimately worth striving for. When we aspire, we acknowledge that the journey will be hard. We know that we may fail, even that we will probably fail on the way. We understand that we are not perfect; that we will not be perfect. And yet the destination and the journey are so worth it that we are inspired to strive and persevere anyway.

In coming into 30 I needed to be reminded that I’m on a journey—I’m climbing a mountain. Knowing myself, I chose the tallest, most difficult mountain I could find, and ignored the warnings of more experienced climbers. I chose that mountain because I knew it would challenge and test me. I chose that mountain because I knew I would stumble and fail along the way to the summit. I wanted to learn to get back up. I wanted each fall to teach me a little more of what I need to know in order to reach the summit. I needed to be reminded that I chose this journey, not just the destination; that the journey is as important, if not more important, than the destination.

I also needed to be reminded that this is the right journey. In my more anxious moments, comparing myself to my peers, I’ve wondered if I made the right choices in my life. I’ve wondered whether or not I’d have been better off if I had never left the beaten path. I’ve spent a lot of time doubting myself, wondering if I should have chosen a life with more financial or emotional stability.

In fact, when I examined my expectations more deeply, I was surprised to find that some small part of me was still very attached to the idea of success by traditional metrics—wealth, fame, reputation, prestige. I thought I had let go of all of that when I left my job to strike out on my own in 2017. I was shocked, then, to realize that, perhaps, a part of me had gone along on this crazy ride secretly hoping that this would somehow be the path to all of those things—that by seeking growth through discomfort, facing my fears, and challenging myself, wealth, fame, reputation, and prestige would all naturally follow.

I see now that this is also the part of me that worries—about money, about my career, about where I am in life compared to others. This is the part of me that I am often silently in conflict with—the part that struggles with uncertainty, and needs external validation in order to feel OK. This is the part of me that conflates failure and rejection with some form of death, and cannot tolerate either. This is the part of me that sometimes wonders if I can or should return to some version of my old life in Silicon Valley—a career where wealth, reputation, and prestige were all but guaranteed, and perhaps fame would follow. This is the part of me that fears that the longer I walk my present path, the more impossible it will become to return to that place of “security.” This is the part of me that forgets how unhappy and unfulfilled I felt in that life.

At Plum Village, I shared deeply about myself and my struggles. I listened deeply and compassionately about others and their struggles. I gave and received love, compassion, kindness, understanding, and grace. In holding space for new friends, and giving them the love they needed, I remembered that there are few things more meaningful in life than to love and be loved.

In enjoying long walks, slow meals, bittersweet tears, fragrant tea, and joyous music, I remembered that each moment of life is a thing to be savored, even the difficult ones. I remembered that love, peace, happiness, joy, and abundance are all things cultivated within, not without. I remembered that all of these things are already available to me and always have been without the need to chase more wealth, prestige, or validation.

Most importantly, I remembered the people who taught me those lessons. Thay Phap Dung, a monk who I became close to during my 2 weeks at Plum Village in France, comes to mind. He gave me the love I needed at the time through compassionate acts as small and simple as sharing a tangerine with me or holding my hand during a walk. I remember watching him take off running down a hill with some children, laughing with them the whole way down. I remember thinking to myself, “What a gift it is to be so young at heart, to be so wise of mind, and to be so generous of spirit!”

In my early 20s, I remember giving a presentation in college where I held up Elon Musk as a role model. If I could be like him some day, I thought, now that would be a life. I could really make a difference that way.

Yet, at Plum Village I remembered that the people who have touched my life most deeply, most beautifully, and most meaningfully haven’t been the eccentric egomaniac billionaires of the world. They’ve been simple people, generous not of wealth, but of spirit. They loved deeply and freely. They taught me to embrace my suffering and enjoy life—to appreciate every step of the journey. They were people like Thay Phap Dung, a simple monk who somehow simultaneously has nothing and everything.

If I had to choose again now, there’d be no question: if I could only be so lucky as to be half as wise, compassionate, and joyful as Thay Phap Dung someday! If I could only be so fortunate as to make as big a difference in others’ lives as he has in mine.

In that choice, I realize how little meaning the questions of my ego hold: what would it matter if I truly am poorer than my peers? What would it matter if I truly do live more humbly than others my age? What would it matter if people truly won’t pay me top dollar for my skills anymore?

In that choice, the answers to my other questions become obvious: it’s OK to be where I am in life. It’s OK to be who I am. I already have enough. I already am enough. I can love myself. I do love myself.

In returning to that place of unconditional love and acceptance, I came to this insight on my last day at the monastery: there is nothing more authentic than who we are or the choices we make when our hearts are full—when we know with utter certainty that we have enough and that we are enough. In the warmth of love, all doubts, fears, and insecurities melt away and the path forward becomes clear.

For me, at 30 years of age, after everything else melts away, I am left standing on this mountain more certain than ever that it is, indeed, my mountain*, my* path, my journey. I choose it again now. I want to choose it again each day. Though I forget it sometimes, I love being on this mountain. I have sacrificed to be here. I’m lucky to be here. It’s a privilege to be here. I hope to learn to slow down and savor each step—even the difficult ones. I hope to stop and admire the view more often, and to appreciate how far I’ve already come. Truthfully, I can’t know if I’ll ever reach the top of this mountain, but I want to keep climbing anyway. After all, even if misfortune befalls me and I never do reach the destination, I will always have the journey. This, however, I can say with complete certainty: oh, what a journey it will be!

Despite all my doubts, Plum Village turned out to be exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it. I’m forever grateful to the part of me that instinctually led me back there, and, though I’m not one to believe in destiny, fate, or even a benevolent universe, I am also grateful that what I needed was available to me exactly when I needed it.

Though I wasn’t expecting it, the monks and nuns did celebrate on New Year’s Eve. We gathered in the meditation hall to cross into the New Year in silent contemplation. But as soon as the clock struck midnight, the silence was broken by the baritones of a beating drum—like a heart beating audibly in the stillness of the night. It was joined not long after by the ringing of the large monastery bell and together they sang a chorus that was all at once solid and grounded, invigorating and inspiring. When the last reverberations of the drum and the bell faded to silence, we gathered outside to symbolically burn our New Year’s aspirations, and in the yard there were fireworks—it turns out not even monks and nuns can resist an excuse to play with fire.

And that’s how I turned 30. It took effort to let go of my expectations, but I can confidently say that this experience at Plum Village was just as special and meaningful as the last. I can also say that the performance of that drum and that bell at midnight were perhaps more beautiful and more meaningful than all of the cold nights I spent in my 20s chasing New Year’s Eve performances around the world combined. Without expectations, I was able to enjoy these experiences for what they were: perfect and exactly as they needed to be.

I’ll close by saying this about turning 30: I am humbled. An impetuous and arrogant younger version of myself certainly never expected to be working through so many of the same questions, problems, and insecurities this many years later. He naively assumed he’d swiftly reach the top of this mountain and be on to summit other, taller peaks by now. He naively assumed that by reaching certain destinations like completing an Ironman, or quitting his job, or doing a certain number of rejection challenges, he’d killed his ego and vanquished his demons.

It never occurred to him that each of these things would be its own journey—that each would require time, care, and lifelong practice. Perhaps above all, it never occurred to him that each step in each journey would require abundant patience and self-compassion—things I struggled with in my 20s. I am humbled now to realize that I may spend the whole of my life climbing just one mountain, and that the journey has only just begun.

I’ll also say this about turning 30: I am inspired. I am inspired to learn to transform my rigid expectations into more flexible aspirations—to trust myself to continue striving even without internalized structure and pressure. I am inspired to learn to have patience and compassion for myself, and for others. I am inspired to learn to love and accept myself unconditionally. Though I am humbled to know that I am still at the beginning of the journey, I’m inspired to continue walking it, and am excited to discover what lies on the path ahead!

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