I turn 31 in three weeks. I don’t know if other people feel this same way, but being an adult has proven to be much more difficult than I expected. Not to say I’m in deep crisis mode, but I wouldn’t say I “have it all figured out” — not by a long shot. Obviously plenty of older people tried to prepare me for this feeling, and I thought I was listening to them, but I guess I never really was. Maybe it’s impossible to really feel it until you’re feeling it.
I think what surprises me the most is the sudden loss of linear movement. Childhood and early adulthood, divvied up neatly into semesters and seasons and milestone ages, just created so much structural inertia, so much thrust forward along a track, that it is now quite jarring at 30 to look around and feel none of that initial fuel source in the engine anymore. The space shuttle has dropped its thrusters and we’re now floating in space, powered in theory by something different, something new, that was previously dormant, or at best, underutilized.
I’m sure this feeling is not universal — after all, a lot of this foundational integrity I felt is thanks to my particular privilege and my particular upbringing. Not to mention, many people, possibly most, bounce seamlessly between this original fuel source and something equally potent, equally reliable, without really feeling the gap. I have no idea, but I would imagine that to go from high school to college to law school to a law firm, with no uncertainty in between, would eliminate your awareness of this transition entirely. That being said, I do believe almost everyone makes some sort of shift, some recalibration, from “getting this thing in the air” to actually “piloting” the thing itself. Perhaps for me, a writer, director, and most-of-the-time freelancer, this procedure happens with much less anesthetic.
But what are these two fuel sources, exactly? The first one I believe is quite simple: it is that elemental need to matter, to exist, and to be somebody. In my own personal experience, I think I knew instinctually in my last year in college that it was going to take a lot of energy to break through the atmosphere and find my footing on the other side. I was driven by a desire to have a life, whatever life that might be; to have an identity, hopefully one that was close to who I actually was, but it was more important to have one than for it to be 100% accurate. I didn’t want to be left behind, to make it out of incubation. I wanted to say something, anything, and for it to be heard, and nothing was more important than harnessing my whole childhood’s worth of pent-up energy and pouring it fully into that effort.
This is an incredibly powerful fuel source. After all, it is the driving force behind a lot of the great art and creativity in history. People in their 20s, driven by an obsessive and unrestrained need to “arrive” into adulthood, have changed the world countless times. This explosive propulsion is not without its downsides, however. We’ve all known people (or been people) that are deeply driven, constantly in motion, and we all know what is sacrificed in these situations in terms of structure, sustainability, and peace of mind. It look me years to truly understand how ungrounded I was, how messy my room was, and it wasn’t until my late 20s that I began to feel aware of and humbled to the consequences of that pace. I am tangentially reminded of the “27 Club,” the eerily long list of artists who died at age 27 from substance abuse, violence, suicide, or accidents. I’m obviously not comparing myself to Janis Joplin (illegal drugs make me nervous), or saying all young people are on a collision course with harsh truths, but rather, just that being pushed forward by this particularly powerful engine, while it is exciting and beautiful in many respects, is not especially compatible with responsibility, mindful decision making, or a deeper emotional well-being.
I think it was around age 27 that I started to feel those initial thrusters coming off. Suddenly, I no longer felt the need to “be somebody” — I was someone, for better or worse. I no longer felt like I needed to arrive somewhere or do something — I was somewhere, and I was doing it, whatever “it” was. Nothing about life was definitively solved or “won” or figured out, but the curtain was up, and it was all happening. I felt like a sprinter, realizing he is running a marathon. Muscles shift, pacing alters, and internal motivation starts to come from a slightly different place. But where is that different place? Long story short, I think it’s different for everyone, and I’m still figuring it out for myself. I do believe it is connected to no longer “needing to be someone” but instead, asking “is this who I want to be?” No longer trying to “arrive,” but instead, asking “where am I? Is this home, or somewhere else?” I no longer feel like I’m leaning as much of myself towards an unknown future, putting off my happiness and comfort in the present moment as a luxury not yet earned. At 30, in my experience, you don’t need to “slow down” or “stop moving,” but you do need to be okay standing still, and feel fully yourself in a vacuum. This is a lifelong struggle that is not easy for anyone, especially me, but I do think it is essential to finding relative peace.
So, I guess for me, my new fuel source is starting to reveal itself. It has something to do with creativity as a necessary release, as exhaust off the machine, communicating humanity for the sake of itself. It also has something to do with truly, deeply, understanding the intangible value of a cooking a meal or making a bed. Sitting still. Really valuing it. While still powering on, full steam ahead, finding meaningful appreciation for slowness, and for actions that lacked “utility” in the eyes of a younger me. Writing this, I guess, is part of that process as well.
In some ways, changing fuel sources feels like losing something. But what? My more desperate self? The raw chaotic power of youth? Who knows. In truth, while there is something lost, there is a lot gained. I think this secondary fuel can result in a deeper, richer, more nuanced and intentional source of movement, and it doesn’t just take you “up,” but to places you actually want to go. I’m sure as we all age we’ll find the tank empty over and over, and over and over, needing to shift and reignite. The only overarching goal I have is to never let the tank go empty. There’s always a new source somewhere, and once it’s found, you just need to grab the wheel, hit the gas, and go.