Reflections on Being 30

Epistemic Status: Personal

I haven’t written a lot of personal stuff here recently, because I’ve been doing a lot more private contemplation, and been busy with life things. (Nonprofit and baby, among other things.)  But I thought I might want to put out some thoughts about what growing in maturity means to me and what I’ve come to believe — since I still believe firmly in the blogging medium and the practice of transparency.


There’s a transition that a lot of people go through as they get older, that has to do with “practicality” or “prudence.”  They no longer want to do things that will predictably fail.  They are no longer as willing to deal with people who will predictably fail at life. They are no longer as interested in ideas that can’t stand up to practical tests.

I’ve noticed more of this spirit in myself as I get older, but I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about it.  I like interestingness.  I want to avoid the natural tendency to stop exploring as I age.  Meeting new people, learning new things, having new experiences, expanding my boundaries, are still important to me.

On the other hand, I’ve really enjoyed becoming more adept at the “practical” or “operational” side of things — schedules, housework, childcare, managing a small organization, etc.  My identity up until now has been “talented mess” — so much so that I got an ADHD diagnosis quite by accident, and am now exploring the very different world of practicality and detail-orientation and organization.  It’s strange. It’s very calm, and it’s a satisfying challenge to keep up with things and bring more order to different parts of my life, and it’s completely non-narrative.  Life becomes a series of tasks, rather than a story.  I’m continually marveling that this is how some people have been living all along.

Of course, the real reason for being more prudent in your thirties or as a parent is hard necessity. You have less energy, and more responsibilities, and so you have to be more cautious with resources and time.  This isn’t something I really want to spin as a good thing — it’s scarcity, plain and simple.

You have to give up something, and the cheapest thing to give up is being a dumbass.

want to have an “abundance mentality”, to be generous and spendthrift with my time and energy; but sometimes I come up against irreducible scarcity.

A friend advised me last year to “have an ego.”  He meant it in Freud’s sense of the “rational self-interest” part of the psyche.  An ego is an institution you build around yourself, like the Republic of Sarah, or Sarah Incorporated.  Your household, your career, your reputation, your health, all these structures around yourself that you build and maintain and use to interface with the world.

So I did that.

I do a lot of adjusting and updating on these structures; in a sense that’s most of what I do all day long.  Taking care of my work, my family and household, my physical body, etc. Like a hermit crab, the little soft emotional creature that is me is hidden within all this prudence and structure.  I notice it works better. I notice people like it better.  But I’m a little melancholy about it.


One value I still hold very firmly is something I call “humanism”, or being “pro-human” or believing in the worth of the human spirit.  I don’t think that has to go away with age.

The whole human mind, which is a general intelligence, which can learn anything and create anything, is a beautiful thing and not to be destroyed.

This is in contrast to some people who become traditionalists or authoritarians when they hit the age where they realize they need prudence. The temptation is to believe “people just need to be kept under tight enough control that they can’t do dumb shit, because the consequences of doing dumb shit are tragic.”

The thing is, I don’t think that controlling people actually is a feasible way to prevent tragedy.

A child prevented from making mistakes isn’t a perfect child, but an underdeveloped child.

If you manage to control someone’s behavior well enough to “keep them out of trouble”, there’s a good chance you’ve damaged their ability to problem-solve, and — I don’t know how to say this any other way — injured the sacred thing that makes them human.

People who say “autonomy is a figment, some people need to be controlled for their own good” are sometimes the same people who do actually really bad things to human beings, by dehumanizing them.

As I get less easily susceptible to opinions I hear, and more interested in the boring-but-true over the hot take, I become more humanist, not less so.  It’s not naive. It’s actually looking at what people are, and noticing that they are a lot more complex and able than cynics give them credit for, that “people aren’t all that special” or “some people aren’t really people” is a brute’s excuse.

You can totally be a mature person, or a parent, and still believe in humanism and autonomy.  People have been doing it for hundreds of years.


10 thoughts on “Reflections on Being 30

  1. ‘If you manage to control someone’s behavior well enough to “keep them out of trouble”, there’s a good chance you’ve damaged their ability to problem-solve, and — I don’t know how to say this any other way — injured the sacred thing that makes them human.’
    Thank you, this point needs to be made a thousand times and you’ve phrased it very well.

    • I’m reminded of an adage and the reasoning behind it… “Build something even a fool can use, and only a fool will use it.” In order to make a computer program idiot-proof, you have to make it impossible to make a bad decision, and the only reliable way to do that is to make it impossible to make any decisions at all. Which usually makes your program useless.

      I had to fight my parents tooth and nail for the right to make bad decisions. I lost.

  2. it’s interesting, getting closer to 30 (i’m currently 28) made me less of a humanist, but for almost the same reasons. leaving people to be autonomous and make their own mistakes demands the coldness to actually let them suffer the pains of bad decisions.

    • Well, one can let people make bad decisions, but not stand cold around the consequences, but lend a helping hand. Next time it will be me or you.

  3. You seem to have described how the rest of the country feels about Californians. All y’all are many things, but “practical” is not your strongest point.

    Risk tolerance is tricky, because some risks will actually kill you. On the other hand, as a young Californian mother, you’re probably surrounded by one of the most risk-averse parenting cultures in human history. As a rule of thumb, “no permanent damage” is a good place to draw the line – if the kid can face the risk, get unlucky, and fully recover, it’s a learning experience. A few weeks in crutches never killed anyone.

    • Somebody’s gotta be the utopian, and relative to the rest of society I’m still comfortably in that role. :p

    • even “no permanent damage” isn’t achievable as a guarantee without unacceptable curtailing of autonomy, though. walking in cities, taking taxis, riding bikes, climbing rocks all have the ability to cause permanent damage. and yet sometimes the right thing to do is just to accept that risk. mitigate it, within reason, but…. the risk will still be there.

  4. As I approach 30 (28 right now), I am haunted by this line: Life becomes a series of tasks, rather than a story. Would you be willing to expand on this in another personal essay?

    • Maybe!
      Short version: I realized belatedly, on a visit to my dad’s house (he’s in his sixties) that I had misunderstood him for many years. In my teens and twenties, I thought he *opposed* my personal ideals and philosophies, that he was living according to an opposing ideology to mine. I finally understood that he simply wasn’t thinking in terms of ideologies at all on a day-to-day basis, he was thinking about concretes. Gotta go to the store, wash the car, prepare my talk, meet with the dean. In his mind, compared to mine, there weren’t as many intense feelings, not as many Grand Theories of Everything, because so much brain space went into getting things done in the present. He didn’t *oppose* my opinions, he frequently wasn’t even aware of them!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s