I turned 30 the other day. At the time, I was swamped with work while also hosting my dad who was in town helping us to build a proper deck to replace the old rickety one that came with the house. People asked me how it felt to reach such a milestone and I replied, honestly, that I hadn’t had much time to process it. Now that it’s been a little while, I can tell you how it feels. It feels like an ending and a beginning.
Turning 30 is, in a way, a culmination of a long period of my life that I would describe as “preparation.” For most of my life, everything has been geared toward preparing me for a nebulous future that has gradually come into focus. The goals have been concrete and well-defined. Graduate from high school. Get into a good college. Graduate from college. Get into a good grad school. Finish grad school. Get a good post-doc. Finish the post-doc, get a permanent position. Through a combination of hard work and what seems, at times, to be miraculous luck, I have achieved each of these goals in turn, right on schedule. As of a month ago, I have a permanent position doing the sort of work that I have been preparing for for most of my life. It’s a strange feeling to look to my future and see no distinct marker of achievement. There will be no more graduations and diplomas. No more term-limited positions.It is comforting but also somewhat terrifying to think that the job I have now is basically the job I will have twenty years from now. My years and years of professional preparation are over, and now it’s time to do the work I have trained for.
In parallel to my professional preparation, of course, there is the personal “preparation” for adulthood. College taught independence, and a certain level of comfort with who I am. I met my wife as college was ending. We moved in together in grad school. We went on vacations together. We got a dog. We got engaged. We got married. We moved across the country. We bought a house. All the while, we were learning the million lessons that go into figuring out how to live life as an adult.
Like having a permanent job, owning a house has been a strange experience. When you move away to college, you go from a place that you call “home” to having no real permanent home. At first, the length of time spent living somewhere is very short, just one school year per dorm room. Then I moved to a rental house (interspersed with brief stays over the summer at various internships). In grad school I lived in a condo and after 5 years it was starting to feel like home, but at the same time, I always knew that it would not be permanent, that I would have to leave after I graduated. It was difficult to leave, but inevitable.
In Arizona we briefly lived in an apartment but then finally bought a house and settled in. And now, with a permanent job here, it looks likely that we will be living in this house for a long time. It’s finally safe to call a place “home” again, after years of withholding that term.
Turning 30 feels like an ending because it coincides with the end of this long stage of my life that has been preparation for living it. Now a new stage is beginning, called Being An Adult. It is bittersweet to reach this point. The hardest part for me is knowing that, going forward, I will never have more free time than I do right now. My job responsibilities continue to increase, and in all likelihood Erin and I will be starting a family in the next few years and what remains of our free time will be consumed by caring for kids. Of course these are all good things. On the work front it is great to feel that what I do is important, and that people depend upon me. On the personal front, I think having kids is going to be wonderful. But that doesn’t change the fact that it will fundamentally change my life.
It’s frustrating because even now, with the most free time that I am likely to ever have until I retire, I never get done what I want to do. I have achieved most of the goals that I have set for my career, and so the next major goal that I have set for myself is to write a book that gets published. And yet, when I have some free time, more often than not it’s spent on social media or playing video games rather than writing. I may be an adult, but a part of me still clings to childhood. I know that my days of having free time are numbered, and so I furtively play video games, allowing them to transport me back to a time when I had few responsibilities and all the time in the world. I really do enjoy gaming, but then I end up feeling guilty about it. Because if my days of having free time are numbered, then I should be spending that time productively, working on my writing, working toward my next Big Goal.
I have struggled with this conflict between the part of me that wants to make the most of my dwindling free time by relaxing with some games, and the part of me that wants to make the most of it by doing something productive, for years. It’s a conflict between who I am and who I want to be. Between present-me and future-me. Recently the conflict has intensified, and neither side is willing to budge. If I could give up on writing and give myself full permission to just relax and play some games or watch TV, I’d probably be happier. Likewise, if I could quit gaming and actually get some writing done, I would probably be happier. I keep clinging to the hope that I will somehow find a way to balance the two sides. My spreadsheet experiment is the closest I’ve been able to get to reaching that happy medium, but it completely fell apart in the last couple months when I got overwhelmed by work responsibilities. I will be re-starting it soon, but how long before something else comes along and consumes all my free time?
I guess that’s a big part of growing older: learning how best to use the time that we have. And figuring out what “best” even means in this context. I’m still working on that one, and I probably always will be. I expect that my answer will change over the years as I get the hang of this new experience called Being an Adult. It’s sad to see the end of my long “preparation” phase, and intimidating to contemplate where I go from here, but it’s also exciting. I somehow seem to have managed to do a pretty good job of “preparing” and I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds.