I celebrated my 30th birthday more than three years ago. Although I had an enjoyable celebration, I didn’t treat it as the seminal event it usually represents, at least for our culture. Perhaps it’s because I had just moved to Washington, D.C. to begin a new job and didn’t have the capacity for any added introspection.
Regardless, I felt relieved to leave my twenties, glad to get that decade behind me and move onto something new.
It wasn’t until the other weekend, though, that I understood why. While my wife and I drove along the GW Parkway, the topic of her fast-approaching 30th birthday came up. After planning a visit to New York City, my wife slipped into contemplative mode and asked what I enjoyed most about turning 30.
It was a difficult question, one I hadn’t thought about, so I volleyed it back to her—what did she look forward to about turning 30?
From there, the conversation took on a life of its own. With space to air thoughts and emotions, it felt like the much-needed reflection I had forgone three years earlier. From the perspective of someone looking forward to their 30th birthday and another person looking back at that same experience, we uncovered three important lessons turning 30 teaches you.
Your Days are Numbered.
Your twenties are a time of exploration. Switching majors, moving cities, traveling overseas, dating different types of people, working a variety of jobs. It’s expected you’ll experiment—not only because it’s liberating after living under your parents’ control, but it helps in discovering who you are and what to do with your life.
While some stretch this season past their third decade, most of us tend to settle down at some point in our late twenties or early thirties. We get married. We discern our calling. We find a city we enjoy.
The wandering and restlessness that defined our twenties gives way to clarity and stability.
Some might criticize this transition as selling out, but I think it’s good. As my wife observed, turning 30 draws into focus the glaring reality that your time on this planet is limited. Each day you live brings you a day closer to your eventual death. So, often, if you want a family, if you want a home, if you want a satisfying career, you need to stop wandering (or at least wandering aimlessly) and start planting.
Your Responsibilities are Greater Than Any Perceived Freedom.
Americans are now waiting to get married until they’re nearly 30. I don’t blame them—I waited until I was 31. The thing is, I enjoyed the freedom that came with singleness. To be more precise, I enjoyed the perception of freedom. Not that I exercised it much, I just liked the idea that I could do anything without consequence.
Marriage equaled responsibility, I thought, and responsibility suffocates freedom.
For much of my life, that’s also how I viewed getting older: With age comes responsibility, and with added responsibility comes reduced freedom.
For instance, when you buy a house you give up the ability to up and move somewhere else. Or when you take a serious job, you can’t easily try on a new profession. Or when you have kids, it’s no longer possible to travel somewhere exotic on a dime.
Around the time you turn 30, though, you stumble upon the other side of this equation. The responsibilities that come with age are greater than any perceived freedom attached to youth. In other words, you don’t miss your twenties because generally, your thirties are so much better.
Think of it in the context of marriage. While your freedoms are certainly limited—you can no longer date or crash at a friend’s house or hit the bars until early the next morning—it doesn’t matter, because now you have someone committed to love and serve alongside you.
That’s how it is with your thirties. Sure, you can’t do a lot you could do in your twenties, but who cares? Hopefully, you settle into a job you care about, a home you like, kids you love and a spouse you adore. And you wouldn’t trade it for anything, especially not some abstract perception of freedom.
You Must Prioritize What Really Matters.
Perhaps the greatest lesson turning 30 teaches doesn’t so much concern you as much as it does others. Let me explain.
There’s no doubt that a side-effect of getting older is losing control of our time. This is particularly true in the 21st century, where everyone is both constantly connected and always distracted. There are so many demands, we can feel like an observer of our life instead of its captain.
At the same time, our priorities begin shifting as we get older, especially as we enter our thirties. While youth is often defined by self-indulgence and self-discovery, that focus begins shifting outward as we come into our own.
In a world where time is increasingly limited, we eventually realize that unless we prioritize what really matters, we miss it. So those things that once seemed important, like buddy bonding and late-night concerts and office politics, no longer get much attention. Instead, we focus on what actually matters—family, faith, calling and close friends.
It’s an interesting shift, one most of us only discover after traveling through the first 29 years of life. But once realized, it changes everything.
Paul Perkins is an attorney, former White House staffer and author of the spiritual memoir, Unexpected Journeys. Read more at PaulPerkins.com.