What had you achieved by the time you were 30? I’ve been working out my list: grade 3 clarinet, whatever Brownie badge you got in the 1980s for cooking two sausages in Brown Owl’s kitchen, a dead parent, two baffling infant sons, a degree Rishi Sunak would probably ban, an autoimmune condition and a job I hated.
I ask, because once again a man has decided to explain what people should have or have done by 30. It’s a perennial temptation for a certain kind of internet gentleman. OK, it’s not always men, but there is something about this brand of would-be motivational hectoring that is business-bro catnip. Remember the chap who said if we didn’t use lockdown to become entrepreneurs or learn a new skill (as opposed to testing every crisp variety in Tesco Metro), “You didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline”?
The latest in this genre (Twitter bio: “I teach you the simple habits of millionaires”) says when you reach 30 you should have “a group of friends that talk business, money, and fitness, not politics and pop culture”. If he’d added cars to the list, he would have filled my bingo card of conversational topics most likely to make my eyes roll back in my skull, which is perhaps why I am not a millionaire.
A wave of derision and satirical tweets greeted this pronouncement. I couldn’t decide which alternative goals to hit by 30 I liked best: “Anxiety, and an emotional support pet that also has anxiety” felt highly relatable, but so did the one about having “40 different tote bags you don‘t need but keep stuffed into one larger tote bag”.
I fear this gave the author exactly what he wanted – #engagement – but who could resist reacting? Once your progress can’t be charted in a red book by a harassed health visitor, there is no benchmark that means anything, since each of us is the product of a cocktail of accidents of birth, circumstance and dumb luck. The sheer idiocy of claiming your success is down to a combination of self-belief, superior character, green juice, journalling and 5am CrossFit sessions deserves to be mocked.
A whole personal growth industry is predicated on getting us to compare ourselves unfavourably with others, because feeding those insecurities sells “reach your potential” webinars. But even knowing that, it’s hard not to let it get under your skin. Reading what I “should” have achieved gives me the same twitchy, defensive feeling I get from those “30 people under 30 to watch” lists, resentfully scanning pictures of fresh-faced overachievers. The sense you aren’t where you should be, and that others are, is a surefire thief of joy, and we shouldn’t let blokes who overuse fire emojis steal our joy.
If I had a platinum-tier subscriber level newsletter to sell you, this is what I would argue you should have achieved by my age (47):
A burning fury about some trivial aspect of your neighbourhood (lighting, bollards, men who trim between the paving stones with scissors).
Three to five relationships – romantic or platonic – that you feel lasting guilt about.
A part of your face or body that you don’t recognise any more. Whose chin is that? What’s that lump on my eyelid? When did my heels take on the texture of barnacles?
A miasma of pension dread.
An anecdote you cannot stop telling even though you know your interlocutor has heard it before. (Me: this was my grandfather’s knife. My husband: I know, you tell me every time you touch it.)
An alternative career you truly believe you would have been happier in.
But at 47, I have also found a way to deal with that self-flagellatory itch, so here it is, for your vision boards. Read the Guardian’s New Start After 60 or the New York Times’ It’s Never Too Late series, exploring later life changes. People, you discover, do awe-inspiring things at every age: there’s an 86-year-old water polo player in this week’s New York Times. But more importantly, they do the things they, not anyone else, wants: what fulfils them and what they enjoy. If you’re selling a seminar on how to achieve that, take my money.
Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist