So today I’m 30. The age itself holds no real meaning for me though I know in popular culture people dread years that end in a zero. To me it feels like any other birthday, which means warm and fuzzy feelings because, yay, it is my birthday and I think birthdays are awesome because they are all about celebration.
Every year I write a blog post on my birthday as a way to pause and take stock of the past year of my life and think about the future. I am not one to make resolutions, I’d rather just set some direction to help shape the path (for the design geeks in the audience, I’m more about identifying principles than setting explicit goals).
This past year was specially important in become more self-aware. Things I’ve learned about myself this year:
I love surprising people – this often means exceeding people’s expectations, at work, in my personal life and other contexts. What I learned in the past year is that I will go to so many lengths to try and do this that it often puts more strain on me than necessary. Sometimes just doing what is expected is the best for myself and whoever benefits from it. Exceeding expectations is a wonderful goal, but if there is no good payoff or return of effort, it just burns you out. It gives me great joy when I do things and people go “wow”, but the harder I have to try, bigger my expectation of the “wow” reaction. And like an addiction, looking for more “highs” can really put you over the edge.
I don’t know how to fail – I haven’t figured out how to articulate this well enough yet, but in blunt terms, I have been extremely successful in pretty much anything I have tried in my life thus far. I am not apologetic about this – I have worked hard to make all these successes happen – but I am very aware of what I don’t learn from not failing frequently enough. As a designer, I understand the value of failure – but I only understand it on a rational level, not as an internalized practice. I think I would be a better at what I do if I knew how to fail more. And “knowing how to fail” may sounds odd, but only if you think of failure as an external factor that is not your own doing. I think of myself as someone who is willing to take risks and good at taking calculated risks, but I can’t avoid thinking that my infrequent failure is not because I am particularly gifted, but because I focus too much “getting it right” soon. This is extremely well received in the working world, but my gut tells me allowing myself more “failure opportunities” could help me achieve better outcomes – professionally and personally.
I never put myself first – This one just plain sucks. I was raised to think I could do anything. I was also raised with the ethos that gloating and selfishness were negative things. I somehow internalized these as “do everything wonderfully for everyone else, then yourself” and consciously or not, I always try and make people feel appreciated, deserving and important. That combined with my love for surprising people, generally means I put myself last. It’s a shame because these are not mutually exclusive things, but in circumstances when they are, I don’t even hesitate and will relegate my needs to second-thought at best. I haven’t really figured out why this happens or how, I’ve only just become aware of it enough to see just how frequently I do it, but it is really tiring for me. Since I was never conscious of this as an underlying attitude, it was not something I could address. Now I am more aware of it so I can make better choices and I understand it’s about balance, neither putting others nor myself first, but nurturing myself and others sufficiently, which probably requires better judgment when deciding.
So in the future, I will continue to try and surprise people because I really get great pleasure from it, but not to my detriment. And rather than trying to get to a positive outcome by taking calculated risks, I’ll invest some extra time in exploring more risky opportunities. Perhaps I’ll fail more and hopeful I’ll learn more too.
Now let’s talk about age. 30. Whether I care about age or not, you can’t really say “a kid of 30”, so this is effectively an old enough age. This is only helpful or relevant to me because for the majority of my professional life, I tried to stay the hell away from any conversations about age (which was annoying because unlike a LOT of people in my generation who fuss about what age they are or are not, I REALLY don’t care). The reason for that is I have ALWAYS been the youngest person in the room. Whether I was the junior person, the established practitioner or the boss. Whether I was a consultant, a contractor, a partner or a corporate in-house team member. ALWAYS. Every single context and circumstances. And I don’t just mean professionally. In the sports team, in the guitar class, in the volunteer group. Always the youngest. And because of how most people in our current culture do make assumptions and are influenced in their behaviors by perceptions of ability, capacity and maturity that they derive from someone’s age, my age always had the potential to work against me.
Because of that I took the necessary precautions to mitigate that risk. I have made wardrobe choices, hair cut choices, speech and tone choices, language and writing style choices, and many other choices to deal with the problem. At times, it was almost like acting, playing this older version of me. I would not and have never lied about my age – if someone asked me I was absolutely honest about exactly what age I was – but I never volunteered this information. At the times when I experimented with volunteering this info (in safe settings), I was proven right and people’s behaviors towards me were transformed, always in negative ways. Telling people I am gay did not provoke nearly as much transformation in behavior as real “young” age did (maybe a comparison for another time).
As with any other irrational reaction to a natural attribute, like age, or color or sexual orientation, the negative response is based on fear. Ageism comes from both older and younger people. There is no win; but it’s all fear based – specially fear of obsolescence by those who are older (how can they do/know/be ____ so early when it took me this long?) and fear of failure by those who are the same age/younger (how can they do/know/be _____ already when I’m not there yet?). I sincerely hope this ageism is a generational trait and one that is overcome or better dealt with by the generations that follow. Either way, now I’m old enough for most circumstances and don’t have to worry about this nearly as much. I think this is the best gift I could get turning 30. Happy birthday to me.