Things I know at 30 I wish I knew at 20

A 30th birthday is a peculiar creature. For some, it’s a day of genuine celebration; for others, a time of wistful reflection. As mine fast approaches, I find myself suitably philosophical. I look back on the last 10 years and while I agree that we are who we are because of what we’ve seen and done, I wish I could reach back through the years with these five simple truths:

When you get there, there’s no ‘there’ there

As with anyone, my twenties were a maelstrom of soaring highs and gutting lows, the latter of which involved arranged marriage, divorce, estrangement and bereavement. Today, one might say I have finally found peace. I live in a spacious flat in one of the world’s greatest cities, I travel far and wide, I work at the world’s biggest publishing company, I’m writing my third novel and, most importantly, I’ve figured out that true love is the most precious thing one can have. Am I happy? Yes. Am I ‘there’? No. Because ‘there’ doesn’t exist. Human beings are hard-wired to want more; to chase the next thrill; to set the next goal; to want bigger, better, faster and NOW. There are days I question if I’m wasting my life on the London Underground. I dream about relocating to somewhere warm, living near a beach, revelling in a simpler life. I’d like to tell my 20-year-old self to stop chasing ‘there’ and instead enjoy here.  

Don’t be with someone you don’t love

I went from a working-class Tower Hamlets girl who wore a hand-me-down coat for six years to a lady of leisure in a 3-bedroom Greenwich semi, courtesy of my high-earning husband. I had everything I wanted – freedom, stability, space and time – and yet I’d find myself staring out the kitchen window, repeatedly asking a single question: ‘Is this it?’ My unhappiness stemmed from a single cause: I didn’t love the man I married. When I found his incriminating emails to another woman, more than anger or betrayal I felt relief; overwhelming relief that I could finally end our charade. Fast forward to February 2012 and I’m signing for a delivery at the office. It’s a stunning evening gown sent by someone who read in a column that I wanted it. My fashionista colleagues do some reconnaissance and we find out that it’s worth several thousand pounds. They tell their friends about it, they tweet about it and they tell me in no uncertain terms that I have to keep the dress – alas, I am compelled to return it. My 20-year-old self would have been completely enamoured, but at 30 I know I can’t be with a man that I do not love. Perhaps I had to earn this wisdom the hard way, but things would have been so much easier had I always known it. (I probably should have kept the dress though.)

Niceness is not a weakness

According to the professionals, all our issues and neuroses can be traced to back to childhood. I hate to admit it, but they might just be right. Growing up in a violent household with a drug addict brother meant that I was constantly striving to prove how strong, unafraid and invulnerable I was. The guilt-tinged relief I felt every time he chose to beat one of my sisters instead of me hardened instead of softened me. I dismissed kindness and compassion as weaknesses, and trained myself into the cynical, aloof, world-weary twenty-something I’ve been for the last 10 years. In my previous job, my staff would liken me to Anna Wintour, notorious for her steely demeanour, but I took it as a compliment. After all, who’s going to touch you when you’re made of ice? I don’t think I’ll ever have the optimism or open-heartedness of a well-adjusted adult, but I’m slowly learning to thaw. If I could tell my younger self that being nice is not a weakness, perhaps I wouldn’t have to work so hard at it now.

Smart and pretty aren’t mutually exclusive

I’ve never dyed my hair and I don’t own a lipstick. I have five pairs of decent shoes and even fewer handbags. I’ve always dismissed women who spend hours on hair, makeup and shopping as vacuous fools, blindly following the whims of fashion. I haughtily dedicated my time to more noble pursuits – learning a foreign language, taking horseriding lessons and reading Camus – while other girls found their perfect foundation, learnt to backcomb expertly and amassed a vast array of accessories to suit any occasion. I would like to tell my younger self to lighten up about this stuff; that being feminine doesn’t make you stupid; that you don’t have to try so hard to prove yourself; that it’s okay to want to look good. Sure, Camus was fun but so were the secret superpowers endowed to me by those semi-permanent lashes I trialled last summer. Enjoy your youth for it won’t last long.

Your parents (probably) did the best they could 

This is a cliché I wish I had heeded. Alas, somewhere between my brother’s addiction and my parents’ inertia, my relationship with my mother disintegrated. I despised the fact that she protected her son as he destroyed her daughters. My family’s Asian conservatism won’t allow for the kind of angry, accusatory but ultimately cathartic and reconciliatory mother-daughter exchanges you see in the movies so I don’t know if I’ll ever work my way through this one. I guess what I’d say is: try not to get so angry with your mother. She’s probably doing the best she can and, one day, you’re going to have to forgive her.

If you could reach back through the ages, what would you say?


18 thoughts on “Things I know at 30 I wish I knew at 20”

  1. Great post. I really enjoyed this, except I have to disagree with:

    >Human beings are hard-wired to want more; to chase the next thrill; to set the next goal; to want bigger, better, faster and NOW.

    This isn't human nature, it's conditioning by modern society. There was a time not so long ago where people didn't "chase the dream" but were happy with their lot. Either way, good for you for realising happiness is internal and controlable.

    Oh and I would say to my 20 year old self not to assume that things will fall into his lap automatically or as a matter of course. And I'm sure he'll know what I mean by "things".

  2. > Shak
    Thanks, glad you enjoyed. You make a good point. My initial instinct was to disagree (after all, if it wasn't human nature to want more, why have we built roads and cars and microwaves?) but there are lots of people that ARE happy with the simple life and lots more who crave it so maybe you're right.

    And I'm sure 'things' will happen if you're patient (and by 'patient' I mean willing to lower your standards).

  3. Hi Kia 🙂
    Your post comes just in a perfect time for me. I'm in my twenties, in a stage where I doubt my skills and abilities, the questions "Will i ever make it" and "Is this the right professional path for me" are bothering me day and night. I know from your point of view these worries probably look pea-sized, but if you were in my place, wondering which way to take…it is like walking with closed eyes.
    I always try to stay positive and tell myself, it's not about the destination, it's about the journey. So enjoy it. But sometimes we are so into the journey, getting lost, that we forget to watch the sights outside.
    How do you know if you're going to achieve your dream? How do you know that is the right dream/destination for you? And on the marriage topic, how can you be sure this is real love/the person you want to spend the rest of your life with?

    The troubled post-teenager

  4. I know that this may sound strange. But no, you don't have to forgive your mother. You also shouldn't keep all the feeling which were created during your childhood. In the end all what matters is not guilt but what you make of your own life. If you can live it without hard feeling and without being caught in the past. I think it is important to know why and how one react to certain "trigger" and to free oneself from this. To forgive someone for something, to be honest, for me this is not letting it go. Because there still is all the bad which could be forgiven. All the things still inside oneself. Also to forgive is more like an active decision but emotions created during the childhood are sitting really deep and not in the mind. The reaction one has if one hears a certain music, if one smells something familiar… and the body reacts, the emotions react. If the things go, there is also nothing to forgive anymore because there is nothing more which keeps one in the past. But maybe there is a chance to learn / to know the person the own mother is in a new way (if one wants to). It won't ever be the mother a little child learns to know and trust but maybe one learn the person to know which the own mother really is.

    I am now 32 and I am free from a lot of things in my past / in my childhood for the first time ever. It is not easy to explain. It feels like breathing free and easy. I am in a new relationship now, the first one for years and it was not the world which changed. Just me. I love my family, I really do. And just now, learning to keep a little distance (not to react to every single word in which an assault or judgement could be hidden) and realizing (being very surprised) that this allows me to let them come near me. That it is okay not to solve every problem by my own. That I don't have to be strong always. That the people who loves me like to help me because this is their way to show that they care. To help each other is not creating weakness but a way of bonding. I am still struggling from time to time but I don't ever want to go back to my former self. Because the world is bigger now and brighter.



  5. Hi Kia, almost happy birthday to you.

    I have never heard of you until today – though stumbled on this post and some of your articles. Did you ever end up joining Mensa?

    You seem to have some sort of overall perspective; open-minded and thinking… enough for me to be bothered with writing a comment. Much of what(how) you write feels oddly familiar, I will probably buy a book or two then return here for a follow-up comment.

    Your five truths are interesting (not sure if I am entirely honest or not, maybe just being kind) but difficult concepts for people to grasp.

    In particular, "don't be with somebody you don't love". I even agree to the extent where you, given the luxury of options, should not need to socialise with somebody you aren't especially fond of. Be it friends or friends' friends or even family!

    Not many can choose or steer their own life as much as they want (if they want to). I tried and sort of did it, but have come to realise that I suppose I… failed?

    So to my 20 year old self: Yes, you can do whatever you want, create your own path and walk it. You will probably succeed because you're good at succeeding so go ahead and do it, but let me warn you: when you get there, there's no 'there' there.

    Anonymous for now

  6. > Sandra
    Maybe there isn't a rule. Maybe some of us do find 'there' and the rest of us don't. I've certainly heard older people (post-40) say that their 40s have been their best years yet so perhaps we just have to wait a bit longer.

    I read an illuminating article in the Guardian that may interest you. The comments are the most insightful. Some are funny, some poignant, but they all show that life is rambling and random, it can be big and generous or small and unforgiving. What I will say is that as I grow older, I find myself losing my faith in this idea of 'destiny'. Maybe we're all in total control of ourselves, which means we can change our lives should we so wish.

  7. > Saraccino/Claire
    I'm glad to hear that things have changed for you. I wonder if you are right about forgiveness. I've never taken an active decision about this (i.e. "I will start forgiving my mother TODAY") but over time, our relationship has become better. Maybe that's the best I can hope for, not only because of the past but because of the present. I wrote about my family in a post last year and in it I say, "My youngest sister is still at home. I tell her I know how she feels, but, more than fear or anger, I know she feels abandonment. And it’s true. We all abandoned that house the first chance we got."

    Last week, I had dinner with just my little sister for the first time in possibly a year. She spoke of the situation and how she can't leave the house because she has to protect my mother from my brother's outburts. It broke my heart because that feeling of needing to protect should be directed the other fucking way. I didn't say anything because I felt the same anger I've felt for many years. So, yes, maybe making a decision to forgive is pretty pointless when you're emotions run differently.

  8. > Anon
    Thank you. I did join, but left within the year. Basically, you get a poorly designed magazine once a month along and an invitation to go and mix with other Mensa members. I wasn't really excited by the prospect of either so cancelled my membership.

    It's interesting what you say about forging your own path (I said something along those lines in my comment to Sandra above). You said, "Not many can choose or steer their own life as much as they want (if they want to). I tried and sort of did it, but have come to realise that I suppose I… failed?"

    I don't think you should see it as failure. One of my favouite quotes pretty much says what I think: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

  9. You seriously should consider putting your books on iTunes, I know they may take a bigger cut but it would broaden your fan base and like me everyone else can see what a wonderful writer you really are. Raj

  10. 'I despised the fact that she protected her son as he destroyed her daughter/s. My family’s Asian conservatism won’t allow for the kind of angry, accusatory but ultimately cathartic and re-conciliatory mother-daughter exchanges you see in the movies so I don’t know if I’ll ever work my way through this one'

    I love this quote forever and it perfectly sums up the typical Asian mothers and fathers (in some cases) who prefer their sons as they are next in line to the throne or will be able to carry on their lineage. I am coming to terms with this concept in my very conservative narrow minded family however your words make me realise that it is not just me. You are very lucky to have sisters you can rely one. Being a very young teenager your words are very encouraging and I know that although being female carries many challenges I am very content with who I am regardless of these narrow minded misconceptions Asian parents hold. I hope that your relationship with your mother will heal as mine does. Thank you and Good luck! (Preach on sista lol, had to put that in there)!
    Yasmin x

  11. Thank you for the comment, Yasmin. Stay strong and don't ever concede to anything that your instincts tell you is strong. The advantage of being a teenager in this age is that you get to learn from all the mistakes made by the second-gens before you. Sometimes we have to make our own mistakes, but bowing to cultural pressures isn't one of them.

    Take care of yourself,

    Kia x

  12. I love this. I just turned 49 and I look back at my 20 something self after my first marriage ended amicably as possible and I went skiing for fifteen years and smile.

    Believe me I wasn’t smiling at the time sleeping in a Chevy Blazer in the Duffy Pass somewhere north of Whistler but it all came together in a blur of amazing moments in the now.

    And now…49 … left my job in fashion and luxury with the help of a boss that it was never going to work out with, spent a week climbing mountain passes and playing with my kids and suddenly Ali find I have shifted my view….I am looking forward:

    I am looking forward to 50 with my eyes wide open, with the same same hope and optimism I had when I was 39 or maybe 29. I have learned the five lessons… you nailed them … and I long for those singularly epic moments I used to string into days and years and I wake up and love every day because I know it is OK now to not have solved all of my life’s challenges and it’s OK that my ski pants don’t quite fit like they used to – you thought only women tho k that? 😉 – it’s OK that I need reading glasses and it’s OK that I don’t honestly know if I will be with my wife forever in every moment.

    When I was 39 I called it the year of 40 … and I spent a lot of time looking back and conquering things I had never done, now, in the year of 50, I am back to loving today and myself and finding new challenges and inspirations – like nailing an Ollie and picking up No-boarding with my kids – LOL. And maybe being able to just tell the people I care for how I feel without expectation or regret.

    Thank you for the reminder of once upon a time. I am so inspired by your words and how well you know yourself Kia. Donsomethjng you love today everyone.


  13. Hi!

    Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. This is an old post, so it's nice to see that people are still clicking with it.

    > I know it is OK now to not have solved all of my life’s challenges

    I love this and I'm glad to see that it happens at some point! My 30s have been great so far (especially in comparison to my 20s), but I still occasionally suffer from grass-is-greener syndrome and feel that other people are further ahead in solving life's challenges. In reality, I suspect most people never feel like they've got everything figured out; they just learn that that's okay!

    I'm not au fait with skiing parlance, but I hope you nail an Ollie too. Good luck!



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