The decade is coming to a close! How does it feel?
I turned 29 this year – in 2020, I’ll be turning 30. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I do know how I feel about the last decade:
Ya’ll, the twenties are a rough decade. For one thing, most of us assume that our bodies will last forever and are duly shocked when, after so many years of abuse, we can no longer handle all-nighters and Red Bull with the same vigour. I kind of hate myself for not appreciating how good it is to get into bed and fall asleep on the first try.
I can’t believe I survived some of my twenties, to be honest. A lot happened between 2010 and 2019: I got a phd, I went backpacking through Europe, I got my first job in academia and my first puppy. I went vegetarian for a few years and learned to like mushrooms. I made so many friends and made so many people hate me.
Now I’m turning into a nostalgic little nerd trying to consolidate my thoughts about my twenties. And since I have this platform for musing, I’m going to take you explorers along with me while I examine what I’ve learned and maybe consider some gaps that I still have in my knowledge.
Lesson 1: Labels aren’t the most important thing – but sometimes they help.
People don’t like to be beholden to labels – I get it! It sucks that we live in a world where human beings are forcefully divided into subcategories based on stuff they can’t control. And then, once they’re in those subcategories, they’re expected to behave and live in certain ways based on the arbitrary expectations of others.
I’m unbelievably privileged. I’m a white Australian with a relatively excellent upbringing. Yes, my family lived in a caravan/garage for a few years. But we never went hungry and my parents kept my brother and I fat and happy the entire time. I recognise that labels don’t harm me the way that they have been known to harm others.
So when I say that sometimes labels help, I’m referring to labels that help people understand themselves in ways that go beyond the generic subcategories. I’m talking about labels like asexual and aspec; labels that I’m not beholden to. Rather, these are labels that I think help to contextualise my past behaviour and allow me to recognise why I feel the way that I feel sometimes.
Other people might not like labels, but for me these labels help me to move more thoughtfully through the world. They also help me to help others deal with me.
Lesson 2: Companionship is important
Primary school, for me, was a Lord of the Flies-esque hellscape. I went through high school with maybe six friends – two of whom, I actually trusted, one of whom I actually still speak to. University was full to bursting with casual mates and study buddies.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties and moved to the Netherlands that I started to make actual friends. People I trusted who cared about me. People I wasn’t related to who wanted me to do well in life. It was nice. It’s still nice – considering I’ve left the Netherlands and am moving into a new chapter of my life, it’s kind of amazing that so many of the friends I made in NL are insisting that I not just disappear into the ether.
I spent my teens and very early twenties believing that companionship is secondary. That I don’t need people. And I don’t. But it’s nice to have them, anyway. It’s nice to have people who care, who I can call when I need help, who will help me clean out my entire apartment and write online ads in Dutch to get rid of my stuff (thanks Jeffrey!).
Companionship also extends to non-humans. Like Edmund!
My beloved little gentleman – Edmund was an investment in my mental health. I trained him to be an emotional support animal (note: he does the job of an ESA, but he’s not a service dog. Service dogs do very different jobs for people than ESAs do). He was, perhaps, not the smartest investment I’ve ever made. I bought him a few months before I decided to leave NL. So now I have to work through nebulous and hateful Australian customs in order to bring him home.
But he’s worth it. He is a constantly cheerful companion who needed me to be at my best – he needed me to get out of bed, groom him, feed him, all the things. Thanks to him, I couldn’t wallow in my own sadness. Plus, feeling needed has intrinsic value.
And yes. He does have an instagram.
Lesson 3: Hard work is not as important as results
I’ve worked as a freelancer for a few years now. One of the first things I learned was this: literally no one cares about how much effort you put into a task. All they care about is what the end result looks like.
When I became a teacher, this became so, so much clearer. I gave a mediocre grade (or a fail grade) a couple of times a semester and without fail, I would get demands to change the grade. I used to time how long it took between my posting the grades and getting complaints (the average was 25 mins, the record was 11 mins). Most of the time, the only justification I would receive for a higher grade was that the student ‘deserved’ more because they’d ‘worked hard’.
The thing is, hard work is invisible. There is no way to judge the work that someone puts into a task because so much of that work is done out of sight.
And at the end of the day, it literally doesn’t matter how hard someone works.
All that matters is the result. The result should justify the amount of work that went into it.
Let me be clear: that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t work hard. It means that you shouldn’t use that as a crutch to justify work that is substandard.
During this last decade, I had to learn how to work harder better. I had to figure out which points during a work day that were sucking up more energy than I could justify; for example, I realised that much of my research time was spent reading in-depth articles and writing complex notes that I would then form into a coherent narrative for the client. I realised that I could cut that time and effort in half by deciding on talking points in advance, then seeking specific sources that addressed those points. Literally the same result in half the time.
Lesson 4: Hating people is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die
Hate. Is. Exhausting.
It costs energy, it costs time, it pushes into so much of life. It can even affect blood pressure.
I have been through some nonsense this decade. I’m still not talking to some of the people I fell out with in my early 20s. Even though I’m not talking to these people (and probably won’t ever), I try really hard not to feel the hate.
This isn’t about forgiveness, I don’t think. I think forgiveness implies that there is a desire for reconnection and maybe even reconciliation. Something else I learned this decade is that it’s okay to just… get rid of people. If they’re hurting you, if they’re not willing to change, you can just… leave. You don’t have to ever see them again. It’s a big world.
Just because you leave doesn’t mean that person’s influence on you is gone too. It sometimes means that two or three or four years down the line you find yourself asking: “Why am I still thinking about this?”
Forgiveness is not the issue here – the issue is hatred and anger. I can stop feeling hatred without forcing myself to forgive someone who has done something I don’t want to forgive.
You can make other people feel awful with hatred. But that’s a double-edged sword, because making them feel awful will also make you feel awful. And what’s the point of that? Then you’re both miserable.
I’m not really into mutual misery. At least if I let go of the hate, then I don’t have to be miserable. I honestly don’t care how they’re feeling at this point. I’ve just learned to turn hatred into indifference, which seems a little bit easier to manage.
Lesson 5: It is better to do less than you can and give yourself space to breathe
At the beginning of this decade, I would cram as much as possible into my days as I could. In 2015, I published 7(!!) academic articles. Most people do one a year.
I used to have this idea that I needed to push as much out as possible. I had a lot of dreams and goals and I wasn’t about to wait. I still have dreams and goals, but – as I mentioned above – I’m exhausted. I’m very, very tired. I don’t want to work from morning til night anymore.
I’d rather have big projects cut up into smaller, manageable goals that I can do easily every day.
Say I’ve got an article to write? I’ll write 100-250 words and spend the rest of the afternoon reading. I have to learn Japanese over the next few weeks, so I’m doing half an hour in the mornings. Even if I feel like I’m on a roll and could keep going, I force myself to stop and walk away. I would rather take a little bit longer to complete a big project than push to the point of exhaustion.
This doesn’t help my anxiety, because I always feel like I could be doing more. But then, I think I would be feeling like I could be doing more even if I were working morning til night like I used to. I’d rather take a little bit longer to do something and feel a little bad about it, than shred myself into tiny pieces trying to force a massive output.