22. September 2022

My 40th birthday – 40 thoughts upon reaching a big milestone

Silver 40th birthday balloons in front a of a window

I celebrated my 40th birthday in April 2022. This is certainly a milestone birthday and it was bound to set off a flurry of different thoughts in my mind about where my life has brought me – and what I want to do with the time I have left.

There’s no way around it now: I am no longer young. I’ve been and done a fair bit and racked up plenty of life experience. Been round the block a few times, one might say. But I am far from old and there’s still so much I want to do, see and achieve!

Here are 40 thoughts I’d like to share about what life has taught me so far…

1. Your 40th birthday isn’t as scary as you think. Mostly, it is just surprising.

Of course, reaching your 40th birthday involves a bit of a pause for thought and a stock-take on your life so far. You’re probably about halfway through now, and it’s a good time to reflect on what you’ve already achieved and where you still want to go. No need for drama though — being 40 isn’t half as scary as you think. It’s just a bit surprising. Every now and again, I’ll have to write my date of birth down somewhere and think “blimey — I’m 40!” Frankly, I don’t feel a day over 30.

2. When you meet the right person for you, you will just know.

Not necessarily the second you meet them. But there will come a moment when you understand that this person is not like the others and that your feelings towards them have an entirely different quality. Maybe you miss their presence when they are not there. Or realise that there is always so much to talk about with them. Whatever form this epiphany takes, it will be calm and warming, as if your whole being is saying to you “of course!”

3. There is no such thing as “THE ONE”.

The idea of there being just one person for everyone is both overly romantic and unnecessarily intimidating. It is quite possible to have different partners for different phases of your life as you grow and change as a person. There are probably many people out there who you would be compatible with — but you would just fit together in a different way than you would with someone else. And “the one” doesn’t necessarily have to mean a romantic partner. Some people will come into your life, shake you to the core…and yet never share your bed. They are the “ones” who are friends, mentors — or those who you love with all your heart, just not in a romantic way.

4. Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to do with your life right away.

Some people know what they want to do with their lives from an early age — and good for them! Many more don’t and you shouldn’t feel bad if you didn’t already know where you were going with your life in kindergarten. What’s important is that you get out there and DO things rather than stay at a standstill, feeling stuck. Try out different things, move on if a role doesn’t suit (or no longer suits) you, take time to learn the lessons of what you’ve done and where you have been. Be open to the unexpected opportunities that present themselves and let them take you where they will. Trust that at some point, you will find your place in life.

5. Don’t be afraid to leave relationships behind if they aren’t doing you any good.

This lesson took me decades to learn. Relationships, both platonic and romantic, require constant nourishment and the investment of time and emotion. As a rule, you should give of your time and yourself selflessly and without expecting anything in return. But you also need to be alert to situations where your efforts are either not being reciprocated or spending time with a certain person is serially draining rather than energising you. Sometimes, it’s best to cut your losses and step back or move on.

6. Being able to talk about your feelings is incredibly important.

Bottling up your emotions is such a bad idea. It’s never going to make them go away or resolve — they will simply come back and bite you at a later point. Give yourself permission to explore and examine your own inner world and don’t be afraid to ask for outside help if you need it.

7. Having said that, “pull yourself together” or “just get on with it” are still some of the best pieces of advice you will ever be given.

I’m a British geriatric millennial who was brought up by boomer parents and had grandparents who lived through World War II. These earlier generations were/are suspicious of open displays of emotion and value qualities such as stoicism and fortitude highly. Those of us who came along later might paint this as emotionally illiterate and harmful (everything seems to be “harmful” these days), but in the vast majority of situations, our elders got it exactly right. You cannot and will not achieve anything of note in your life unless you can just suck it up and deal with discomfort and adversity, and accept that people having different opinions than you will not hurt you in any way. Toughen up that hide and park the entitlement: life does not owe you any favours.

8. “Get over it” is also excellent advice.

Don’t stay stuck on a particular negative emotion or experience. Don’t get sucked into victimhood. Take time to work through difficult issues but give yourself a clear end point after which you make a pact with yourself to move on— even if that means leaving things unresolved. Bitterness simply ages people and makes them extremely boring and unpleasant to be around.

9. You will never know in advance who will stick around in your life and who is just a visitor, passing through.

I have always been surprised when I take a moment to reflect on those who I can still call my friends. They are almost never who I expected would stick around. Life and relationships take unexpected turns that you can never foresee, and lifelong friendships spring from unlikely places.

10. Give credit & compliments freely…where they are due.

I don’t mean you should fawn all over people all the time or be creepy or smarmy. Not everything that other people do is worthy of comment or compliment. I like to save my praise for times when I deem it to have been well-earned — not when I think it will get me where I want. Like love, praise should be doled out selflessly, honestly and without calculation. Only then does it truly mean something — and the recipient will appreciate it and trust you more.

11. Honesty isn’t always the best policy.

I don’t mean this as an inducement to lie blatantly – or even tell “little white lies”. What I mean is that telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the unvarnished truth outside of an oath in court is only a good idea in very specific situations.

Every now and again, telling a friend the cold, hard truth might be the best way forward, and the best way you show them you truly care. But even then, it’s a risk – only to be undertaken with care and in full acceptance of what could happen if your good intentions aren’t understood. There’s a reason why the Chinese say that whoever tells the truth needs a fast horse!

Often, maintaining a dignified silence is the best solution for all concerned.

12. Different people hit their strides in life at different times.

So many people say school/university is the best time of their lives. Others say their 20s couldn’t be beaten. Personally, I only started to feel comfortable in my own skin and “like myself” in my mid-30s. Don’t stress if everyone else looks like they’re cruising and you feel lost. You never know what is going on in other people’s minds and at some point you will feel like you’ve got your sh*t together and that you can finally drive this car called “life”.

13. Don’t let anyone’s else’s expectations or idea of what is normal/expected affect what you do with your life.

Because of the internet, younger people today are exposed to a far wider variety of options for careers than they used to be. But still: parental or societal expectations about what is the “right” or “proper” career can still be a significant pressure factor. While you’ve got to think practically (see Point 15 below), don’t let yourself be swayed by people who think you should get a “proper” job in an office if you desperately want to be self-employed. Don’t let yourself be pushed into thinking that you need to earn a certain amount of money or work in a certain branch to be seen as a “success”. You define what “being successful” means to you — no-one else.

14. When it comes to your career, choose a field/activity with which you feel a natural affinity.

You will spend so many hours of your life working. No-one enjoys their job all the time, but it should feel somehow easy and not like trying to swim through mud. Try and find an activity that you have a basic natural aptitude for while still promising challenges and scope for learning.

15. Having said all of this…do think practically.

Money doesn’t make you happy, but you should always aim to have enough of the stuff that you’re not constantly stressing about how to pay the rent. If it is your sole desire in life to be a writer, then of course you should pursue this aim with purpose and determination. On the other hand, stay aware that this is a profession which rewards only a very few. Make sure you have other skills and a career to fall back on which is going to put food on the table.

16. Financial independence is key.

Pooling resources with your significant other is natural and practical in any relationship and mutual (financial) support should be a given. But having your own money and enough of it to be able to survive on your own is a must. This goes for both sexes, although, historically, financial independence has been more of an issue for women and that’s why I consider achieving it to be a cornerstone of feminism.

17. True friendship does not see age.

Try to cultivate friendships with people of all age groups. You will learn so much from those who are both older and younger than you. They will variously share their wisdom, keep you up to date with the latest trends and lift you out of stale thought patterns.

18. Sometimes, the most liberating word is “no”.

Set clear boundaries with people. If you’re shy of confrontation then it can be the path of least resistance to just take on more and more responsibility or let people take advantage of you. This is the way to burnout and unhappiness. It’s great to help people and exhibit a bit of patience with their annoying habits but decide how far you’re prepared to let that go and communicate that boundary. This can be tough and there might be a few ruffled feathers and disappointment. Stick to your guns! More self-respect and more respect from others will be the reward.

19. There again, do not be afraid to say “yes”.

There are decisions where you need to think a lot in advance. With others, you just have to have faith in yourself and believe that you can learn all that you need on the fly. Take a roll of the dice, even though things seem uncertain and you don’t feel like you know what you are doing. Listen to your gut instinct. These experiences can turn out to be the most exhilarating, enriching — even transformative — experiences in your life.

I recall my decisions to move to Vienna without knowing anyone here, what I would do, or even where to live, and spontaneously leaping into self-employment and still feel a thrill of pride. They are, without doubt, the best things I ever did — and I would never have dared if I’d have over-thought the matter.

20. You cannot please all of the people all of the time.

Trying to get into everyone’s good books is a pointless enterprise. You’ll wind up exhausted and not knowing who you are anymore. This means learning to say no and draw boundaries (see Point 18). But it also means having the courage of your convictions, sticking your neck out by articulating a clear position and fighting your corner — and to hell with what everyone else thinks! Consider whether the overall balance of speaking your mind is going to be positive but — if you think it is — let ’em have it and do not fear!

We are lucky to be alive in an age where society has become much more tolerant of different life models. I decided at age 12 that I wasn’t mummy material and have never wavered from that position. Every choice is valid: make yours, respect that of others.

Blanket media demonisation of “flip-flopping” or “u-turning” is overdone. There is no shame in changing your mind about things. Doing so indicates a willingness to think critically, question your own assumptions in the light of new information and be humble. It is a sign of maturity, not weakness.

Another one I learned fairly late. Perhaps it was my hatred of shopping or an aversion to fluctuating fashion trends which always seemed a bit intimidating. I wouldn’t say I have an innate sense of “style” and struggle to put together decent, coherent outfits. However, even if you aren’t on first name terms with fashion, it is important to make an effort with your appearance. Being well-turned out helps to form positive first impressions on others that are going to help you massively in life. It signals self-respect and respect for others.

I can’t say this enough: take care of your body — it’s the only one you’ve got. If you are lucky enough to be in good health, give thanks for it every single day because not everyone is that fortunate.

Your body will take an awful lot of abuse when you are younger, but latest at age 35, it will start to complain. I used to be able to sink five Cosmos and a beer on an evening and get up at 8am the next day and cycle 70km. If I drank that much now, I wouldn’t live to see the next sunrise.

Establishing good habits early on in life will prove invaluable when you start to age. Don’t smoke or do drugs. If you drink alcohol, do it in moderation. Eat well, do regular sport, maintain a healthy weight, get into a good sleeping routine. Consistency and discipline are key.

Speaking as a veteran of the recent Brexit wars — I say this with great urgency: you MUST resist the urge to call people stupid for holding different political views than you. Even if every fibre of your body just wants to shout “how can you possibly think THAT?” Keep a lid on it.

Feel free to deeply disagree. Feel free to articulate your own point of view or try to and persuade others with your own arguments. No accusations, no knee-jerk judgment — please!

Democracy is one of the most valuable things we have and we must all take responsibility for maintaining it. That’s about voting where possible and making an informed choice. But it’s also about the conversations we have with each other. Failing to appreciate each other’s differences and insulting each other rather than talking respectfully — when this happens on a large scale — results in nothing but polarisation and rancour. In the worst-case scenario, that is going to lead to a fractured society that’s hard to put back together. Don’t go there.

This is a piece of advice my Dad once gave me and it is a very good one. Every relationship is going to involve a few cross words and the occasional slammed door. However, it is essential to keep a sense of perspective on these inevitable contretemps. Even if you can’t resolve everything before bedtime: make sure to kiss your partner and make sure they know that whatever it is that’s gone awry between you — your relationship is not in danger.

Life is unpredictable and people can be taken away without any warning. It can never happen to you — until it does. Even if they drive you crazy, try to behave towards your loved ones in such a way that — if you would lose them tomorrow — you could live with that as your goodbye.

In this era of constant sharing on social media where you are encouraged to constantly say or disclose something to cause a buzz and get clicks — the art of being quiet is tragically underrated. You might not get any traffic to your blog or social media account by zipping your lip or stopping bothering your keyboard, but silence really is sometimes just as powerful and as strategic as speaking. Learn how to use it to your advantage.

Moving out of your comfort zone to explore another country and culture is a great way to challenge yourself and grow. Trying to get train tickets, get around town, buy medications etc. in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and things work in a completely different way than at home will stretch your mind and teach you how to cope with challenges on the fly. Not to mention the fact that you will see a bunch of really amazing stuff.

My top travel destinations: Namibia, South Korea, Czech Republic.

I took up bouldering when I was 31. I have never been good at it. In fact, I suck at it monumentally. But I love it and continue to go, regardless of my blatant lack of talent.

There are some things in my life that I have to approach with full-on perfectionism. With others, I can give myself license to be wholly, utterly, completely rubbish and inferior. And it is unbelievably liberating. How free and unselfconscious I feel when I’m on the bouldering wall! When I’m just there for the sheer joy of doing it rather than pressuring myself to reach a certain standard and where every little sign of improvement feels like a huge leap forward. Everybody should have a hobby like this.

No one is getting out of this life alive. I don’t mean you have to get all morbid about the fact that eventually, you too will shuffle off this mortal coil — but taking time to reflect on the finite nature of life will help you treasure today and hopefully also lessen the fear of your inevitable departure from this life.

At age 40, I’ve lost grandparents and other elderly relatives, as is the natural run of things. But acquaintances of my age (or near my age) have also succumbed to terminal illness and passed away. You could be told tomorrow that your time is limited. Make the most of today.

Principles aren’t just for legal scholars, philosophers and mathematicians. And they don’t have to be about high morals either. Everybody benefits from having a bit of structure in their life, and firm principles provide a sense of groundedness and a framework for decision-making.

It took me many years to realise that the principle which would lead me to lead a life of fulfilment was the idea of my own autonomy and freedom; establishing it, defending it and maximising it. Until I finally admitted that to myself, I spent a number of unhappy years in office jobs with micromanaging bosses that I couldn’t stand because I thought that was “just what I had to do”. It didn’t occur to me until age 32 that self-employment might be the way to go.

Since I recognised the underlying rationale for the way I’d been feeling and reacting, it has been a whole lot easier to choose which path to take when decision time calls.

From the stuff you said and did to the clothes you wore and the opinions you had: I promise you, you are going to look back at about 95% of your young life and think “dear God — what was I thinking?” Those dreadful hipster jeans from the early 2000s with the waistband ripped off (good grief). My prolonged Jewel obsession (oh dear). Several affairs I’ve had (the less said, the better).

But you know what? Cut the younger you some slack — you were just trying on different identities like outfits, looking for the one that would finally fit.

One of my favourite books when I was a child was Roald Dahl’s “Matilda”. The central character is a precocious young girl whose parents are flaky, unloving and seething with resentment for their bright spark daughter. Starved of intellectual nourishment at home, Matilda seeks solace in the books at her local library.

One of the most memorable passages reads:

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

This idea — picking up a book and going somewhere else without moving an inch — had a huge impact on me, and I never forgot it. I’ve been an avid reader ever since and strongly believe in the power of books to educate, open up other worlds and minds, increase empathy and enhance intelligence. Read widely, read often, read stuff you know you’ll like, read stuff you know will irritate you. It’s all sinking in and doing you good.

Apart from a brief dalliance with over-consumption when I was a teenager and had my own money for the first time, I was never a fan of having too much “stuff”. I’ve always had an affinity to travelling reasonably light in life and only having the things which I really need. This has given me so much freedom: because I don’t spend money on junk and unnecessary things, I have more financial leeway to pursue my freelance business opportunities and travel.

Because I manage my money well and am not indebted, I do not have to stress about getting fired and not making mortgage payments. Buying a car, a house, a pet…all of these can be great, but they come with extra obligations that are going to weigh down on you. I choose to limit my acquisitions to the things where that extra burden makes sense.

As mentioned above, I am quite judicious about how I spend my money. Back at university, my friends laughed at my frugality and how I would record all of my costs and expenditures in a (handwritten) budget.

Well, that budget may now be in an Excel sheet, but I still keep it and I’m still in full control of my finances where a lot of my acquaintances struggle. Consistently staying within my financial means that I have a buffer now that the economic headwinds are getting a little stronger. There’s uncertainty, but if you’ve stayed modest and planned — you have a whole lot less worry than someone who always spends more than they earn and have no clue how they’re going to get through the next month.

The good side of managing your money well is that you can afford the occasional frivolity or treat. Like taking your partner on a nice meal out. Buying yourself a special piece of jewellery or booking a luxurious hotel for a weekend retreat. It’s like eating: if you’re good 90% of the time, then there cannot be any guilt about treating yourself for the other 10%.

It might be a religion. It might be a club or movement or even your own family. But I believe every person is more fulfilled and infinitely steadier in their lives when they can find ways to be part of something larger than themselves. You are a better person when you can feel in an immediate way that it’s not all about you.

Sometimes you mess up in life. That’s the bad, inevitable news for you. The good news is that most of these cock-ups aren’t catastrophic; most mistakes can be remedied and wrongs put right. But that process can only begin if you identify mistakes and own up to them and only benefits you in the long run if you learn from the experience.

It should go without saying that good manners are a must. “Please” and “thank-you” are words which are going to go far in ensuring that you can get on with people and be a decent member of society.

However, where I think manners are most important are in your long-term relationships: with your family, your partner and your kids. People you share your life with, who you see every single day and interact with on matters both momentous and banal. It might feel like them doing things for you is the natural way of things but it honestly isn’t.

Making sure you thank your partner for cooking (even if it’s their turn), doing the shopping (even though it’s their job) and unblocking the sink (even though they caused the problem) is the key to ensuring a courteous and respectful relationship.

Mastery of a certain skill can’t be matched for sheer satisfaction. Seriously committing to a certain activity and pursuing it long term makes it part of your very identity. “Doing” becomes “being” at the moment when people start to refer to you with the skill as a suffix to your name (“Oh, that’s so-and-so, the guitar player”). It’s a wonderful feeling.

But to get to that point is a long, long journey. Be prepared to spend hours learning and practising over years. Allegedly, it takes 10,000 hours of intense practice to master a complex skill – whether speaking a language, learning to play an instrument, writing, or knitting. But it’s worth it.


Related articles:

Confessions of an awkward woman

Marriage is not for me

2023’s lesson: to move on, go back to where it all began

A list of my life failures

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