Long-form blog posts and editorials. Topics cover both personal and the world at large. 

Thoughts on turning 30

I turn 30 today.

Lately I've been encountering posts on Twitter about how it was only a few decades ago that people would be lucky to live past their 30th birthday. However erroneous that might be, I'm going to take that and run with it.

I am grateful.

I think turning 30 is a worthy achievement, and not something to lament about simply because most people associate it the de-facto end of youth and the beginning of decline into old age ("Why god, why?!"). They fight against this paradigm by inventing the term '30 is the new 20', which I think merely their inability to face reality. Trust me, I know, cause I've been there. It was only last year in turning 29 that I dreaded the looming peak of 30 before the inevitable descent towards death.

Too morbid? That' a true story. 

So what changed? Perspective. I fully embraced stoicism this year and it has allowed me to see aging and death in a whole different light. We will all meet our maker eventually; that is a certainty, and we can't control it, try as some people may. Instead of needless worrying, I rather focus on the gift of waking up each day, and what challenges will come my way the next 24 hours. Rinse and repeat for the next dawn.

To think I've been blessed with the ability to do this for 30 years. Instead of dreading what's next, I'm positively looking forward to it. Before we get to that, I've got a few thoughts on the decade of my 20s. 

I think a person's 20s is incredibly precious, which is why I've always empathized with Korean males (tangent alert) having to forgo two years of their 20's being conscripted to military service. Can you imagine? The first decade of adulthood, with proper agency and monetary power, mixed in with sparkles of youth leftover from the teens. It's a prime period of internal and external discovery, with none of the baggage that comes later (kids, debt, drugs, etc). To be Korean and have two years of that taken from you? That's pretty rough from an outsider's point of view. 

Thankfully I got to experience the entire fullness of my 20s. I spent the early years finishing up my undergrad with a business entrepreneurship degree that is currently not of much use. Thinking about it now, I'm glad I didn't do well enough in high school to get into a UC because I saved a ton of money attending a State university. 

A fruitful thing I did get out of university life is my current career. While I did graduate in 2011 at age 23, I practically never left the San Francisco State. Through connections/experience at a student job providing technical support, I was rehired in 2012 as a proper staff, and I've been here ever since. So while my diploma remains an expensive decoration (I don't hang it up), like most people I managed to find a job leveraging what I did in college. 

I was extremely lucky, because when back in 2011 the job market was still in the throes of the great recession, and it wasn't particularly kind to a graduate with a business degree. Despite appearances, I've definitely done the mass sending of resumes with nary a reply back. One person from a tech company actually liked my cover letter enough to email me back late evening to offer an interview, but after a good night's sleep he thought better of it the next morning. I would, years later, read about him being charged with many counts of white-collar crime in the newspaper. A bullet dodged, or a show missed?

I used to envy people who out of college got to join in on the tech boom, working for the likes of Google or Apple. I too wanted to work on projects that enhance people's lives, and bring them joy. I too wanted the high income with a cool office and many perks. Google allowing their employees to work on whatever the heck they want 20% of the time was an absolute dream to me.  

As I've progressed towards my 30s, I've come to realize that working at SF State as tech support is not unlike working at Google: I am already where I had wanted to be. While I am not changing the world with the next great Internet app, our support of teachers with using technology helps them focus on what they do best: teach, and the students benefit. It's so gratifying to hear a happy teacher thanking us for coming up clutch with a needed display adapter, or a quite fix on a problematic projector.  

The pay is commensurate and adequate, the perks are great (full medical and a pension), and for the last five years I've worked in a brand new Library building with an open office plan just like one would find in a tech company.

Looking back at it now, I cannot be more thankful for this job. 

I sure needed it back then, because soon after college I was in the process of saving up for a car. Perhaps not the most economically sound thing to do, but after a year of full-time work I purchased a Subaru WRX STI right after I turned 25. Call it quarter-life crisis, call it a car enthusiast's wont; I did the most cliche thing a newly employed college graduate can do: I congratulated myself on all my success (ha ha ha ha) by buying a fancy new car. 

Hindsight being what it is, I can say it was definitely premature. I've been into cars since I can remember, and the desire to upgrade from a lowly Toyota Corolla that I was fortunate to have gifted from my parents (mid 20s me was definitely not looking at it this way) for college was strong. I wanted speed, and I wanted to look cool amongst friends I've met through cars. It was time to start living the dream.

So naive. So one-dimensional. 

One doesn't realize the flip-side of car ownership until actually doing it. Between payments, gasoline, insurance, and maintenance, the Subaru was, for its price-point, one of the most expensive cars to own. It was a huge burden I didn't realize until I sold it after three years and downsized into a Mazda Miata. The running costs nearly halved. At my current income level the Subaru would be comfortably doable, but five years ago it was most unwise.

It's a shame they don't teach financial literacy in high school or university. I think the most important thing 20-somethings should know and learn is proper money management. It's incredibly easy in this materialistic world to spend every dime you make, or worst, go into serious debt. During my college years working as a student, I did exactly that (though the debt wasn't too serious). There were zero savings to speak of, and I even took money out of the retirement account when I graduated (so stupid) because I needed the money to pay off credit cards. 

I was lucky then to for whatever reason stumble onto Ramit Sethi's personal finance book shortly after college. It taught me to automate my savings by having the bank immediately direct parts of the monthly paycheck to various investment accounts. The book also taught me how to invest my money: keep some parts in a conventional savings account as a rainy-day fund, some parts in a tax-advantaged IRA retirement account, and the rest in an total market index fund.

It all seems easy, and indeed it can be, but I shudder to think where I'd be if I hadn't read that book. Again, none of this was ever taught to me in school, which is baffling because we all have to deal with money as adults. The peace of mind in having a sufficient financial buffer should any ills befallen me is an invaluable freedom. Without this strong foundation. the latter half of my 20's would not be as great. 

Of course, after having the appropriate amount in reserve, the rest is free to do with as I please. In addition to cars, another expensive hobby I practice is photography. I've been shooting since the late 2000s, but an adult income allows for a much more expansive and expensive array of equipment. Dropping thousands on lenses and camera bodies is now permissible, and since college I'm on my third Apple mac computer, second windows PC, and third tablet device. I upgrade my iPhone every year mostly because Apple improves the camera significantly with each generation. 

For sure I would be even more financially sound had I not been so cavalier in purchasing/upgrading consumer electronics, but being a complete miser isn't a fun nor productive way to live. You indeed cannot and shouldn't take it with you. 

Surprisingly, I largely gave up serious gaming in my 20s. I no longer have the will to sit through 50 hours of a Grand Theft Auto, or get 100% completion in Final Fantasy. The last two Playstations I bought have been largely symbolic, except for playing blu-ray movies (those are great). I guess I craved something more substantial and less trivial in giving up video games. 

Which I found in books. In college during entrepreneurship classes it was made known to me that most successful business people also happen to read plenty of books. Correlation not meaning causation as it may, I wanted to emulate those people so I got into the habit of reading regularly. The habit waxes and wanes throughout the decade, and some books naturally takes longer to read, but I figure in aggregate it's about a book per month. 

It's somewhat ironic I read so much in my 20s because during my schooling years I detested it - for pleasure or for academics. I can remember skipping out, to my detriment, on the summer reading list in high school for all four years. I think I was scarred from having to read way more than necessary during childhood because I was learning English, and an aversion grew out of it because it was frustrating other kids got to play while I did extra studying. 

I am glad I got back into it, because reading books is absolutely one of the best hobbies to have. Non-fiction books allow me to learn from the experiences of others, and fiction novels that keep me turning the pages are one of life's great joys. In addition to a good story, novels are also a good way to study prose and the art of putting words into sentences and paragraphs. I can't put a count of it, but no doubt keeping a consistent reading habit have helped in my writing here and elsewhere before. 

People treat turning 30 as a flashpoint after which the body/mind starts to deteriorate. It probably isn't true, but we're definitely not "growing" anymore in the physical sense as would a child. The want for preservation, vain or otherwise, starts to creep into the conversation. Partly why I ditched video games and kept on the reading of books is because I wanted the mental stimulation. The body needs exercise, and so does the brain.

It was easy back in school because the brain was in constant use learning new things and solving problems critically. Much harder to replicate that in adult work-life. While there's never a dull day at my job and there's always new stuff to learn, comparatively the quantity simply isn't there. When I go home from work, I don't have to do anything should I so chose; not so with school: there would still be mountains of homework. 

I needed to workout the mind, and television and videos games weren't the answer. I know this because during my early and mid 20s I did the whole 'come home from work watch TV for the rest of the day' thing. On the surface it was wonderful work-life balance, but I did not find it fulfilling at all. If I hadn't blogged and read consistently, my mind would be entirely shut-off when not at work. 

As I crossed over into my late 20s, I could feel my mind lacking sharpness, with a general sense of lethargy, as if I was merely going through the motions of life, lacking mental creativity like a robot. No coincidence that during this time my photographic output was at its lowest, and I was largely depressed during 2014, age 27. I was physically healthy, but my mind wasn't. 

I got out of it by treating the brain with some proper stimulation. I stop watching scripted televisions shows (I had a rotation of around 10), and did a great purging of what I subscribe to on Youtube. I accelerated the reading habit by aiming to read one book every two weeks, newly made possible by not watching all those TV shows. Spare time from work was henceforth dedicated to learning. 

Eventually it got a bit too drab to only be reading books, so I figured I'll pick a subject and learn it autodidactically. During my teens I had varying aspirations like learning a third language, playing the piano, and making music on the computer. For all sorts of reason chiefly laziness and apathy towards education (going to a hugely competitive high school will do that to you), I never got started on any of them. As they say, it's never too late to start. 

I picked learning a third language. For the majority of my 20s my music of choice has been kpop, which is quite silly now that I look at it because I didn't know Korean (I took Japanese in high school and retained none of it) and therefore understood none of the lyrics (except for the random english parts). Not exactly enjoying the complete musical experience am I when only the melody is speaking to me; I might as well be listening to techno.

Two years ago I started teaching myself Korean using a combination of textbooks and Korean television shows (thank you KBS World Youtube channel). Each day I would spend upwards of four hours on it: two with the textbook, and then comprehension practice by watching the shows. I have to say it's been fantastic, because now I can finally understand the music I listen to most, and the language skill came in handy when I traveled to Korea earlier this year. 

Travel was a huge component to my late 20s, one borne out of the wish to have more experiences, rather than spending money on more and more things. While consumer electronics will always have its ugly claws on me, I've largely given up on pouring money into cars. Ever since I traded in the Subaru for the Mazda, I've only put gas in it and changed the oil. Teenage me would be hugely surprised to learn I haven't put modifications on the car - not even changing the wheels. 30 year old me prefers to enjoy the car as is from the factory. 

With the money saved from the car habit I put most of it towards traveling, a truly rewarding endeavor. Every time I return home from a week-long trip I am refreshed and energized to tackle my regular life. It's not due to a change in perspective per se, but rather gaining an appreciation: for the different cultures not just abroad but even here in America, and for having the ability to travel to these places with the work I do. Along with memories, the most important thing I take back with me is gratitude. Gratitude for what I already have. 

I also bring back pictures. Traveling have really kickstarted my photography habit back from the doldrums of my mid 20s. I've always skewed towards urban and landscape side of the hobby, so trips to new places and foreign countries are the perfect compliment to what I like to shoot. Reliving a trip through the editing of photos is way more special and intimate than simply perusing shots on a phone: I interact with every photo and scrutinize the details, like art pieces in a museum. The downside is that nostalgia and travel withdrawals are equally amplified. 

That just about sums up a few thoughts on my 20s. Looking back at it now from a macro perspective, standing this side of 30, the past decade consists of two peaks on each end with a valley in the middle. After the high of finishing college and getting a job, I was directionless in my mid 20s, but found things to ardently strive for towards the latter half.

It's an worthwhile arc. 

In culmination, I'd like humbly offer a few pieces of advice for those who are just starting their decade of 20s. These are hopefully universal and not too personal because after all, each individual's path is different. 

Firstly, your foundation must be sound. A building with a weak foundation stops everything (just ask the people who built Millennium Tower). Sleep: get enough of it. Proper amounts of sleep is the best fuel for the rest of the day. Exercise: do it. You don't have to be a gym-rat or chase the perfect body; simply having a consistent workout schedule, like sleep, will pay dividends in all aspects of life. Food: eat clean. You're not a growing teen anymore and those burgers and fries won't digest themselves. Feed your body the good stuff: avoid sugar and carbs, eat more protein and vegetables. 

Final piece to the foundation is financial: put aside appropriate amounts for later. Living like the day's your last is great and all, but today in most likelihood won't be, so you've got to save some for later. 

With the foundation in order you are then free and have the energy to tackle whatever you want. Try to seek out experiences rather than the materialistic. Easier said than done, I know, but the things you buy will come and go, but the time spent with people and places visited are forever in memory. You've got the rest of your life to buy all kinds of stuff, but your parents will only be as young as they are today: spend time and money with them before you visit that car dealership. 

My final advice to a person heading into their 20s is try be present, and not worry about things beyond your control. For much of my 20s I had bouts with anxiety and fear of what's to come, most of it turning out to either be trivial or didn't even happen. I remember having an anxiety attack right after I bought the Subaru because for months I've been needlessly stressed over the details and getting triggered over anything that can potentially derail the process. Here I am buying my first car with my own money: it should be a happy occasion, but I was worried sick at things I can't hope to control. 

Don't be like me. Focus on the now, and take what's to come as it comes, good or bad. 

As I look towards my decade of 30s, I honestly don't know what to expect nor can I offer any predictions. I have personal goals, sure, but none stretches that far ahead. It doesn't feel like it looking backwards, but a decade is a very long time. Perspectives and motivations will for sure change. I've zero desire to settle down and have kids right now, but difficult to say how I will think about it in five year's time. What will the world even look like then?

If 20s is the time for discovering who we are and what we want to do, then I guess 30s is the time for implementation and action. Like Marshawn Lynch, I am all about that action. For the near future I'll continue to work where I am now, study and read book during off hours, and travel whenever I can. 

Whatever happens beyond that, is unpredictable. 

Cheers to another birthday, and many, many happy returns.