Last year, right after I turned 30, I was at the dentist.
Having just finished a cleaning, I was sat up straight in the chair, my ponytail flattened and messy, and my eyes—which I close during every appointment—still adjusting to the bright light of the room. The dental hygienist was talking positively about my teeth, telling me I brushed well, could floss better, but had no cavities, and thus I felt like a successful adult.
She asked me how old I was, and her eyes lit up when I told her.
“I just turned 40,” she said, “and I’m looking forward to see what these next ten years bring me, but I couldn’t be more excited for you. My thirties were the best years of my life so far.”
I flinched at this.
For ten years people had said to me, “Your twenties are your best years! Don’t waste them!” over and over again, and I had spent night after night lying in bed, feeling guilty, wondering, “Am I wasting them?”
But the truth was, my twenties were hard. They were confusing and at times sad and heartbreaking and isolating and overall just one big WHAT AM I EVEN DOING?!
Part of me was relieved to hear that, in this humble woman’s opinion, I had another shot at “my best years.” But I also worried that the your-thirties-are-the-best-time-of-your-life crowd was about to come out of the woodworks, and I was going to spend another decade lying awake at night wondering why I can’t do anything right.
But then, as if she could see the curiosity (and perhaps fear) wash over me, she turned towards me—or rather, wheeled her dentist stool in front of me—and elaborated.
She told me her thirties were good to her because she felt she was finally good to herself. She said everyone talks about the “carefree fun” of your twenties, but no one talks about the self-acceptance and understanding that can come in your thirties.
She said I would finally start to see myself and, in turn, stop hearing everyone else.
“Their opinions will matter less, even if it doesn’t feel like it right away. That doesn’t mean you won’t care what other people think, but you will start to get a feeling of what feels right to you. And even though it might not be what everyone else is doing or what is ‘cool’ or ‘right’ or ‘normal’, you begin to appreciate what is honest to you more than striving for everyone else’s acceptance and affection.”
I have thought about this conversation often. It has comforted me on hard days, encouraged me on good days, and given me an underlying sense of peace that reminds me to relax and settle in for the ride.
Let’s be honest, there is no set standard for “the best years of your life.” There is no reason it has to be your 20’s, 30’s or 40’s. There is no reason they have to come in ten-year increments or happen in succession. Your best days and best years are defined by you and you alone.
So let’s take each day as it comes. Take each decade as it comes. Live honestly—even if that means making mistakes—and find your way forward. Let’s get excited about what’s ahead and appreciate what we’ve learned so far.
And never be afraid to encourage someone—even if they’re at the dentist. You never know how bad they might need it.