30 Going on 13: Dreaming Again

Raise your hand if you spent the lockdown bingewatching Netflix and not being productive

30, flirty and thriving? More like 30, thirsty and surviving

Living in a society that places such a high premium on youth makes you dread the day you turn 30. Especially when you are bombarded with articles like The Invisibility of Older Women and TED talks like Why 30 is not the new 20. I don’t even know why the gift of living to have another year is making me sad when in the face of a pandemic where you see even people of all ages losing their lives, it would be a luxury to get more time. It was a non-event for me anyway being situated in the middle of a global pandemic. One day I woke up and realized I was 30, which also puts me in the tail end of the vaccination queue in Denmark.

Among countless others, I basically lost the last year of my 20s while living paycheck to paycheck and my relationship breaking down. I don’t really mind, I had a blast for most of the 2010s once I got past the depression inflicted on the first half of it. But it’s not quite the grief of lost youth that I feel, rather the anxiety of not hitting the milestones that society says I should hit by now. Out of sheer biological panic, I have started googling queries like how much it costs to freeze my eggs and what age is too early to start botox.

When I was younger, I had two goals with a time limit of 30. One was to win an Art Directors Guild Young Guns award. Designers cannot be older than 30 to apply. Halfway through my 20s I changed careers to data and lost sight over that goal as I wasn’t doing much with visual design anymore. The dream slipped away from me.

I used to really love design. I could work my regular job for 8 hours and still find the time to work on personal or freelance projects after that. Over the years, it just hasn’t been the same. I didn’t even bother installing Photoshop on my latest computer anymore (don’t worry, I’m moving on to Figma). It became regular work to me and the joy seeped out after dealing with the realities of the actual job and getting bored because Websites really do all look the same. People always like to talk about falling in love with their passions, but not a lot talk about falling out of love.

Somewhere along the way I also realised that my talent didn’t come anywhere close to the size of my ambitions. I gave up on it and chose to have a life instead of total dedication to a great design career. If I have any regrets in life, it would probably be that decision.

I’ve gotten over the sheen of awards gradually especially when a former boss of mine who was in a Forbes 30 under 30 list told me it was more about networking than anything. Over time you realise that not winning doesn’t mean you’re exactly failing even though you’re not really succeeding either.

The reality of it was that my two goals were not exactly compatible with each other. Prioritizing the enjoyment of a personal life meant fewer hours spent on my professional goals. To be honest, I still haven’t found the optimal ratio for myself yet. Another learning when setting goals is not to make ones that contradict each other.

My second goal was to live in seven cities by 30. It wasn’t even my own dream. A friend mentioned that to me in college and I adopted it. If living in a city is defined by at least one month period of time, then I’ve overshot this goal by one. But if it’s defined by at least half a year, then I’ve only properly lived in 4 cities so far. Despite the debt that I need to pay forward, I have made it to Copenhagen. It wasn’t the city of my dreams when I was young, but it was a place I fell in love with during my studies here. My dream city used to be Paris and it turned out to be a nightmare when I visited there and also because of personal reasons.

That’s the thing with dreams, they change over time.

A new decade means a new opportunity to dream again

So how do I get myself out of this rut?

First of all, survive. We are in the middle of the biggest health crisis in recent history. I have to forgive myself for not thriving. The question is just how do I know that the survival phase is over? And when is it time to thrive? I’ll never really know especially as an immigrant with a non-permanent status. I just have to do the transition gradually, otherwise I’ll never do it at all.

Second, it’s true what they say that you need to step outside of yourself. A pair of students echoed my sentiments over a dinner discussion. The pandemic had also robbed them of their passions. The message is clear: do not despair, you are not alone. The thought of that is comforting.

During the lockdown, another friend, Mitchie Tabirao and another Filipina have managed to found ulap.org, a non-profit that aims to provide scholarships for cloud computing to disadvantaged Filipinos. Why can’t I come up with something like that instead of watching 50 Netflix shows?

A combination of lockdown fatigue and the fact that consulting, my current work, is a 45–60 hour week job limits the free time that I have. As a 30 year old, honestly I just don’t have the energy I had when I was 20 and working 12–16 hour days and still being able to party afterwards. It makes me slightly jealous to see people ten years younger than me, with the energy and ideas I used to have, eyes burning bright with passion.The new design communities like developh give me hope for the future as instead of the cliques, elitism and gatekeeping of before, they are now driven by the values of diversity and inclusion.

Instead of wasting my time envying what lays ahead of them, I should be inspired instead and use the time that I have left wisely. The reality of being 30 is that one really needs to learn how to focus and prioritise. Or at least improve stamina and health in order to be able to do more. A therapist or a life coach would also be great if I could afford it. Luckily, some professionals are offering their services for free or some therapy could be covered by insurance. Otherwise, it can be equally beneficial to find an accountability partner or friend. It really helps just to talk on a regular basis with someone who understands.

I’ve decided to be 13 again

An action plan for building a creative routine in my 30s

The key word is doing something regularly and small steps at a time. Structure seems to work for me and the unpredictability of the pandemic prevented our lives from having the stability needed to build structure on top of. The privilege in living in a country that has managed the situation well allows optimism to start planning again. I have also learned that having impossibly big goals made me depressed when I didn’t achieve them. Setting smaller goals I can achieve everyday can make me ultimately happier. One could never really know what ripple effects our seemingly tiny actions can have.

This little essay is just the start of documenting my journey on rekindling my passion for design again. One of my project ideas is to talk to designers in Denmark about Danish design and eventually in other countries about their own country’s design style. I will be publishing it either in written, audio or bite-sized graphic form. Or I could just do a simple design a day project, like I did when I was 20 and ecstatic that I would be moving to Singapore. The main point isn’t really about growing an audience or something like that. The goal is for me to find my passion again, but by putting it out into the open it might actually help other people as a by-product.

The thing with goals is that they are doomed to fail if it’s focused on attaining external achievements like being on some list or winning an award. An acquaintance of mine was recently listed in the Berlingske 100, a top list of people in Denmark. She is an immigrant like myself. I wrote to her and asked her how she did it. She said she simply followed her passion and the rest followed. Sounds simple but regaining lost passion is going to be another tough journey in my 30s.

A brief thought of going for the Berlingske list crossed my mind but a decade of disappointment has taught me better. If my goal is related to the action itself, then I can be winning everyday and I won’t need an award to validate myself.