You Don’t Have to Be Successful Before You’re 30

Exploring the truths and lies of success in your 20s

Exploring the truths and lies of success in your 20s

When I was 20, I read Tim Ferris’ book, The 4-Hour Workweek. If you’ve read the book, you know the effect that it has: it’s catnip for your ambition, and it stokes a tremendous desire for success.

I’m not here to dump on Tim or 4HWW — I acknowledge that there are problems with the book and I am painfully self-aware of the Silicon Valley / Wall Street startup hustler-type image that Tim’s followers often espouse — but in general, the book has made me 10 times more capable and confident in myself, so it’s done me far more good than harm.

One concept that Tim shares is the idea of having “dreamlines,” which are goals for things you’d like to achieve throughout your life. I believe that thinking critically and examining our true, authentic desires is a useful exercise for anyone to undertake, and I know that when I sat down with a pencil and notepad to jot down the things I actually wanted to achieve in my lifetime, I genuinely surprised myself by what I wrote.

I’ll share part of my list here:

  • Help cure malaria

  • Compose a symphony and conduct it

  • Publish a fantasy or science fiction novel

  • Start a camp or a school or a university, or all three!

  • Become the best whistler in the world

Now, these are all extremely ambitious projects, and I know that it’s unlikely I’ll achieve all of them in my lifetime (except that last one — I’m seriously good with my lips).

But it’s not a bad thing to be ambitious; in fact, I think it’s a great thing!

It’s ambition that launched humans to the moon. Ambition is a necessary ingredient in pursuing practically anything worthwhile, and it’s a quality that should be celebrated, not vilified.

But after reading The 4-Hour Workweek and codifying my dreamlines, I didn’t just feel ambitious, I felt pressure.

I harbored a deep and unrelenting sense that I must go forth and accomplish all of these things right now!

I don’t think this was Tim’s original intent, but it was certainly the effect his book had on me, and I know it’s had a similar (if not more profound)effect on some of my friends.

I observe a pervasive sense of urgency when I talk to my friends who drank the same Kool-Aid I did. The young tech company founders, the aspiring novelists, the political activists; they think “Oh my god, I have to achieve my dreams right away!”

While it’s true that time is short — it’s always good to bias towards action and seize the day —it’s important to remember that youth, strictly speaking, is not an advantage. There is no legitimate reason to believe that you must accomplish anything in your 20s, and in fact we have evidence to believe that it is your age and experience that most often correlate with success.

We know that the average age of a novelist publishing their first book is 36.

We know that the average age of a successful entrepreneur is 45.

We know that the average age of a politician when elected is 50.

Youth is an advantage only insofar as it provides enthusiasm and neuroplasticity, but these aren’t necessarily the attributes of a good CEO, novelist, or elected official. Rather, most successful people spend a long time cultivating deep expertise in their fields, they develop habits of persistence, and they build up a strong personal network that takes years to nurture.

And yet, many of us still hold fast to the belief that college kids are changing the world from their dorm rooms. I’m not denying that these successful youngsters exist, and I’m certainly not trying to discredit my fellow 20-somethings by saying that we can’t accomplish great things. But we ought to be clear with ourselves about the likelihood of success, and temper our expectations accordingly.

I’m not writing this to give you a license for laziness. Quite the opposite! I’m writing this to beseech you to push your ambitions and consider all the amazing dreamlines you can accomplish when you’re 40, 60, and even 80!

But while you fantasize and dream about all the incredible things you’ll be able to do, I hope that you won’t fall into the Tim Ferris trap of believing that you have to accomplish these things while you’re young.

The ‘30 Under 30' lists we see all the time on the internet are further perpetuating this myth and contributing to a harmful and erroneous image of wunderkind as success story. In the same way that Instagram influencers and Photoshop have been the dual-core engine that drives the development of body dysmorphia and eating disorders in adolescent boys and girls, these 30 Under 30 lists drive 20-year-olds to workaholism, status anxiety, manic obsessiveness with productivity hacks, and the wanton use of stimulants from caffeine to Adderall.

I’ll reiterate for the sake of clarity: I am not arguing that young people shouldn’t dream big and pursue their ambitions, I’m simply arguing that they shouldn’t feel the pressure to have made it big by the time they’re 30.

It’s time we let go of the notion that youth is advantageous and accept that, when it comes to our dreamlines, we are far more likely to achieve them later in our lives.

Not helping, Forbes!

Still, it’s important to celebrate the advantages that youth does confer upon us. We may be less likely to start a successful company or publish a novel or become a senator, but we’re more able to take risks, push our bodies, and experiment in ways that become increasingly difficult as we age.

That’s why I’ve created a new 30 under 30 list: a bucket list! It’s filled with all the things I want to accomplish while my youth is an asset.

I’ll share part of my list here:

  • Travel somewhere far and live there for at least 6 months

  • Do lots of psychedelics

  • Write a book (though don’t necessarily publish— just build the muscle)

  • Take an epic road trip across the country with good buddies

  • Host an orgy

This list is a lot less ambitious, and I still might not be able to accomplish them all before I’m 30 (except that last one — again, I’m seriously good with my lips).

But these are all goals that I’ll be more likely to achieve while my youth gives me an edge. I’m not saying old folks can’t do any of these things, but these are just things that I want to experience sooner rather than later, and I’m excited for the dreams I experience now to inform and inspire my dreams in the future.

I’d like to close by suggesting a new approach for thinking about our timelines of success and how we’d like to spread our experiences over our lifetimes.

Instead of pressuring ourselves to be a certain way or do a certain thing by a certain age, we should focus on the things in life that feel ripe.

Are you in between high school and college and want to explore the world before rushing off for more school? That’s perfect timing for a gap year! Feel compelled to start a new venture after a few years of learning the ropes at your old company? Go for it! Bored of the suburbs and want to move to Aspen to find romance among the cute ski instructors? Sounds fabulous! Send me a postcard from the Rockies and I’ll invite you two to my next orgy! 😜

My point is that you should feel moved to pursue your dreams, not because of some arbitrary pressures from Forbes or Ferris, but because you’re genuinely inspired and excited by the prospect of what the new experiences will bring you.

Yes, you should take advantage of the short time allotted to you on this earth, but don’t drive yourself crazy by thinking that you need to cram everything in while you’re young.

Seize every day as it comes, and pursue the dreams that feel appropriate to your station in life — there will be time enough!