Musings + Essays

Turning 34: I Don’t Know, and That’s OK.

By: Jen Shoop

Today, I turn thirty four.

I sat down to write about what I’ve learned now that I am in my mid-thirties, to collect my thoughts going into this new year.  I wanted to begin with something pithy — something along the lines of: “It’s true what they say: your 20s are about x, and your 30s are about y.”  I scrolled through some of my more flippant reflections on “adulting” looking for inspiration.  I even pecked out some questionable google searches: “quotes about yours 30s” and “difference between your 20s and 30s” in pursuit of some sort of hook, a kind of divining rod to help me discipline my thoughts into some semblance of linearity.  Then I realized I was grasping at straws, because the truth is this: I am still much more unclear on my personal narrative than I thought I’d be at this age.  I am now thirty-four, and while I’ve gotten better at living in the in-betweens, accommodating the unknowns, I still routinely wonder about the future: I can just as easily imagine myself living in Manhattan and raising mini here for the next ten or fifteen years as I can moving back to D.C. or settling in rural Virginia (a recalcitrant pipe dream of mine and Mr. Magpie’s when we are particularly world-weary).  I can envision continuing in this blessed hybrid writer-stay-at-home-mom seat for the foreseeable future, or I can see myself one day shuttling back into the workforce for the right job.  Will I be the mother to an only child, or will I bear the blessing of many?  Will the writing of this blog lead to other kinds of writing, other productions, or will I remain in this happy lane?

I wrote the paragraph above, sat back in my white writing chair, and mused over it, noticing all at once the telling shift in grammar halfway through my run-down of possible alternate realities for my future: declaratives versus interrogatives.  A revelation via punctuation mark: in my mid-thirties, I’m straddling two entirely plausible interpretations of the life I’ve lead thus far, and the one I’ll lead in the future–one the one hand, I view it as shaped by my own exertions and intentions, and on the other, handed to me by fate.  

In my 20s, I felt I could do anything I set my mind to, and my jagged professional life stands as a testament to that unbridled ambition: a short-lived career in a hyper-boring (to me) off-shoot of government consulting; an advanced degree and aspirations for academia; then six years in the non-profit world, where I worked my way from consultant to executive director to chief innovation officer.  As I dove into my my early 30s, I hubristically believed that I could continue hopscotching from one lane to the next, reimagining myself and re-braiding the story I told about my life as I went — and so I took an enormous leap and built a new business in the HR technology space. 

Something happened around the building and running of that business, some health issues I struggled through, and the nearly simultaneous birth of minimagpie that led me to learn I had far less control than I had previously thought.  I felt as though I was continuously bumping into, tangled up with, standing with my shoulder against forces much greater than I.  Gone was my blind faith in the “when you wish upon a star” narrative, and so too the Thomas Jefferson corollary about success being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.  Because I hadn’t been solely a dreamer — I’d been flat out slogging my way through things, and I still ended up shuttering our business.  The only way for me to understand what happened in my early 30s was by renegotiating my understanding of the relationship between fate and personal agency — and those negotiations remain pending.  And this is not to say that I feel I was dealt an ultra-tough hand or that life hasn’t afforded me many blessings; in fact, many of the unexpected happenings of the last few years have been happy ones.  But there has been a reckoning, a change in the way I understand the way life unfolds.  I’m not so forlorn or fatalistic as to say that I don’t think I exert some level of control over my life, and I especially believe I am able to shape my interactions with and relationships to others.  But the bigger things?  Like moving to New York or closing our business or writing this blog?  I have come to see that these things are shaped — formed, even — by something much greater than my own intentions, much further out of my ken or reach.  I choose to believe that that “greater thing” is God, but even still, I occasionally find myself groping for other, closer-in, more legible explanations — economic forces, social ones, environmental ones even — that might inform the way my life has played out thus far.

It’s funny to step back and think about myself and my own perception of my agency over time.  In my 20s, I didn’t quite know who I was, but I believed I could do or be anything; I was amorphous, evolving — but the world around me felt crisp, knowable, navigable.  In my 30s, I know who I am with a kind of true blue certainty (I am somebody!!!), but feel less convinced of my agency, less confident in my grasp on the world.  It’s as if I went from being far-sighted to near-sighted; I I didn’t know what I didn’t know in my 20s, and now I know what I don’t know — and so my conviction in the shape of things has shifted, shrunk, concentrated in on only the small world around me, the narrow sphere in which I know that 1+1=2.  The mathematics beyond skew.

Is this what happens to every woman in her 30s?  The cultivation of a sort of inward quiet paired with a humbled, irresolute perspective on the broader sweep of life?  Or is this the result of an idiosyncratic tumble of experiences that will gradually erode into a hardened sense for the ways of the world?

Either way, I can say this: my post yesterday notwithstanding, I do find it easier to stand still nowadays and take in what I have in front of me without the angst or anxiety or urgency I felt in my 20s for the next thing.  I have faith that things will work out, though often not within the confines of my narrow intentions or visions.  Friends ask us all the time what we plan to do in the future — will we move to the suburbs of New York City?  Brooklyn?  Will we buy or rent?  Will we sell our car or keep it?  Will we relocate to D.C.?  Are we serious about our love of rural Virginia?  What will we do about school for mini if we stay in Manhattan?  Will I go back to work once mini is enrolled?  To all of these things, I say I don’t know.  I don’t know!  I don’t know.  And maybe it’s the fact that my former assurance in the order of things has dissolved and with it my frenetic energy worrying about how to order things just right — but there is a kind of shrugging peace that washes over me when I say: I don’t know, and that’s OK.

My Resolutions for My Thirty-Fourth Year…

Take in more museums.  (The picture at the top is a gesture to that.)  Even when the exhibits upset or baffle me, they’re worth the cognitive dissonance.

Break curfew more often.

Make more time to read.

Get back into some rhythm of exercise.

Focus on the present.

Switch off my phone more frequently.

Go easier on myself.

Write a first draft of my book.

Know that if the only thing I accomplish in a day is ensuring that mini and Mr. Magpie feel loved and cared for, I have succeeded.

My Wishlist for My Thirty-Fourth Year…*

TDF shoes: these Chanel slides or these Aquazzura mules.

A stunning black tie dress.

A pair of Illesteva bocas.

A Bottega Veneta evening clutch.

A bunch of fluffy white Yves Delorme towels.

A polka dot maxi.

Cle de Peau undereye concealer.

*More like — the-rest-of-my-thirties wishlist.  At the top of THAT wishlist, though?  A Peekaboo.  More practical: a belt bag or backpack.

P.S.  When I turned 33

P.P.S.  My latest Amazon order included this for our trip to the beach (a perfect day in the making) and this for our laundry (a reorder — I’ve been using it for the past month and loving it!).

P.P.P.S.  These are going to be my birthday gift to myself.  70% OFF!!!!

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16 thoughts on “Turning 34: I Don’t Know, and That’s OK.

  1. Bon anniversaire! It’s okay to not have the answers to everything though it may be hard at times. Shortly before I got pregnant I experienced a huge upheaval in my work situation that’s put me down a completely different path than expected, but one I enjoy nonetheless. As trite as it may be, everything happens for a reason, and if you are resilient, you can adapt to the situation (or adapt the situation, whichever it may be) so that you have the best possible outcome.

    Hope you had a wonderful day celebrating!!

    1. Thank you so much! I agree, too, with what you had to say about resiliency. Mr. Magpie and I talked about this topic and some of what I’d discussed on the blog — he pointed out that part of why we’ve come to be more “at peace” / more confident in the face of the unknown is because we’ve been through so many upheavals and have always figured it out and made our way to the other side. Those experiences really teach you that you are stronger than you think, right?


  2. I think that what you reflected on is what so many of us find too daunting to even consider. When I turned 30, like you, I expected to have all the answers suddenly, and felt like I needed to bring huge changes into my life to become a true grown up, to become accomplished. 3 years later, and still nothing has changed. I’m still the same hard-working, outgoing, passionate, loving person I think I always was. Now that I’m 33, I stopped trying to figure out what should be next, because the right now is really good. Try not to be a success, but rather of value, a thoughtful insight from Albert Einstein that made me consider the difference between the two. Success can be measured, but value is quite subjective. And as you said, at the end of the day, what matters most is to be of value to my loved ones.

    You have contributed so much, more than you may even know, to readers you’ve never met, who need advice, courage or just a really great story to read. Your writing has brought joy to us, and your love has brought joy to those closest to you. And maybe that’s enough. Happiest of birthdays to you, I hope your day is all you want it to be xo

    1. Nicole! Wow. I will treasure this post forever. I had never heard the Einstein quote but I think that’s one of the more helpful frameworks I’ve ever heard — I’m now fashioning myself as a value play rather than a success story 🙂

      Thank you so much for your kind words and your note of support, too. This was a lovely birthday gift.


    1. Stephanie! I ended up returning about 5 different dresses purchased for the occasion and instead resorted to a white tiered Self Portrait maxi from a season or two ago that I loveeee. It was only the second time out (and its debut in NYC) so I figured — it’s kinda new 🙂 xoxo

  3. Hi. I’m new here. Stumbled on to this post on Bloglovin’. The title “Turning 34: I Don’t Know, and That’s OK” seduced me as I too am a 34-year-old who each day, realizes how little I know.

    “It’s as if I went from being far-sighted to near-sighted; I I didn’t know what I didn’t know in my 20s, and now I know what I don’t know — and so my conviction in the shape of things has shifted, shrunk, concentrated in on only the small world around me, the narrow sphere in which I know that 1+1=2. The mathematics beyond skew.”

    That is the most accurate summation of my 20something worldview vs. my 30something worldview. Especially in today’s world, where everything feels more upside down and out of my hands than ever.

    Thanks for this post.

    1. Hi! Welcome! I’m so glad this resonated with you. You know what’s funny? I didn’t fully realize how much I felt that I’d become a “nearsighted” versus “farsighted” person until I sat down and wrote this out — and then, all of sudden, everything clicked and came into focus. (Too many vision analogies? Sorry!) Thanks for reading along! xo

  4. Happy birthday! I can soooo, 100% relate to your feelings at this age. At 34, I feel deeply rooted in my sense of self, but as to the future — who knows?! I feel MUCH more comfortable with this unknowing than I did in my 20s — I spent a large part of that decade floundering, both with my sense of self as well as my career trajectory and love life. It feels so nice to be beyond that.

    Love your list of birthday resolutions, too — I should do that! I tend to concentrate my energy on New Year’s resolutions, but it seems more meaningful to take stock in June as well. I have to say that I’d borrow your resolutions on museum exhibits and exercise — I have been good about exercising since January, but have fallen off the wagon a bit during the past month … so many social engagements and travel opportunities this time of year! I need to dedicate myself to it anew.

    Yes to ‘going easier on myself’ and switching off the ol’ phone … yes, yes!

    1. I like that word, MK — “unknowing.” Tucking that away for future use 🙂 I’m also completely on your same page about it “feeling nice to be beyond that.” I hadn’t fully thought about how tumultuous the 20s were from a personal development standpoint, but they are really tough! I felt that in my 20s I was constantly comparing myself to my peers, which was an exercise in futility since people are on such wildly different trajectories — some are in school for most of their 20s, others dive right into a lucrative career in finance, and others are hopscotching around. Some are married, some have babies, some are single! It feels like things begin to level out a little more in the 30s — not that everyone is doing the same thing, but that people tend to be more “established” in every sense of the word. Maybe part of our 30s is a little bit like: “OK, I spent my entire 20s trying to keep up with joneses / worry about what the joneses were doing, and now that we’re here and we’re all in the same paddock, I just don’t care about the joneses at all…” HA!


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