11/08/2012 08:29 am ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

Thirty Is the New Everything

Lately I've spent an incalculable amount of time thinking about the experience of being a twenty-something. This self-reflection has been sparked in part by the release of my first novel, Loved, a journal-style story about a girl navigating the failures and bad decisions of her twenties and all the lessons that ensue. But additionally, my thirtieth birthday is approaching and the countdown is now in the single digits. I've had to determine how I feel about this milestone, wrapping up the last decade of my life but also positioning myself to kick off the next with a particular attitude. When I think about turning thirty, what I feel is a whoosh of relief.

This generation's twenty-somethings come with a unique set of problems. It could be because we grew up with a community of cheerleaders (anything is possible! dream big! change the world! be a star!), then graduated high school and were propelled into adulthood at the start of the new millennium when suddenly much less was possible and dreams were made smaller. It could be that dating is more of a haphazard game of, well, games. I like to call it "insert personality here," for it's as if we're all waiting to be remade into someone else's ideal version of ourselves. No one dates with intention anymore, which, among other things, is why I did not marry in my twenties. My dad met my mom, set out to win her over and as soon as he was convinced she had the qualities he wanted in a wife, he married her. That process took six months, and they've been married now for more than 32 years. It could be that with social media and reality TV, start-ups and DIY's, and no one using their degrees anyway, the battle between getting an education and educating ourselves has left us a little unfocused.

Most likely it's D: All of the above. Regardless of the root of our issues, the universal truth is that while your twenties may "rock" in their lack of responsibility, they also are riddled with uncertainty about pretty much everything, not the least of which is ourselves. Who am I? What do I want? Where should I live? What should I do for a living? Who should I love? Who should I vote for? What do I believe in?

The answers to these questions change so many times, a trial and error more serious than our teenage trials: wearing your mom's pastel cardigan to school one day and your brother's skater cargo pants the next, trying to find where you fit in. In our twenties, the playing field grows from the school cafeteria to pretty much the whole world, messily packaged into our own minds. Somehow, miraculously, by the time we hit 30 we can answer at least most of those questions with a feeling that's something like comfort.

As the release of Loved nears, one question I have been asked often is what I might tell my younger self that could have saved me some of the trouble of such a tumultuous decade. First, I would tell myself that I am not alone. So often I thought I was the only girl struggling to make good friends, to find love, or to start a career. It turns out we all were. If only I had known, how much easier would it have been to share my burdens and learn from others!

Second, I would tell myself to be patient and to look further ahead into my future at the woman I was becoming more and more every day. In our early-to-mid twenties, we tend to see only "today" and "now," and that results in poor decision-making. Have patience with yourself and your circumstances, and when making decisions think further ahead. Ask yourself, "How will this affect me in a year? In 5 years?" "Does this friend/romance/job/etc. support the woman I see myself becoming?"

I am happy with myself now, but if I could have become this woman while bypassing some of the more painful experiences (certain boyfriends, an undisclosable number of party nights I couldn't remember the next morning), if I had thought about now-me back then, that would be much preferred.

Lastly, I would tell my younger self that we never stop healing or learning. Even now that I feel "on the right path" and "put together," there are still scars that itch. There are still things I feel guilty about, and things I'm wondering whether I should feel guilty about. Loving yourself doesn't mean that you've become perfect or that you now make all the right choices or are a great success in everything you do. It means that you handle things differently. The true definition of loving yourself is being able to protect your heart and hold on to hope while still allowing yourself to feel and to fall. It's a tricky balancing act that surely takes practice, not perfection.

I hope that sharing the lessons I've learned will dull the growing pains for my twenty-something predecessors just a little. Goodness knows I would have paid top dollar for a guidebook at 22. Of course, I would have charged it and I'd still be paying it off today -- that's how unwise I was about finances. (Lucky for you, Loved is quite affordable!) But in my shiny new thirty-something wisdom, I have the foresight to know what's coming: another decade of discovery and lessons that I'll want to write about and share with my now-self when I turn 40.

This time, I greet challenges with grace and gratitude instead of with fear and trepidation, proving that there is still a right destination after all those wrong turns.