Six months ago, I had a dull pain in my left shoulder that wouldn’t go away. After a fifty-dollar copay and twenty minutes inside of a white tube — where a superconducting electromagnet shocked the protons in my body’s water molecules into attention, imaging the armature of my shoulder — I found out that some of the cartilage had worn away. The doctor told me that this malady, Acromioclavicular Degeneration, happens to some people. It sounds scary. It’s not. But it is, he said, permanent.
I asked a college buddy of mine, an orthopedic surgeon, about cartilage loss in the AC joint, hoping he would tell me that this is something that can spontaneously regenerate over time. ‘Yeah the AC joint can bother people in their late twenties or early thirties’, he said, ‘just take some ibuprofen.’ Before the MRI could divine the arcane mysteries of bone, cartilage, and ligament, they had a another name for it: getting older.
This isn’t so bad. I have never had aspirations of bench pressing 250 pounds or scaling El Capitan, and it doesn’t hurt when I play my guitar. And after all my youth is hardly over. The fact that, right now, only two men under the age of thirty (they’re both twenty-nine!) have won a tennis Grand Slam is a testament to that. And while the incipient lines on my forehead aren’t helping matters, I’m hopeful that this is the start of my distinguished-looking phase.
I think what one really loses at thirty is feeling comfortable in the phase of life when one is acquiring experiences (cities, jobs, significant others) before actually committing to them. That’s not to say one cannot extend this phase of life indefinitely — there are plenty who do. There’s just a sense now, when there wasn’t before, that it’s time to, you know, get this show on the road. In the second book of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe trilogy, the main character describes this stage in life, when things stay the same more than they change, as the ‘Existence Period.’ I think the name itself — the stasis that it implies — says all you need to know about what it is and why I’m hesitant about its fast approach.
My twenties seemed to be so much the opposite of this ‘Existence Period.’ In fact, given how much has changed in these ten years it seems silly to bucket it all in such an arbitrary category of ‘my twenties.’ I imagine that when I’m eighty and looking back I won’t have such a discrete view of these years. The components will have been melted, mixed, and recast into an amorphous, alloyed block of time when I wasn’t a teenager but I also didn’t yet have kids or a dog or a house, the time I was being educated, collecting friends, and utterly incapable of cooking a full meal. But from where I stand now, my twenties feel like a journey all unto itself, each slice vivid and distinct.
If you’d asked me how I got here I couldn’t have told you. The winds that had blown me here could have blown me anywhere.
-Tobias Wolff, In Pharaoh’s Army
Ten years ago I had never been outside of North America. I had never filed my taxes. I didn’t have a credit card. I hadn’t yet read any of the authors who I now count as my favorites. I had never had a job with a desk and a computer. I had never even held a smart phone.
I was a sophomore at Wake Forest in North Carolina. I was in a fraternity and accordingly I wore boat shoes almost every day. If the weather was nice on Friday afternoons we would sit on the outdoor walkway on the third floor of Kitchin Hall with our shirts off, drinking cheap beer. Sometimes we’d launch water balloons over the roof onto the main quad. We somehow never got in trouble for this. On weekends, I wanted nothing more than to party at one of the fraternity’s houses on Long Road, drinking Busch Light and a brand of distilled industrial lubricant with the temerity to call itself ‘Aristocrat.’
Lest it be understood that I somehow find this to be a regrettable part of my life, that if I could go back and talk to that twenty-year-old I’d have some hard words for him, let me be very clear: I was doing exactly what I should have been. If I could do it all again I’d do it the same.
My senior year, just before my twenty-second birthday, I landed a job at Bain Atlanta. I can remember my interview, sitting in their office on the twenty-fifth floor of the Terminus building in Buckhead in my cheap suit, working through a case interview, the ultimate calculation of which involved figuring the incremental revenue of moving a cruise ship from a Caribbean route to an Alaskan one. When I landed back in Charlotte a few hours later I had a voicemail from one of my interviewers. He asked me to give him a call when I had a chance.
I didn’t fully appreciate at the time what that moment on a rainy day in Atlanta meant. My worry with my first job was in many ways what I now worry about with the approach of thirty — that this was the stage in my life where the fun ends. The great friends I’d made in college, maybe with a few exceptions, would be it. Instead, over the next year I would move into an old house on Briarcliff Road in the Highlands with three awesome guys. I’d end up with a group of friends made up of those roommates, my young colleagues at Bain, and the people they all knew. I never felt as if managing those relationships was a balancing act between different orbits, because there was only one. I never made plans before the weekend because I never had to: the plan was to hang out with my friends and that was their plan too. On Sunday nights people came over to cook dinner, drink too much wine, and watch HBO. We laughed all the time. This, the time where the fun was supposed to have ended, was magical.
Eventually many of us left Atlanta, going off to business school or new jobs, but we still see each other on the wedding circuit and it feels like we’re all home again. I was recently in Charlotte for one such wedding, and after the reception we all went to a local bar where we ended up sitting at a long table. I was at one end and looking down along the clusters of conversation, the men with their bow ties undone and their sleeves rolled up and the women with their hair slightly askew from a night of dancing. Everyone was smiling, laughing. I was talking to one of those friends when, during a pause in the conversation, she took it all in. A smile played across her lips and she said that she had never met anyone else who had something like this after college. I said I hadn’t either.
That interview had also meant a job. As an Associate Consultant (an “AC”), I learned the basics of being a professional and running numbers, packing efficiently and juicing airline rewards programs. There were times when that job made me miserable. There were weeks when it was Friday night before I did anything in my house but sleep: wake up go to work come home go to bed. Thankfully that usually wasn’t the case; it could even be fun. On one project out in the sticks of North Carolina, my team rented a massive house in the mountains of Ashe County for a week in lieu of a hotel. Every night we’d cook dinner and drink wine and watch a movie. I ended up in the only bedroom that didn’t have a shower so I took a bath every morning in a claw-foot tub. Another time a fellow AC and I spent a week puttering around Charleston, South Carolina doing customer interviews at fried chicken chains to support Advent’s buyout diligence of Bojangles. I still remember they were shocked that people in the South were eating chicken for breakfast. They ended up buying it.
And then at the end of my three years I had to figure out what to do. Of all the doors that opened upon leaving a well-regarded analyst program, I chose the one with a blue baby head on it. The company was Babiators, also based in Atlanta. We made children's sunglasses.
One need not spend a lot of time around consultants to hear the yearning to experience something more ‘operational.’ When one’s professional oeuvre is the sum of ephemera — Excel models, Powerpoint slides, meetings about the slides, slides with takeaways from the meetings, meetings about the meetings, and finally a meeting at the end to show off all of the slides — it can be hard to escape the feeling that you’ve only experienced ‘business’ as a sort of abstraction. At Babiators, operational experience is what I got. On my second day of work I was on a plane to Taiwan to handle a quality control issue at our factory. Over the next two years I’d go back to Taiwan again and add on another two trips to China. We had an idea one summer to try our hand at retail so I hired some employees and ran a cart in Lenox Mall.
Then I went to Harvard Business School, those storied halls of sections and cases and theme parties. In my first year, I was living in a small room on the fourth floor of Mellon Hall which had a view of the Charles River, the Anderson Memorial Bridge, and, on the river’s north bank, the Weld Boathouse. On the large sill of my single window I had my coffee station: a gooseneck water kettle that allowed me to heat the water to the very degree, a burr grinder that crushed the coffee beans into a consistent coarseness, and an AeroPress, a sublimely simple, mechanical (refreshing in this age of the K-cup) contraption that brews exactly one excellent cup of coffee at a time (I’ve been told that this fact makes the AeroPress inherently depressing). And every morning I made myself that single cup of coffee and drank it slowly, watching the boats and the joggers and the bundled up people walking to work.
I had a blast at HBS. Aside from an excellent environment for my morning coffee, I ended up with even more close friends, a stable of travel experiences, and a job I’m excited about so I’m certainly glad I went — and, given what it cost, I’d better be.
There was an occasional crassness about the place. It is, after all, a business school, and businesses make money, and ostensibly we’re all there because we want some of it. Still, the overriding association I have of HBS is with the classes that I enjoyed and the friends I made. And at times it could even be heart-warming. At the end of my second year, I attended a lecture given by one of institution’s intellectual giants. I went because it seemed like the kind of thing I was supposed to go to while I was at HBS. What started out as a banal rehashing of some theories we’d all heard — exactly what I was expecting it would be — gradually turned into something breathtakingly intimate and vulnerable. I remember later that day trying to tell someone about it and I couldn’t without choking up. I tried telling someone the story the other day and it turns out I still can’t.
Living in San Francisco is nice too. On Fridays I work out of the city office and have not yet gotten used to its startling view of the Bay. This part of the country is so beautiful.
And this brings me to thirty.
Iwill grant that this essay’s very existence may be evidence to the contrary, but I’m comfortable with turning thirty. Ten years ago I never could have anticipated the three cities I’d live in, the three jobs I’d have, grad school, the friends I’d make. It’s the fact that the joys of my twenties were so unexpected at nineteen that makes me look forward to my thirties now. Granted, there will likely be more of Frank Bascombe’s ‘Existence Period’ in the next ten years than there was in the last ten years, but that’s OK too.
Thinking back to what I remember most about my twenties, I’m struck by how almost all of the experiences that leap out at me — too numerous to recount here — are positive. That doesn’t mean they are the only memories of course. With little effort I can recall the tough spells — professional disappointments, relationships that failed to ignite, a lonely first few months at HBS. But now those memories seem so much duller and desaturated, harder to grasp than the rest, their jagged edges grown dull with time. And while the good memories too have lost some of their detail, they still stand there, still catching the mind’s eye, luminous and brilliant.