It’s a confronting, tough and frustrating time. It’s filled with new energy and a different type of the drive to what we experienced in our teens and twenties. Guys between 28 and 32 (roughly) who hit their thirties tend to make major, life-altering decisions that often look ugly (and strange) from the outside. What’s going on?
I have several close friends that are in their early thirties. Some are married, some have kids, some single. At just 41 now, I feel like I’ve only come through this period myself, and as part of my vocation now, I give counsel and coach a number of guys through this season of life.
What some don’t realise, is at thirty, it’s like something spiritual takes place that jolts your worldview. I’ve been trying to work out what actually happens for a while now. I’d like to share these few insights with you.
The spiritual implications of turning thirty require no new research (although more is welcome). They’ve have been noticed and recorded for millennia. One of the ancient authorities of the Torah called the Mishnah (written 2,500 years ago) gives advice around these significant times in a man’s life:
Avoth 5 22 says of our adult years: Twenties, to pursue [a livelihood]. Thirty, for strength, Forty, for understanding. Fifty, for counsel. Sixty, for sagacity. Seventy, for elderliness. Eighty, for power. Ninety, to stoop.
Interestingly, in the Bible, we see quite a number of occurrences where there is a significant call to leadership and strength at the age of 30. For example, David becomes King of Israel at thirty, Joseph serves Pharaoh in a national leadership role at thirty. Jesus begins his ministry at age thirty. The Sons of Levi were given responsibilities in the temple at thirty. Again, strength, leadership and responsibility.
So we know something spiritual takes place, but what about socially? Why do we hit this age and seem to find ourselves asking big questions, separating from past leadership, dealing with hatred, bitterness, frustration and disappointment in the midst of trying to make sense of the past? I’d like to take a few minutes to tell you what I believe is happening… and this is as basic as I can make something that social science experts write extensive volumes on, so please bear with me.
For about the first ten years of our lives we form our Personal Identity. In this time, you are really the centre of your own universe. This is why children are inherently selfish. Your supra-conscious brain and operating system is focused on survival and obsessed with the questions “Am I OK?” and “Who am I?” Mum, dad and your primary carers have the biggest impact on our Personal Identity formation.
Somewhere around 11 or 12 years old, you begin to care more about the people that you hang out with socially. Your tribe, peeps, gang, colleagues, sports team, friends and family. This is the forming of your Group Identity. We spend the next 20 years identifying and deciding (often vocally) what we like and don’t like AND who we are like and who we are not like. Your supra-conscious brain is now obsessed with getting answers to “Who am I?” (Personal Identity) AND “Who am I in this world?” (Group Identity). We then live out of the sum total of these answers. (i)
I hope this is making sense. Think about subcultures and group cultures in school, college, career industry and society in general. Most of the energy, noise and formation of these groups matter most to those in their teens and twenties. In my line of work, I’ve noticed that churches who create very strong group identities through maintaining and supporting a strong youth-centric group culture attract energy-filled people in their teens and twenties. But have you noticed how so many of these young people hit thirty and either head off somewhere else or leave their faith altogether? It happens right? Our adopted concepts of God and life, have to give way to God and life. For me, at 32 I left the church movement I had given 14 years of my life too. It was a painful, messy and incredibly 7 year separation. And I’ve only just returned to the movement, albeit a very different person.
So, you have your Personal Identity and Group Identity. What I think happens at thirty is you outgrow this group-womb you’ve been drawing strength and identity from and you find yourself involuntarily birthed into a new world. You now seem to have the strength and a drive to lead your own life. You also begin to see your parents, friends and the life you’ve formed through new lenses… and it can be frustrating, scary and exciting at the same time.
If you’re still reading and this is resonating with you because you’re a guy around 30, or are relationally close to one, I’d like to finish by giving you just 3 keys I’ve picked up along the way:
Ask the Big Questions
Don’t be afraid to openly question yourself, God (He’s big enough to deal with it) and all those that were part of forming your group identity. You’re in a prime position to find the strength to ask the big questions of life without thinking it’s not allowed, dangerous or dumb. It’s an important time of reconciling the past to make the most of the many years ahead. Find safe people to journey with. I suggest a counsellor, psychologist, life coach, elder, mature Pastor or mentor who is at least a few years ahead of you and is a good reflective listener. You don’t need someone telling you what to do; you need to know it ’s important to question and process big things for yourself. Wrestling is permitted!
Beware of Bitterness
In reflecting on the past 30+ years you will probably find yourself a little pissed off with decisions you’ve made or you’ve let other’s make for you. Sit with the anger and frustration and let it inform your inner journey but be careful it doesn’t turn into bitterness. Anger indicates our boundaries have been crossed (helpful) but aggression crosses other people’s boundaries (not helpful). It’s not uncommon for guys to shift blame towards authority figures they’ve been under in their 20’s. These may include bosses, parents, pastors etc. Again, finding safe people and spaces to process these thoughts and feelings is important. Blame and bitterness will cost you dearly so beware of it creeping in. Forgiveness and ownership of your own responses is a healthier way forward.
Relax, You Have Time
In the Western consumer culture, there is a massive lie we are being sold in our twenties; and that is, “You need to have your crap together by 30”. It’s like the midlife crisis of 40 moved to 30. Guys, I want you to think of something for a moment. You will probably be in the workforce for another 40 years! So at 30 you’ve only done 10 of 50 years. That means you have 80% left! Don’t buy the lie that you have to have the wife, kids, mortgage and career nailed at thirty. That’s a big load of crap. Try investing in your heart and inner life. This may mean choosing to have a home over a house. Calling over career. Meeting your wife and kid’s needs over your parent’s needs. Leading over being led. Jesus-with-you over you-for-Jesus. The renewing of your mind over the filling of your calendar. Slow and steady over instant.
If you’re a guy at this stage of life and this resonates, feel free to leave a comment about your thoughts and experiences, I’d love to hear from you.
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(i) See the very accessible book RARE Leadership for some insights into identity formation .
** This article is a revised version originally written in 2016.