A Word of Caution on ’30 Under 30′ Lists

When I was barely 20, ’30 Under 30′ lists inspired the heck out of me.

They told me, “Hey, young people out there are achieving so many great things. If they can do it, so can I!”

But today, as I approach my mid-20’s, ’30 Under 30′ lists are starting to make me feel a little anxious.

Now, they tell me, “This 25-year old just sold her start-up for $10B. What am I doing?”

As I peruse through the latest Forbes 30 Under 30 list, for example, I can’t help but have mixed feelings. On one hand, I feel more motivated to work even harder to achieve many milestones in my 20’s. But, on the other hand, the question that lingers on my mind is whether I’ll be able to accomplish anything equally substantial while under-30.

There’s great value in these lists, but I find that a word of caution is also necessary.


1. Good things take time.

In the book Mastery, author Robert Greene discusses the life cycle of many masters or geniuses in the history of the modern world. One common finding is that masters take 5-10 years (or even more) of apprenticeship, learning, and experience to deliberately propel their way into mastery.

Yes, prodigies – like Mozart – are definitely ’30 Under 30′ material (maybe even the ’20 Under 20′ type) but that’s likely because they started incredibly young.

For those of us who selected a craft, specialization, or industry only in our early 20’s, we have to face a few years or decades more to become masters in these fields. If we utilize our 20’s to learn, practice, and continuously improve, then success will more likely come later in our 30’s or 40’s. And I think that’s okay.

Ultimately, it may be better to care more about WHAT success looks like, HOW we’ll achieve it, and WHY we’re pushing ourselves – rather than WHEN the chips are going to start falling on our lap.

2. We’re all walking different paths.

I used to run a lot back in college, but now I prefer brisk walking on an inclined treadmill. Brisk walking allows me to exercise for a longer period of time. It doesn’t put so much pressure on my knees, and it excited me for my gym session because I know I can watch my favorite shows while walking.

Like me, some people do prefer walking. But some people would rather do sprints. Some people take on marathons.

In the same way, some of us are Marc Zuckerberg. But some of us might become more Colonel Sanders – or Warren Buffett.

Some of us become parents first and then go on to build amazing businesses. Some of us work many, many years, rise up the corporate ladder, and then start families. Some of us spend several years to travel, try to find ourselves, and never settle in one particular place.

We each have our own paths, our own timelines, our own life schedules. It’s difficult to compare our lives wholesale to the ’30 Under 30′ archetype who achieved success at a very young age, because, honestly, success can come at any age.

If you plot out the paths we take on a daily basis, there will be trillions of combinations of stops and speeds and routes of billions of human beings. If we’re all taking different physical paths everyday, why should we expect to ascribe to just a handful – say, 30 – paths to success?

3. Burnout is real.

Aesop was absolutely right. The hare can go incredibly fast, but still get beaten by a slow, consistent tortoise.

In my teens, I oscillated between three main tasks: trying to excel in my engineering degree, managing a non-profit organization that operated nationally, and competing as a writer and as a public speaker. I learned a lot and gained a lot and am extremely grateful for those 5-6 years of my life, but at the end of it, I just felt absolutely tired and absolutely drained.

At one point, I just couldn’t anymore. To be honest, It took a while for me to rediscover my passion for doing things and doing them well.

Physical burn-out is real. I’ve experienced literally missing school exams because of fatigue-induced sickness. But emotional burn-out is real, too.

Though we all want to be at league – even a little – with those 30 Under 30 types, it’s no use beating the clock to 29 or 30 when we’re beating up our bodies and souls in the process.

A Final Word

Don’t get me wrong. I deeply, deeply admire young achievers. I admire the work ethic that many of them display at a young age. I admire the maturity and sacrifice they have to put up with. I admire that their relentlessness and tenacity exceeds those of their peers by a mile.

In fact, I wouldn’t be who I am today if I didn’t have people like Malala Yousafzai or Steve Jobs to look up to.

But this is a word of caution to myself – and to others – to think twice about what these ’30 Under 30′, or ’20 Under 20′, or ’10 Teens of 2018′ lists tell us.

If we get the impression that the immediacy of an achievement is more important than its depth and sustainability, then it becomes problematic. If we measure up against 30 templates of youth and don’t see ourselves there, then it should be no reason to despair.

It’s important to remember that we’ll never be this young again. Our 20’s is a good time to learn, experiment, test our limits, but possibly also a good time to rest, enjoy, and learn to love ourselves.

One keyword that might help? Balance.

After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither can we be.

One thought on “A Word of Caution on ’30 Under 30′ Lists

  1. So, if you’re really ambitious:
    1. Only use old things because they’re already good
    2. Emulate the people on the path of the people on the “on-ramp”
    3. Physically and emotionally recover, especially after acute stressors


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