"What You Learn in Your 40s" (NYTimes Op-Ed Must-Read)

PARIS — IF all goes according to plan, I’ll turn 44 soon after this column appears. So far in my adult life, I’ve never managed to grasp a decade’s main point until long after it was over. It turns out that I wasn’t supposed to spend my 20s frantically looking for a husband; I should have been building my career and enjoying my last gasp of freedom. I then spent my 30s ruminating on grievances accumulated in my 20s.

I think the biggest transition of the 40s is realizing that we’ve actually, improbably, managed to learn and grow a bit. In another 10 years, our 40-something revelations will no doubt seem naïve (“Ants can see molecules!” a man told me in college).

But for now, to cement our small gains, here are some things we know today that we didn’t know a decade ago:

  • If you worry less about what people think of you, you can pick up an astonishing amount of information about them…Other people’s minds and motives are finally revealed.•
  • People are constantly trying to shape how you view them. In certain extreme cases, they seem to be transmitting a personal motto…
  • •There are no grown-ups…Everyone is winging it, some just do it more confidently.
  • • There are no soul mates. Not in the traditional sense, at least. In my 20s someone told me that each person has not one but 30 soul mates walking the earth…In fact, “soul mate” isn’t a pre-existing condition. It’s an earned title. They’re made over time.
  • •Forgive your exes, even the awful ones. They were just winging it, too.
  • • When you meet someone extremely charming, be cautious instead of dazzled…You know that “nice” isn’t a sufficient quality for friendship, but it’s a necessary one.
  • •People’s youthful quirks can harden into adult pathologies. What’s adorable at 20 can be worrisome at 30 and dangerous at 40.
  • •More about you is universal than not universal. My unscientific assessment is that we are 95% cohort, 5% unique. Knowing this is a bit of a disappointment, and a bit of a relief. •
  • But you find your tribe. By your 40s, you don’t want to be with the cool people; you want to be with your people.
  • •Just say “no.” Never suggest lunch with people you don’t want to have lunch with. They will be much less disappointed than you think.

Finally, a few more tips gleaned from four decades of experience:

  • When you’re wondering whether she’s his daughter or his girlfriend, she’s his girlfriend.

— “What You Learn in Your 40s,” NYTimes Sunday Review Op-Ed