In just a few short weeks, Iâ€™ll be turning thirty. I donâ€™t really feel thirty, if you know what I mean. Iâ€™ve never really felt I was ready to be as old as I am, no matter what birthday was approaching. When I was 14, the high school kids seemed so old. And tall. And when I was in high school, college kids seemed just so mature. And when I was in college, people in their twenties seemed so together. And now here I am, a few years away from the age my dad was when I was born, and I feel exactly the same as I always have.
Like most people, I expect, Iâ€™ve had a list in my head of things Iâ€™d like to accomplish before reaching this arbitrary milestone. I was thinking recently that I hadnâ€™t done so well at achieving these goals, even if some were a bit on the fanciful side. Letâ€™s take a run down the Things To Do Before Thirty list, shall we?
Be a rock star.
I should clarify this one. I donâ€™t want to be, I donâ€™t know, Mick Jagger or anything. I donâ€™t even want to be Neil Finn, or Chris Martin, or Ben Gibbard, or (God forbid) John Mayer. Iâ€™d be content to be Colin Meloy. Or Rufus Wainwright. An underappreciated genius, perhaps, with a small but fervent fan base. Thatâ€™d do.
Making music for a living sounds like a pretty decent life. Obviously, Iâ€™d prefer to skip over the part where I play in smoky, beer-soaked clubs for hostile or, at best, indifferent drunks and go right to the part where I can afford to build my own recording studio in my house. I like the idea of waking up around 10, padding downstairs in my pajamas, picking up a guitar, and noodling out a song. And of course, I wouldnâ€™t mind performing for a friendly â€“ nay, adoring â€“ crowd.
I would never say that I have any sort of stage fright. Iâ€™ve always been comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. And Iâ€™ve always been comfortable singing in front of a crowd, as long as Iâ€™m not alone up there. In college, I canâ€™t really ever remember being nervous when my a cappella group performed, because even if I was soloing I knew there were 7-12 other guys in the same outfit standing up there with me. The very, very few times Iâ€™ve performed original songs, with a guitar, Iâ€™ve had a partner. If something went wrong, there was someone on stage to whom I could give a knowing eye-roll for the benefit of the audience.
So itâ€™s not performance nerves that are holding me back from this particular dream career. It may be more that in order to be a successful singer-songwriter (and this may already be obvious to you), one not only has to sing, but also write songs. This is a bit of a problem for me. Iâ€™ve written roughly three songs in the past, oh, six years that I wouldnâ€™t be embarrassed to play for someone. I have to believe that to do this professionally Iâ€™d have crank one out more often than every twenty-four months.
So, yeah, I didnâ€™t quite make this goal. I take some solace in the fact that the imaginary audience in my head gives me a standing ovation every time I bust out singing in the shower.
Pitch in the major leagues.
Ok, ok, stop snickering. No seriously, stop it. Sigh. Iâ€™ll wait.
Are you done? Thank you. Look, I know there was never any danger of this happening. Iâ€™ve never been even remotely successful in any sort of athletic endeavor and have never really wanted to be. But baseball has always been the sport that mattered to me. My little sister and I would watch nearly every Cardinals game on television growing up, and these were the great teams of the Whitey-ball era: Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, Jack Clark, Joaquin Andujar, Todd Worrellâ€¦those were heady, formative times.
Weâ€™d play baseball in the backyard. Sort of. It was generally just the two of us, and our yard was nowhere near large enough for even a scaled-down version of a baseball diamond, but we had an imaginary rhombus-like shape in our heads, and weâ€™d take turns pitching to each other and keeping track of where our runners would have been, occasionally getting into arguments about whether a fielded ball thrown into Momâ€™s vegetable garden was one base or two.
I loved pitching. Sure, hitting was fun, although it was hard to get a truly satisfying whack with a wiffle-ball bat on a hollow plastic baseball â€“ especially since hitting it out of the yard meant having to deal with the mean crazy next-door neighbor. But pitching was where I really let my imagination get away from me. Standing on the corner of the driveway, I was always on the hill at Busch Stadium, facing down the (boo) Mets or (hiss) Cubs, one strikeout away from a complete game victory.
Please donâ€™t get me wrong: Iâ€™m not any good at it. And yet thereâ€™s something about holding a baseball that makes me want to kick my leg up and let one fly. I still do it, playing catch with my wife in the backyard. Weâ€™ll toss the ball back and forth for a while, and then I inevitably want to go into the full windup. Iâ€™ve always just aped the delivery of the professional who had the most impact on me at the time. As a kid, it was John Tudorâ€™s delivery (flipped from left to right, of course), or Andujarâ€™s. Today, itâ€™s Pedro Martinezâ€™s. (Hey, I like to aim high.) And every once in a while, the ball actually goes where I intend for it to go, and every once in a while, Râ€” catches it and says, â€œOw, that was hard!â€ and I think, â€œDamn, I could have done this.â€
I could have tried out for the baseball team in middle school, and sucked, but eventually gotten better. I could have worked out all through high school, and eventually become the teamâ€™s star starter, and led us to the state championship. Iâ€™d have tried out for the baseball team at Brown, and certainly I wouldnâ€™t have been the star, but Iâ€™d have been good enough to make the team and pitch on a regular basis, and maybe a bunch of us on the team would go to a minor league tryout (just on a lark, you know?), and Iâ€™d catch some scoutâ€™s eye, and (this is where it gets really fanciful) get signed to a minor league deal and pitch for some AA club for a few months, and then get called up to the big leagues when a reliever goes on the DL and come into a game in long relief and shut down the opposition for 5 strong innings and eventually get promoted to the rotation and finally, one day, get the start on the hill at Busch Stadium.
Or, you know, not. Well, Iâ€™m still the ace in our backyard.
Start my own company.
Hereâ€™s the thing: I donâ€™t like my job. In fact, Iâ€™m starting to dislike my whole career, but Iâ€™m willing to chalk that up to a bad job. This is, however, the second job in a row Iâ€™ve had where I felt as though my talents, and the talents of my colleagues, were being wasted by inefficient or even, at times, incompetent management. Hereâ€™s how Iâ€™ve been putting it to my (long-suffering) wife: â€œEverybody except me is an idiot, and I canâ€™t work for idiots.â€ The obvious solution? I should work for myself!
This idea is enormously appealing on so many levels. Iâ€™d finally have to put up and/or shut up. Rather than bemoaning bad decisions that were being made on my behalf, I could make them myself! (Or, if I got really lucky, make good decisions.) Iâ€™d finally be able to build software (for this, indeed, is my career) the way I think it should be built, without taking unnecessary and detrimental shortcuts. Eventually Iâ€™d get to build a team of the best programmers I could find and be able to ensure personally that they are all up to my standards. Iâ€™d have a job I didnâ€™t dread going to every morning, and if I suddenly found that I did, Iâ€™d actually have the power to fix it.
Turns out, however, that starting a software company is hard. Ok, well, thatâ€™s patently untrue. Starting a successful software company is hard. If itâ€™s going to be a product-oriented company, I need, obviously, an idea for a product, and I donâ€™t have a good one. (I have a few bad ones, but Iâ€™m not sure thatâ€™s how I want to start out.) And if itâ€™s going to be a services-oriented company, I need to find someone to offer my services to.
None of this is impossible, of course. What it takes is a measure of gumption, which, as Iâ€™m approaching this three-decade milestone, Iâ€™m starting to wonder if I lack. Am I willing to sacrifice stable employment and the steady (and generous) paycheck it brings for the stress and uncertainty of self-employment? Am I?
Well, I donâ€™t know, but Iâ€™m not ready to move this particular goal into the unachieved column. Iâ€™ve only been working for eight years, and the fact that Iâ€™m not running a company yet isnâ€™t necessarily a sign of failure. Hey, Iâ€™m only thirty! Iâ€™ve got time.
My sister, whoâ€™s wise beyond her years, once said that part of maturity is being able to tell the difference between attainable and unattainable dreams. Iâ€™m never going to be a rock star, nor will I be a professional baseball player. And Iâ€™m ok with that. I might write a few songs and perform them at a local coffee shop. Or join a softball league. I still might, some day, start my own software company.
Of course this hasnâ€™t been an exhaustive list of unachieved goals. Iâ€™ve never traveled anywhere interesting or lived abroad. Iâ€™ve never picked up and moved on a whim. Iâ€™ve never learned to play the piano (competently), or acquired a taste for olives, or had a piece of writing published.
On the other hand, I donâ€™t want to sound too down on myself. There are quite a few things Iâ€™ve managed to accomplish: I got and held a sequence of good jobs and excelled in a field that wasnâ€™t what I studied in college. I met, fell in love with, and married the girl of my dreams. We found, bought, moved into, and decorated a house â€“ a real house! â€“ with a basement and a yard and a driveway and a garage and all sorts of other adult features.
Would I have ever thought, ten years ago, that this is where Iâ€™d be at thirty? Itâ€™s not so bad.
I guess itâ€™s time to start making the â€œto do by fortyâ€ list.