My mom has 7 rules to be happy and successful as you age: No. 1 is, 'Your 20s are mostly practice'

The author and his mom in December 2019.
Photo: Maxxe Albert-Deitch

A few years ago, I watched a friend have a panic attack over the prospect of turning 30.

Last month, I spent a long weekend at the beach for another friend's 30th wherein the "over the hill" jokes flew thick and fast. I've seen people hyperventilate upon graduating college at age 22 ("I'm an adult now") or hitting 25 ("I'm really an adult now").

To me, this is odd. I've never felt anxious about a birthday. I credit that to my mom's "rules of aging," which have been ingrained in my head ever since I can remember:

  • Your 20s are mostly practice — they almost don't count.
  • Your 30s are when you figure out who you're going to be.
  • You don't pick up speed until your 40s.
  • You don't gain real momentum until your 50s.
  • You likely won't have made your most significant, make-a-difference in the world achievements until your 60s.
  • In your 70s, you're reinventing yourself.
  • You therefore cannot possibly be old until you're well into your 80s. And even then, it's iffy.

Internalizing these guidelines can help you feel a lot better about getting older. That can make you healthier and help you lead a more highly successful life, experts say.

"How we perceive our aging process — how we feel about [our own] aging — is an important determinant of physical health, psychological health and even longevity," Yoav Bergman, a social psychologist and faculty of social work at Ashkelon Academic College in Israel, tells me.

Take it from my mom, who created these rules 25 years ago and says they've been useful ever since.

"Even now, at age 59, I have never felt bad about a birthday," she says. "They've all proven true."

How the rules of aging work

My mom, Corey-Jan Albert, is a "professional creative" in the Atlanta area: part marketing writer and strategist, part playwriting teacher and singer-songwriter.

"I was in my 30s when I came up with this," she says. "It started because I was working with someone who was in their 20s, and was freaking out about turning 25. I'm sure I didn't even think — I just said, 'Oh, come on, your 20s? They're just practice. They don't count.'"

In retrospect, that's a slight overstatement, she adds: Your 20s can absolutely carry impact and consequence. "Practice" means you're able to try new things as an adult for the first time, and see how they go.

Many people spend that decade trying to simultaneously figure out their work, social and romantic lives. Sometimes, it goes well. Other times, you trust the wrong friend, date the wrong person, take the wrong job.

That's why you have your 30s. In that decade, you can implement the lessons you've learned from those positive and negative experiences. If you've learned what you really want in life, you can chase it.

By that logic, of course you aren't picking up speed until your 40s. "A lot of those things that were revelations in my 20s, and that I really got to practice in my 30s, that was when my whole identity fell into place," my mom says.

As with most age-related concepts, the edges of these boundaries are fuzzy. Maybe you've figured out what you want in life at age 28, or at age 34.

No mystical switch flips when your age ends in a zero. Rather, it's about recognizing that wherever you are in your life, you always have opportunities for success ahead of you.

When my mom shares these rules, she tends to get different reactions based on her audience's age, she says. Younger people tell her, "OK, I'll buy into that, I like that as a concept."

Older people? "Oh, yeah, that's pretty much right," they say.

Aging is often seen as losing something: 'I think that's inaccurate'

For young people, birthday anxiety could mean trying to stave off a mid-life crisis. People in advanced countries are unhappiest at age 47.2, according to recent research from Dartmouth College.

There's another significant component to aging anxiety, Bergman believes: fear of the unknown.

"Aging is [often] perceived as a period where there are losses. There are no gains. But I think that's inaccurate," says Bergman, who's spent the past decade studying aging anxiety.

Big birthdays might evoke a sense of physical or mental decline, losing social connections, a changing appearance. To hear some of my friends joke, you could even start to fear the existential specter of death drawing ever closer. Tick, tock.

But dwelling only on the downsides of aging can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Last month, researchers at Foundation University Islamabad in Pakistan found that aging anxiety leads to poorer quality of life and lower self-esteem.

The study identified a "negative relationship" between aging anxiety and physical signs of aging. In other words, if you feel anxious about getting older, you might be unintentionally hastening the process. Your blood pressure could rise, those wrinkles on your forehead could deepen.

Aging anxiety is also associated with increased loneliness and depressive symptoms, Bergman's research found last year. In young people, it can even foster ageist biases against older people — which could be problematic when you become old yourself, Bergman notes.

The big, round birthdays tend to make us think about what we've achieved and where we're going, and it's hard to focus on aging's positives when you don't know what they are. Compiling that mental checklist can be overwhelming.

But it can help push you to live the life you want.

If aging anxiety decreases your sense of self-worth, it stands to reason that comfort with aging can bolster your self-confidence every day. "The key is a realistic understanding of the gains and losses associated with aging," Bergman says.

My mom's rules of aging were initially a projection of where she hoped she'd be later in life, she says. As she lives through each new decade, each rule turns from prediction into reality. So far, so good.

Her message: Forget the saying that age is just a number. "Sometimes, those numbers are meaningful," she says. "It's just a matter of making them meaningful in positive ways."

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