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Fresh-faced high school days at LGS, 2003. —Photo by author
Fresh-faced high school days at LGS, 2003. —Photo by author

Once, when I was an undergraduate at LUMS in Pakistan, we were asked to create 'future CVs' for ourselves, imagining where we would be 10 years down the road.

According to my calculations, by the age of 30, I would be an acclaimed international affairs correspondent with Al Jazeera TV. I would also be a certified yoga instructor, the author of an award-winning collection of short stories, and the co-director of a charity school in Pakistan. I would have trekked to the base camp of an 8,000-metre peak (if not summited the peak itself), and I’d be speaking five languages like a native, or as we say in Urdu, farr farr.

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 30th birthday. And looking back at that smug, overambitious piece of paper (I still have a copy), what do you suppose I felt?

Disappointment – at falling short on pretty much all of my grandiose goals?

Guilt – for being lazy, for not doing 'enough', for not 'living up to my potential'?

Anger – at myself; at people around me; at the circumstances that thwarted my legendary ascent to that 8,000-metre peak and to the age of 30?

No. I only laughed. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about goals and achievements that you could enumerate on a CV; that you could neatly check off on a “bucket list” and be done with.

I used to care, a lot. During my 20s, I was beleaguered by that pervasive pressure to “achieve”, all too familiar to us millennials. Often times, we weren’t even sure of what we wanted to achieve; it could be an important position at a multinational corporation or a big bank, it could be starting our own business, running an NGO, getting a PhD, and “making a difference”. Yes, what we wanted most of all was to make a difference, to “change the world”.

I stopped thinking that I could change the world, and it was a conscious decision.

That’s not to say that I became cynical. I just realised that I, as one individual, did not have the power to change or “save” the world. I couldn’t eradicate poverty. I couldn’t stop wars. I couldn’t ensure that every child on the street went to school, nor that no woman was ever raped. I couldn’t put an end to meaningless violence. I couldn’t reverse global warming.

Also read: A page from the diary of a job hopper

I couldn’t carry through any of this in my own hometown, Lahore, let alone the entire world.

To think that you were somehow “special”, that you could clean up a mess that was centuries, millennia in the making, just like you’d solve a nifty Math problem, was downright arrogant.

Once in a while – perhaps once in every generation – somebody exceptional came along. Extraordinary people who, by dint of birth, effort, circumstance, and some serendipitous conjunction of the stars, did extraordinary things. These were the world’s heroes and heroines, revolutionaries and prophets, thinkers and humanitarians, inventors and scientists, artists and writers; whose names we read in history books.

I don’t suppose that any of these great people ever planned on changing the world. I don’t suppose they wrote about it in their college applications, or scribbled it on their “bucket lists”.

I think they were just going about their lives, one day at a time, doing whatever it was they loved and believed in – not expecting any accolades or honours – just following their intuition, being themselves.

That’s one thing we all have the power to do: being ourselves. Improve ourselves, and consequently, have a positive effect on everything around us.

It could be the simplest things, such as:

Recycling trash. Holding open the door for someone at the metro station. Lending an ear to a friend who’s had a bad day. Teaching somebody a skill, or learning something new yourself. Making friends with somebody from a different country; making the world a more tolerant and kinder place by embodying those qualities.

That was, realistically, the best I could do, and it was enough for me. There is no point in beating yourself up over “failed” ambitions or irrational expectations, neither your own nor those of others.

The expectations of others, or “what will people think” – we’ve all been oppressed by them, from something as trivial as buying the “right” gift for a birthday party, having to attend a cousin’s friend’s brother’s wedding or wearing the “right” outfit to a family lunch, to being emotionally coerced into a marriage by your parents, putting up with an abusive husband, to sticking with a job that sucks the life out of you daily.

Why?

Because that’s what you’re expected to do. That’s what a good, responsible, respectable person does; he or she makes make everybody happy – everybody except themselves.

But deep down inside, where nobody can hear our true thoughts, we often ask ourselves:

Why am I doing this? Is it worth it? I’m fulfilling all my ‘duties’, but why am I still so miserable?

There’s something perversely romantic about misery, the notion of sacrificing your life for the sake of others; for your children, parents, friends, your community and country; without a thought of your own wishes and desires. Whether or not you enjoy being cast in that role, society will definitely love you for it.

On the other hand, society will not take kindly to seeing you happy. That’s just shameless. And if you insist on being so brazenly optimistic, then at least pretend to have something to gripe about.

Also read: When society blamed me for my miscarriage

This kind of thinking is typical among desis, and I was done with it. If your actions didn’t spring from love or genuine kindness; if your only motivation was to “live up to” some vague ideal or ill-conceived expectation; the fear of what people might say, then those actions were worth very little.

The fact was, you couldn’t make anybody happy, truly happy, unless you were happy and fulfilled yourself.

It was not always the simpler choice; oftentimes, it was easier to be miserable, it was easier to be a doormat than to stand up for your inviolable right to happiness. But, it was a choice you made.

So far, I’ve led a pretty privileged life. I’ve never known hunger, or homelessness, or violence or abuse – none of the unimaginable hardships that form reality for millions of people around the world. Most of us are familiar with the ordinary struggles of human existence – death and sickness in the family, relationship troubles, financial crises – but nothing as shattering as the experience of a child in a war-torn country, a family who has lost everything in a natural disaster, the victim of racism or religious persecution, a refugee, an addict, a prisoner, a slave.

Given the enormous advantages that we already have, there is really no excuse for us to feel sorry for ourselves, or vainly blame others for our own unhappiness. We are not victims, and we are certainly not helpless. We are lucky enough to be able to make our own decisions, chart our own priorities, control the course of our lives with some degree of certainty (putting aside a percentage for qismat, of course).

It could be, for example, choosing to spend on a holiday rather than a new piece of jewellery, or exercising instead of watching TV. Or it could be something more far-reaching, like deciding to move to a new country, taking on a new job, having a baby.

The bottom line is, we are all blessed. We all have dreams, and most importantly, we all have volition. We just need to muster up the courage to pull those tricks out from our magic bags and put them to use, in spite ourselves.

So, what have I learnt about life after 30 years?

It doesn’t seem like a whole lot, even by earthly accounts. In the universal scheme of things, it’s embarrassingly negligible.

But what I do know now that I didn't before, is that life is really about living and not about achieving lofty goals, building monuments, racking up positions, bank accounts, cars and TVs.

For me, it’s not about pleasing others, being a hero, a saint or a superstar, devoting your life to any one cause.

It’s about finding contentment, finding beauty, finding peace in the little things. The day-to-day achievements, the seemingly mundane. You learned a new word today. You tried a new dish. You finished an assignment before deadline. You took your kids to the movies. You caught up with an old friend. You explored a new neighbourhood. You danced under a tree.

Your expectations of yourself need not be grander. Yes, you may wish to write a book one day, or set up a charity school (I know I do). I haven’t forgotten those dreams. But I’m no longer in a rush to accomplish them, nor am I going to let them dictate or frustrate my present.

There was a time when I’d walk out of the house with a squeaky clean face and just a dash of kajal in the eyes, ready to go to college, a dinner or a wedding. Now, I use makeup on a regular basis. I even wear lipstick, something I found utterly loathsome at 20.

The salon girl makes it a point to count out the growing number of white hairs on my head every time I go for a trim, shaking her head disapprovingly: “But why don’t you dye?”

I find myself flipping magazines at various clinics much more often, thanks to an array of itinerant physical pains. I’ve become more attentive to what I eat, trying my best to choose a salad or a piece of fruit over a cupcake or a toast slathered with butter and marmalade. In the past, I couldn’t be bothered about the lumps of sodium in ChinChin Chinaman’s hot and sour soup, or the pools of grease in the LUMS cafeteria chicken karahi.

Then, there are the inner changes, the ones you can’t really see: I feel happy, but in a calmer way. I’m not in a hurry to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. I don’t care as much of what people think of me, and I’m a lot less concerned about offending somebody over a nicety.

The smudges of shyness and self-consciousness that I had retained from teenage into my 20s have all but dissipated, and life is so much easier without them. I avoid comparing myself with others. I try not to be overly self-critical (a family trait), and most of all, I remind myself to be grateful, and not take life too seriously.

And what of the idealistic goals of that fictional 10-year-old CV?

Well, I didn’t fall off the mark entirely when I made those predictions. So I’m not a correspondent with Al Jazeera TV, but I did work at Democracy Now, which in my opinion is the most excellent independent TV news program in the US.

I’m not a certified yoga instructor, but I am an uncertified Bollywood dance teacher.

There’s no collection of short stories (let alone award-winning), but there is an in-progress research project and an intermittent blog.

I’m not the director of any charity, but I basically do volunteer work for a living, from museums to bookstores to archaeology pits.

I’d say I’ve got two languages down in the farr farr category, with a third one in the works.

Instead of trekking up a gigantic mountain, I chose to throw myself out of a perfectly good airplane 1,000 meters in the sky (you do some ridiculous things in your 20s).

So, all in all, I’m pretty satisfied with the 30-year report card, as should you be with yours.

There’s no need to feel despondent or to have regrets about what you could have done and didn’t do; and there’s no need to panic that your “best years” are flying by so you better make “the most” of them.

With good health and a little bit of qismat, every year, every day can be your best, if want it to be.

Zen. —Photo by author
Zen. —Photo by author

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Author Image
Manal A. Khan is a freelance writer and photographer based in Madrid, Spain. She loves old cities, tall trees, dark chocolate and being inspired.

She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and a Lahore native. Manal blogs at Windswept Words.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


Comments (38) Closed



W G Sheikh May 26, 2015 06:27pm

Written with a lot of raw heart; love it; it reminds me of one of my friend's comments while she volunteered at an hospice; by that time, she had bid farewell to 29 of her patients; she remembers, being next to their bed-side, none of them ever mentioned their palatial farm house, their BMs, their unattended heap of jewelry; their closets shimmering with latest fashions; yes, they did talk, with teary eyes, about their daughters, their sons, their spouses, their friends, their child-hood buddies; how they missed being grateful, not recognizing the wealth that was always around them, unasked for.

Deependra May 26, 2015 06:33pm

Beautiful, positive article. A must read for all youngsters!

ASL May 26, 2015 06:39pm

This is such a fantastic piece of writing, providing much-needed food for thought for a fellow 30-year old still fighting with my 20s' goals. Very well-written; you sound so evolved. Kudos!

saini_kumar May 26, 2015 06:45pm

Beautiful Article by couregous woman

Suhail May 26, 2015 07:08pm

As,we all rise up from 20's to 30's.Its wise to jump down 1000m down,it just balance the things out. I referred back to my bucket list,it not much different.In fact,this is everybody's story.

Thanks for such wonderful write-up!!!

Nauman May 26, 2015 07:09pm

I just had my 29th birthday and I would have to say that I couldn't agree with you more. We need to tone down our overzealous and overachieving desi sides and make the best of every moment we have to live. It's the little things in life that count..

Sameer May 26, 2015 07:26pm

Lovely article... I don't write blogs or articles...but am happy that I a reading some good ones and although one line long, writing a comment :)

just_someone May 26, 2015 07:28pm

We all have a tendency to look back and think about what more we could have done... its wrong to do so. On the other hand, it is also wrong to think that you were completely naive and to discount all your past aspirations. I dont think I am God's gift to humanity, but I set out to get a PhD and did it. My experience taught me that nothing is easy, anything you want to do, esp out of the ordinary, requires a lot of perseverance, drive and sacrifice. I say this because someone reading your article in their 20s might think they are stupid to have dreams. That is not true, dreams are achievable, they just require focus and hardwork, something that is lost on most Pakistanis. In fact, I would tell you something similar: 30 is not the end of the world, you have your whole life ahead of you. You can still achieve things in life... its never going to be your complete bucket list. But with complete attention, it could be a few of those things. Good luck and stay happy!

dr nawaz May 26, 2015 07:54pm

You've written a very good piece of article indeed

SARA May 26, 2015 08:01pm

This was a such a good read. Being 18 and almost ready for college, I could relate to this in so many ways.

fayyaz ali May 26, 2015 08:31pm

I think it really needs courage to speak your heart in public in today's world. Writer seems to be true sane voice and comes up with simple and prapracticable solution of modern life challenges. Loved reading it, thank you for this beautiful piece of mind.

Mohammad Tasneem Bhalli May 26, 2015 09:01pm

Great article and worth reading, i must say it motivated me for now and made me put a smile on my face ...Best of luck for your future

Muhammad Abbas Qureshi May 26, 2015 09:51pm

Wow ... Outstandingly written with the facts of life. I am really glad to see such a tremendous thoughtful article. Don't stop writing and keep inspiring ... Manal

chacha May 26, 2015 09:58pm
            started out good, then it went all mushy...              
aisha irum May 26, 2015 11:00pm

These are all the thoughts i feel now a days... Nice article, thought provoking!

Shujaat Khan May 26, 2015 11:09pm

Well written Manal. 30 is a very young age, you can achieve many goals in life ahead of you . Never consider age as a barrier or feel sorry for the time gone by. At 65 I just did a free fall from 14000ft .

jm May 26, 2015 11:26pm

a moment of gratitude is always a good idea...but the author shouldn't have to justify her existence. if she really longs for the peace of mind, she should reach unto chemistry and physics. we are nothing but molecules...and as per some book I read a few years ago, we have a few of Elvis Presley's...Whola! Part of me is a singer! And you too :)

Saadahgul Khan May 26, 2015 11:55pm

Great piece of writing for people of all ages including myseslf at 2 and half time 30 years old.

amit rat May 27, 2015 12:18am

@chacha Do have some patience to read this beatiful article. This is a masterpiece. I felt in love with her thoughts.

Samraiz Hameed May 27, 2015 02:29am

Great article. Thought provoking especially for the ones struggling in their twenties.

nathan May 27, 2015 03:10am

Two more years till i turn thirty and then i ll read the article.

An May 27, 2015 03:17am

Love it.

Shamoon May 27, 2015 05:09am

Dear Manal, just the fact that you can write so well at age thirty, is a gift very few are blessed with. Lahore was the first stop on my honeymoon trip some forty fives years ago. (I lived in Karachi). Seeing such talent from the younger generation of that city is a matter of pride. At age seventy five, away from homeland, a good read is pleasure as well as a ray of hope for my country.

rm May 27, 2015 08:42am

Forty! Yes, forty is the age when you start having regrets about what you didn't do....about not having done anything worthwhile in life! :-) Do something for others...the underprivileged NOW girl. I say this because I, otherwise a happy go lucky sort of a person, am having bouts of guilt now when I am not as energetic as I was some ten years ago! I know it is never too late to mend, so I am going to indulge in some selfless work finally :-). All the best!

Imran May 27, 2015 10:07am

What a brilliant article. I say that because most people can relate to this article.

Vap May 27, 2015 10:11am

Overall it is a fantastic piece of work. The writer has right words for the right place. Loved it. I am not 30 yet but i do see overambitious plans of mine as well, even when deep down i have a fear that i might not be able to fulfill my bucket list yet i am gonna give my best so later on i dont end up having regrets.

Zaheer Ahmad May 27, 2015 10:41am

The good one

benish May 27, 2015 10:57am

A very positive article... nice write up

Sparrow May 27, 2015 11:23am

I can't even explain how I felt while reading this blog. I can totally relate myself to it. Amazing blog indeed!

Thank you Manal A. Khan for this beautiful piece of writing

Gp65 May 27, 2015 12:06pm

Well written . I certainly agree with you that when you live life on your own terms it is far more satisfying. I am. Ot sure I entirely disagree with giving up goals and dreams. Most young people today who eat a nutritious diet and exercise regularly can expect to live well into mid to late eoghties in a healthy manner. So there is a lot of time to do many things. Even though one maynot be able to pursue all our goals simultaneously, we could do so sequentially.

Great blog overall. Keep writing.

Haxan May 27, 2015 12:18pm

Just turned 30 this month, completely relate to this article. This article made my day...feeling happy and confident !!..thanks blogger, you made many ppl happy today :)..God bless you !

Vijay Kumar May 27, 2015 12:55pm

Dear Manal, You have amazing writing skills, short stories are definitely going to be published, sooner than later in the language you have learned and can speak farr farr. God bless, you already have achieved 200% by writing your heart.

a May 27, 2015 01:56pm

@Shujaat Khan You, my dear Sir, are a real inspiration !!

Please encourage young people in Pakistan to stop having negative thoughts about Indian people. Armies and politicians can say what they want, people on both sides are the same !!

Nabil Saleh May 27, 2015 02:16pm

Hitting the 30 mark some months back...this comes forward as a fitting piece...thanks Manal! :-)

Imtiaz Piracha May 27, 2015 03:26pm

Beautiful.

To achieve this level of insight by 30, which most people don’t catch up with ever; is in itself a monumental life accomplishment.

That 10-year futuristic CV wasn’t a waste after all.

shafiq uk May 27, 2015 04:21pm

I am 44 but I feel this article still applies to me. I have a recent failure in life and this read eased the disappointment. Thank you writer,

Indian Dosti May 27, 2015 04:55pm

Wonderful article. It was just an echo of my own heartbeats. Kudos to the author...

Avacado May 27, 2015 05:00pm

Life is just like that, a mix of fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams. But the realisation of it comes at the end of the day. One should be thankful for what they have achieved and let go the rest of the dreams as they were not meant for you. Contentment is a great virtue, not everybody's forte.