Suggested Flight Patterns for the Leap to Adulthood

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

The magic number: 30.

That's when we become "real adults." We're supposed to have it all figured out, right?

Well, not exactly. But it is true that we learn a thing or two about ourselves and the world in that decade or so after high school, perhaps even a little wisdom that could ease the transition into adulthood for recent high school and college grads.

So a couple of weeks ago, I asked those of you who were approaching or had crossed that threshold to share what you had learned by 30 that you wished you had known when you left high school. Your responses were fascinating.

Rod Dunbar, a 31-year-old call-center operations manager in Ohio, said he wished he had realized how important networking really was in pursuing a career. "Sometimes, decisions that influence your career really are based on how well you're perceived by decision-makers and not by your education, performance and credentials."

Ellen Dunagan, a 36-year-old career coach with Traverse Management Solutions in Arlington, had a similar realization. "Résumés are important, but not as important as how you present yourself once you get in the door. My old employers were actually good sources of future employment, and that door should not be closed shut."

Dan Danckaert, 34, of Gaithersburg, said he wishes he had realized how important it was to balance work and personal life. "If you let the stress of the workplace rule your life, staying strapped to your chair, you will enter your thirties as a reasonably in-shape twentysomething and exit your thirties as an obese, unhealthy, 40-year-old on the verge of major problems. If you don't learn and act on the importance of diet and exercise, you will suffer tremendously."

Sigrid C. Haines, 47, wrote that she has a clear recollection of the epiphany she had right around her 30th birthday. "When I was in high school, I thought (for some reason!) that when I was 29, I would know what I was going to do with my life: my career, where I'd live, if I'd be married and to whom, if I'd have kids and how many, etc. Of course, as 30 neared and I hadn't yet had a job I liked and was unemployed, wasn't married, wasn't sure about kids, was wondering if I should relocate, etc., I was very upset. It hit me like a ton of bricks: Life is never permanently settled. It keeps changing and you have to keep making choices and responding to new situations until you die. Cool."

Jennifer Kimball, a 29-year-old accountant who lives in Alexandria, said she wishes she had realized that it's okay not to overextend herself all the time. "I was a stereotypical high school overachiever and thought that I could continue at that pace for the rest of my life. Therefore, I did a double-major at an Ivy League school while paying for it myself and participating in a number of extracurricular activities. The pace continued after school, working part-time jobs, volunteering or taking random classes besides working full time. I finally find myself worn out, on the verge of a breakdown, as I work on my master's thesis while working full time as an accountant and planning a long-distance wedding which will take place two weeks after I graduate. I did at least stop taking singing lessons my first semester of grad school and finally stopped volunteering at the National Zoo on weekends last summer. The biggest problem with doing everything is that nothing is done as well as if I could devote more of my time and energy to it. And I never see my friends. So if I had to do it all again, I'd do things one at a time (who am I kidding, fewer things at least, though), taking the time to do things properly, and smell some roses along the way."

Laurie Williams, a consultant in Silver Spring who turns 30 this month, said she wishes she had known that real life does not follow a syllabus. "Deviating from the syllabus, or the 'original plan,' in school often meant you were heading towards failure, but in real life, it can mean so many things. Change, transitions, thinking out of the box, can be good things. Sometimes they are the only way to bring out talents and gifts that would otherwise remain dormant."

Maggie Harris, a 30-year-old, stay-at-home mom in Frederick, offered a short list of things: "School is worth every penny, but you'll be paying for it for the rest of your life. . . . Just because you do for others doesn't necessarily mean that they will do for you when the time comes. There will come points in your life where you will have time and points in your life you will have money, but rarely ever will you have both. Plan accordingly. Respect your elders because it is a lost art and it shouldn't be."

And the first step to respecting them? Listening. You might even learn a thing or two.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers at 2 p.m. March 20 at

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