I’m a ZX81

That sound you hear is just me thinking

Some time ago, I was talking to someone about the computer he grew up with. My first machine was a ZX81; his was something a little more powerful. I mentioned that I was kind of envious.

“Yeah, my generation was pretty spoiled,” he said.

I smiled and tried my best to hide the internal fracture he’d just created. Generation?! Wait, what? I didn’t think of him as being from a different era to me, but clearly it wasn’t mutual. At least in the generationally-gentrified Logans Run context of Silicon Valley, I’m an older person.

When I moved to California, I had just turned 32. For a host of reasons, I had to build my life up from scratch again: I didn’t really know anyone here, I came with exactly two suitcases full of possessions, every neighborhood was unfamiliar, and so on. It was a seismic change to my life, but I came to support my family through a very difficult illness, which trumped everything. And I felt like I had time.

At some point over the next five years, I crossed a threshold. During this year in particular, my age seems to have come up again and again. It’s not just that I have a few grey hairs here and there. I feel other in a way I never have before.

Women experience a multitude of pressures when it comes to age, including the pressure to start a family. Nothing a man experiences comes anything close to this, and I don’t want to diminish or obliviously steamroll that inequality. Still, I’m not going to lie: it kind of hurts.

Actually, scratch that: I’m scared.

I’m not some Rogenesque manchild who has stubbornly refused to settle down. I want a family; I’m okay with living the commonly-accepted pattern of near-to-middle-age middle-class adult life. I’ve just, to date, failed to get there. And while I can intellectually understand that this can still be a part of my future, failure has become an accurate word to describe it. There must be something wrong with me that this isn’t my life today. I stand and look at myself in the mirror each morning — in my “quirky” apartment in the wooden attic-space above an elderly novelist — and tell myself, to varying degrees of success, that there’s nothing wrong with me.

Those anxiety-driven, critical head-voices are a killer. It’s not just about age or family status. I worry about how I’m doing at work, or what my clothes look like, or whether so-and-so hates me, or a hundred other things. If things are going well, or I’ve had enough sleep, they slink into the background where they belong. If things start to slip, or I’ve had a sleepless night, they become a ruinous distraction. In turn, if they become too distracting, they start to drown out the good thoughts and override the sensible things people should really do, like eat well and exercise. I start to worry when I talk to people, becoming shyer and more silent, which is the worst thing, because I love talking to people more than anything. People are amazing.

When I was ten years old, we took a school trip to South Wales, and spent the day in a cave. There was a teacher at the front of the group, and an older kid at the back, to make sure we didn’t lose anyone. It was pitch dark aside from the beams from our head-lamps. Somewhere towards the end of the trip, there was a ledge I had trouble climbing up over. All the other kids, including the one at the back, climbed up with no problem, going around me. I watched their light slowly fade to black as they carried on without me, before someone ran back to help me up.

My fear of age feels like that. It’s not a fear of being older. It’s a fear of being left behind, and of not being able to scale the challenges that other people seem to tackle easily.

So, in my clearer moments, I’ve taken a step back.

I’ve built things I’m proud of and worked with wonderful people. I have a job many people would kill for. My relationships and friendships have always made me happy. I’ve lived in places most people never get to see, and visited more. I’m not a terrible person, or a laughing stock, or all the other things I worry about. At least, not most of the time.

So, screw feeling sad because my life hasn’t been what I thought it would be. Fail forward: learn and grow.

Here’s what I decided earlier this year: I get to keep my fear of age, but I’m going to use it as a wake-up call. I’m going to channel that energy to build the life I want, with intentionality: no drifting, no floating around to see what will happen. I’m allowed to try for happiness, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting the life I do. I didn’t have the confidence to climb the ledge in that cave, but I bet I could have.

I decided to move from trying to build startups to thinking about my life with the same intensity. Moving back to tending to my joy, knowing that I have an amazing context: the thing I need to work on is me.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. I guess I’ll let you know how I do.

Writer: of code, fiction, and strategy. Trying to work for social good.

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