Wisdom From Women: The Best Advice For Every Decade

Sometimes the best advice comes from people who’ve lived and learned.

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Hitting the 30-year mark was surprisingly inauspicious for me. There was no lightning bolt from the sky that offered up all the wisdom that I’d been lacking in my 20s. There wasn’t even a discount at the grocery store checkout. It’s only been as I’ve marched onward into the fourth decade (yes, do the math) of my life that I’ve started to gain any sense of what I should have done back when I was 20 or 21. Wisdom takes time. Fortunately for us, the world is full of people who’ve had more time than we have to figure life out. When you hit adulthood, you quickly learn that age melts away. Friendships with women who are 10, 20, 30, or even 40 (plus) years older than you become as natural as it once was to wrinkle up your nose and declare, “Thirty? That’s so ooooooold.” And with those friendships comes the ability to learn. To learn from mistakes. To learn from experiences. With three and a half decades down and plenty of learning left to do, I turned to some wise women who have a few years on me and asked a simple question: What do you wish you’d known in your 20s and 30s that women like me can learn from? Here what they shared.

Your Career

Struggling with work–life balance and thinking you need to throw in the towel? It’s okay. You can do this. “I’m 53, and if I could have 10 seconds of hindsight things would/could have been so much different,” says Faith Metzinger. “Someone my age didn’t necessarily have the means to pursue a career that they may have wanted. I would tell my younger me that she should pursue those dreams. It is possible to be a great wife, mom, and have a profession or career you love.” When you’re succeeding, don’t forget to celebrate, says 51-year-old Jill Robbins. “There’s a difference between tooting your own horn and being an obnoxious a***ole bragger,” the Texas-based writer says. “It’s totally okay to be proud of your accomplishments and let others know you are proud of your accomplishments. Own your success and your happiness.”

Your Family

There’s an old quote from Leo Tolstoy that often gets pulled out by people struggling with family drama: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” If you’re trying to make your unhappy family fit the happy family mold, Zippy Sandler’s advice? Stop. “You can’t change someone else,” 63-year-old Sandler says, “not your significant other/your child/your family/your friends. You can only change yourself and your reactions to them.” Got an email box that’s crowded with baby shower invites taunting you about your child-free state? Wondering if you need to dive in because, “hey, everyone else is having babies,” but you’re not really sure? Potter and florist Jill Weiner, 56, is matter-of-fact: “Having children is not mandatory. Be who you are. Conformity is not an option!” If you do decide to have kids, on the other hand, take a page out of Patti Roche’s book. “Don’t compare yourself to others or your children with anyone else’s children,” the 52-year-old elementary school teacher and mom of two says. “This was the one thing that made my life stressful and wasn’t good for my kids. I let others make judgments about my kids (including teachers), and I listened to them. It caused my kids pain and unnecessary “diagnosing” from other people who didn’t know more than me.”

Your Body

There’s a strength that’s expected in society. We cannot be frail. We must be fierce. But sometimes we need to give ourselves a break, Roche says. “Feel what you feel with no reservations,” she advises. “I didn’t realize how important it is to allow yourself to be emotional. My mom passed away last year and my dad is lamenting all the unspoken and mysterious ways my mom dealt with all the rough patches in her life. Allow people to see your feelings, but also be okay with whatever a situation makes you feel.” Body image is nothing if not complicated for millions of people. If she had her 20s and 30s to do over again, Roche says she’d tell herself, “Don’t constantly judge your looks or how you handle life. No one has it all together, so relax. Have a piece of cake and enjoy. Stay healthy but not with sacrifices that make you cranky!” Weiner’s advice? “One piece of cheesecake will do—no need to eat the entire cake!”

Your Voice

There’s one word Robbins wishes she’d said more in her 20s and 30s. “It’s okay to say ‘no,’” the Texas writer says. “It sounds like such basic advice (and it is) but I found ‘no’ harder to say when I was a younger woman. Whether that’s ‘no’ because someone is touching you, asking you out for coffee, asking you to put more things on your plate, to do more, connect them to someone, whatever it may be. It’s okay to say ‘no’ and not be a b***h about it or feel compelled to give an explanation as to why. Just ‘no.’ Learning to say ‘no’ is freeing and it’s something I don’t think I mastered until I was in my late 40s.” And while you’re at it, participate, Weiner says. “Roll up your sleeves and volunteer. Make a damn difference. There are wrongs that need righting all around us all the time, and we have a responsibility to act up for the best interest of our neighbors—be they next door or halfway around the planet.” A final piece of advice from Sandler? Don’t forget to enjoy the ride. “There is no happy ending, and thinking that all of the rewards come at the end means that you’ll miss the BEST part of life…the journey.”

Jeanne Sager
Jeanne Sager is a writer and photographer from upstate New York. She has strung words together for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more.

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