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Turning 30

Turning 30

As one young man leaves his 20s behind, idealism gives way to practicality. Almost.


"If at age 20 you are not a Communist then you have no heart. If at age 30 you are not a Capitalist then you have no brains." (George Bernard Shaw)

I first heard this when I was age 21 trying to change "the system." The lecture group at the college I attended was too large and did not meet as often as I felt necessary. While in full stride, complete with petitions in my hand, an older student said, "I'll sign the petition but nothing's gonna come of it."

"What do you mean?" I replied, "It is so logical and easy to implement. I am certain the university president will have to agree!"

"Alright," he shot back, "Time will tell. But just remember what George Bernard Shaw said and realize that you can't change the world."

The bomb hit at that moment and its impact has never quite ceased. This quote has haunted me since then. What could it really mean? If you think communism is right, why wouldn't you stick with it?

I recently celebrated my 30th birthday, "the big 3-0." I now see clearly the truth of Shaw's statement. I initially learned this idea through Torah study; the kabbalist Nachmanides explains that all the world's wisdom can be found in the Torah. Afterwards, I learned this idea through life experience.


We are all familiar with the biblical story of Joseph. In a dramatic turnaround, Joseph is transformed from jailed prisoner to prime minister of Egypt in a matter of hours. The Torah goes out of its way to tell us that Joseph was 30 years old when he began to rule over Egypt (Genesis 41:46). Why is this significant for us to know?

The famous 12th century commentator Rashbam explains that at age 30 one is "worthy of leadership." Interestingly, the minimum age to run for U.S. Congress is also 30. But what is so significant about being thirty-something and being ready to lead?

Age 30 is a moment of truth when certain realities of life firmly take hold.

I found the answer in a most unlikely place-studying the laws of Rosh Hashana. The Code of Jewish Law (O.C. 581:1) instructs congregations to seek certain qualities when choosing a cantor to lead the services on the High Holidays. One of these qualities is that he should be at least 30 years old. Why? The Mishna Brura explains that it is because a 30-year-old is humble and broken hearted, and can thus sincerely "pray from the heart."

It would seem that the Torah understands age 30 as a "moment of truth" when certain realities of life firmly take hold, and it is only through the acquisition of these realities that one can be a leader -- whether in public life or in prayer. What might these realities be?


When I was 20, the world was an open book. I felt as if I could do anything and accomplish everything, while living on nothing. I would become a world-renowned personality -- educating and inspiring, leading and loving -- all without struggle.

Now that I have lived through the 20s decade and had many eye-opening experiences -- jobs that brought lots of surprises, relationships that were difficult to foster and maintain, and neighbors that were a source of friction -- I have become less idealistic about the world than I once was.

I notice that most people do not feel as if they are maximizing their potential.

In many ways, my hopes and dreams of my 20s never materialized, and it is difficult to see when and if they ever will. I notice there are not so many people in the world that have the dream job, and most people do not feel as if they are maximizing their potential.

In short, things don't usually work out in life the way you thought and hoped they would.


As I reflect on this, I am indeed somewhat heart-broken and humbled. I was living now as a capitalist, a realist, as Shaw remarked. My communist days, my idealistic days, had ended for the most part.

But then it dawned on me. Must I entirely abandon my communism? Communism is a great idea and dream, taking care of all members of society without class envy, but it is impractical. True, you can't implement all your dreams; they may be impractical. But some of them could probably work.

As my birthday hit and I was pondering these thoughts, God sent a messenger to guide me. I bumped into a friend who said, "I just saw the greatest quote: 'If your memories exceed your dreams, the end is near.’"

I have made a birthday resolution. I will still be a dreamer, but a more realistic dreamer.

So I have made a birthday resolution. I will still be a dreamer, but a more realistic dreamer. As a 30-year-old, I am now "worthy of leadership." I can be wise and practical and not try to implement a hopeless fantasy scheme. I am humble and broken-hearted enough to know how to let go of senseless dreams.

Indeed, the Talmud (Pirkei Avot 5:26) declares: "At age 30, one receives strength." This is the strength of character needed to pursue life's goals. The 20s process of trial and error leads to a more secure decade of the 30s, when a person is focused on true talents, pursuable goals, and genuine accomplishments.

The old cliche is true: A jack-of-all-trades is a master of none. The 20s are the training ground to become a jack-of-all-trades. The 30s is the time to focus and master those talents that can be applied in practical directions.

Yes, George Bernard Shaw, how right you were. But I'll always be a bit of a communist!

September 29, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 60

(57) David, November 29, 2017 12:49 PM

I'm surprised the age of thirty wasn't mentioned as the age the levi'im of yore would take up their service to the Temple ( as I understand kohanim and levi'im would only serve IN the Temple a day or few days out of the year, but other duties like teaching Torah throughout the Land was still TO the Temple although not IN it. I love how Judaism elevates time over place; love of the Land being-- an exception?) As an individual with shaman's illness ( much more empowering than "schizophrenia") deeply affected fantastic and mystical thinking I approached my 30th this last summer with contemplation tying together learning Hebrew and starting through my one year study bible and Torah with Rashi portions with my shamanic and levitic identity as an integral part of my turning to Judaism. To learn that 30 holds special meaning in Judaism beyond that is very comforting, like Judaism is a mirror showing my true reality the way no other senses or creative thinking could.

(56) Anonymous, May 24, 2013 12:40 PM

The uncertain horizon

I just turned 30 a couple of months ago. It was a rude awakening for me. When you realize that the 20's chapter of your life has just been closed forever, it's a sobering thought. Now I look across the horizion where the 30's decade awaits. With excitement & apprehension I'm sailing across this ocean of life. I regret not having dreams in my 20's as it was a decade of hardships, personal calamity & spiritual disillusionment. But in hindsight they were blessings all along. Despite not owning a home a car & having a wife and kids to love and take care off, things which society would expect someone of my age to have arquired by now, turning 30 has made me have a more clearer picture of who I am and what possible places this world has for me. Thankyou for the article

(55) Chukwuma, February 10, 2013 7:47 PM

dream versus faith

All you said is so true. Am a dreamer, but the cliche that whatever the mind can conceive the hand can make aint so true or simple. Now I must dream within 'reality'. But I kinda wonder where faith fall into

(54) ajmishra, September 6, 2012 11:17 PM

hat's off to u man!!

dude i m some wat like u dreaming abt things that r hard to materialize . But i still do not wanna giv up hope,bcoz if everyone gave up the hope to bcum the prime minister, then noone wd bcum the prime minister. So if u give it up even before trying u have already lost half the battle, then n there!!! I do not want to do that , sir. i want to try n try my heart out until i achieve my goal or finally realize that its not my cup of tea!!! So i'll keep in mind watever u said,but i am not going to give up on my dream!!!

(53) Ahsan, April 9, 2012 4:11 PM


Funny..I googled this much like several other people :) Thank you for the article, loved it!

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