I Am About to Turn 40 and Here’s What I Would Tell My Younger Self

I am about to have a milestone birthday. The last time I had one, I was a sleep-deprived new mom whose attempt at celebrating was taking a shower and doing my hair. I remember the day, but I hadn’t yet grasped the concept of what it meant to be in my 30s. I’m not fully sure I did until now.

As I near 40, everything has started to feel different. My older friends always told me it would, yet they couldn’t explain why in a way I understood. The closest description was they cared less what other people thought. That resonates with me, and I also think there is more to it. Namely I can clearly see what I’ve learned so far—and what I wish I’d known sooner. With that in mind, here’s the advice I would give my younger self.

Stop Relying on External Validation

Throughout my childhood and much of my early career, I thrived on compliments and recognition. While I frequently received positive reinforcement; on the occasions when I didn’t, I felt dejected and underappreciated. Regardless of how hard I’d worked, or how well I knew things had gone, I had turned over part of my happiness to other people.

Of course, it still feels terrific to receive recognition and compliments. But I’ve made two changes. First, I’ve stopped waiting and being disappointed when it doesn’t happen. As I became more confident, I filled more of my own needs. I realized I could praise myself. Second, as a leader, I go out of my way to recognize others for their good work. It makes us both feel even better about a job well done.

You Don’t Have to Prove Yourself

Early in my career, I was deeply afraid of failure. I wanted to exceed every expectation, and I was simultaneously resistant to feedback about how to be better. (After all, my number one goal was to get it right the first time). I believed that if I didn’t excel every single time, my supervisor and colleagues would think I wasn’t good enough—or worse, they might not like me.

Looking back, I can see that I was experiencing impostor syndrome. I worried others would think I was a fraud at doing my job, because deep down I felt like I was. I always went for roles where I’d be working with more experienced colleagues, and so, I felt extra pressure to demonstrate I belonged there.

I lost sight of the fact that these institutions did hire me. They already believed in me. They didn’t need me to meet some unrealistic standard I’d made up: They just needed me to do my best. I wish I’d been able to shift my mindset from “proving myself” to believing in myself. Start cheering yourself on.

There Is No Such Thing As Perfect

I mistakenly thought I could be perfect. All through school, it helped me excel. The drive and needless worrying also wasted energy and time. I agonized over the perfect decision for everything (what to wear, what to say in the email, which item to buy).

What I understand now is that perfectionism is a mask for vulnerability. I believed that revealing any flaw would show others (or worse, myself) that I didn’t really have it all together or was as great as I appeared.

Some of the best advice I received was:

Remember you are making the best decision you can with the information you have at the time.

It freed me from the endless loop in my head. I also learned being your truest self resonates with others. As Brene Brown’s groundbreaking research shows, vulnerability is a strength. I wish I had stopped searching for perfect and instead found myself. Because once I did, I never looked back.

Celebrate Progress

From the moment I decided what I wanted to do with my career (which was very luckily at age 18), I was determined to achieve my goals. I aimed high and raced to the top, thinking that was where I would find happiness.

I focused so much on the next thing that I forgot to acknowledge what it took to get there. I also didn’t slow down long enough to have fun and enjoy the moment (despite my mother’s frequent refrain to do just that).

Now, when something terrific happens—for me or my team—I joyfully celebrate it.

Ultimately, I realized you don’t find sustainable joy from success; happiness creates success. I also learned what I thought was the top of the mountain might only have been the middle. You are more than your outcomes. The journey matters. Celebrate your progress.

Claim Your Stage

Growing up, I loved being on any stage. When I was a child, I made up elaborate tap dances in my patent leather shoes and waited for my grandmother to announce my “show” to all the guests in her kitchen. In middle and high school, I signed up for every musical and thrived when the spotlight was on me.

Then something happened when I got into the working world. I understood the spotlight that highlighted what I did well also became a magnet for other people’s opinions and envy. So, I minimized my own strengths in order to make others more comfortable. With help from an executive coach and loved ones, I slowly regained the power of being the best version of myself.

This is where Be Yourself Boldly came from. You deserve joy. You belong on your stage. The world needs you.

Practice Gratitude

I used to think worrying kept me safe from the worst possible outcomes. I could create quite a story for what might happen or what others were thinking, and I could replay endlessly the conversation that didn’t go as I had planned.

When you spend time worrying about what might be, it’s hard to find space to appreciate where you are. Finding gratitude in my mid-30s helped me shift my mindset to be in the present instead of focused on the past or the future. In cultivating gratitude in my life, over time I have become more authentic, optimistic, and resilient. I’m grateful that I have made it to the point in my life where I can share these thoughts with you.

When I was 15, I wanted to be a writer and possibly save the world. When I was 18, I found fundraising. I focused on pursuing an amazing career in fundraising and life as a working mother. Four years ago, I found the inspiration to write again. Today, at nearly 40, I get to be a part of repairing the world and serving others through fundraising, writing, and family. Stay true to your strengths on the way to who you choose to become.