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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

30 Before 30

How I Made a Mess of My 20s, and You Can Too: Essays

Marina Shifrin

Wednesday Books



I am moments away from turning thirty, and as I look back on my sloppy, sexy, sometimes sweet twenties, one thought runs through my head: “I dominated.” I don’t have this kind of confidence with anything, mind you. I spend most of my time harshly judging my social skills, eyebrows, and internet consumption. But, when it comes to my twenties, I straight-up murdered them.

In the past nine years, I pursued my childhood dream of becoming a comedian. I moved to New York, then to Los Angeles. Kissed so, so many people. I lived in Asia and learned how to say, “I have one son,” in perfect Mandarin. I bought a car and crashed it. I found the man of my dreams and turned him into my boyfriend—he’s sitting next to me playing on his phone right now. I quit my day job in pursuit of my dream job. I went viral. I met, and accidentally flirted with, my childhood hero. I voted. I told all my crushes that I had a crush on them. I adopted a dog. I had some good one-night stands and some terrible ones. I got in shape and found some style. I took art classes. I surfed. I was wild and stupid, but in a constructive and educational way. I did a lot.

I’m not saying all of this to brag; I’m saying all of this because I want you to dominate your twenties too. It’s hard at this age—no one takes you seriously, you’re broke, and you no longer have the gentle and encouraging hand of teachers or parents guiding your every move. Speaking of teachers and parents, I’ve been very lucky on both counts, especially with the latter. My goofy, hilarious, kind, persistent parents are the reason I’ve accomplished each and every goal on this list. I’ve been absurdly privileged to come from a home of loud cheerleaders, harsh critics, and loving people. Vladimir and Olga Shifrin will always be funnier and more impressive than I am, but I have the upper hand when it comes to writing in English so you’ll have to get their stories through me.

My parents moved to America in the early nineties in search of better opportunities than the ones they had in Russia. I am reminded of this at every moment possible. “See this cheese, Marina?” my father would ask, shaking a jar of parmesan in my face. “No such cheese in Russia. You’re lucky to have such cheeses.”

Even if I wanted to take my citizenship for granted, it was not allowed. To this day, I can’t look at jumbo shrimp, Levi’s jeans, or strollers without seeing escaped oppression, pain, and suffering.

Aside from the superior cheese selection in America, I was constantly reminded of something else: my unalienable right to pursue happiness. I was encouraged to go after anything I wanted, as long as what I wanted wasn’t hurting people or getting tattoos. (For better or worse, I’ve done both.) Other than that, the only caveat to my pursuit of happiness was that I had to work for it. According to Vladimir Shifrin, “In America, work plus creativity plus work equals whatever you want.” Sure, America was (and is) imperfect—devastatingly so at times—but it’s still a million times better than Russia. This mentality is so deeply ingrained in my soul it seeps into my every action.

Being an immigrant is akin to surviving a near-death experience—minus the excitement. You constantly feel like you were given a second shot at life, and you want that shot to amount to something spectacular. I shudder to think I was a few lost documents away from brutal Soviet oppression—or at least that’s what my parents tell me. I am currently crammed into window seat 43A on Aeroflot flight 107 heading to Moscow to find out what life in Russia would’ve been like.

When my family moved to the United States, we settled on Devon Avenue in Chicago. My dad worked a full-time job at a tiny jewelry shop and two part-time jobs at other jewelry stores in the Chicagoland area. When he wasn’t working, he was studying English. The first phrase he learned was, “There are five eggs on the table. Do you want an egg?” Eight years later my dad became the boss of his own tiny jewelry shop and bought a four-bedroom house in the suburbs. Our house was a few blocks from where Chicago Bulls MVP and nineties hero Michael Jordan lived. If that’s not the American Dream, I don’t know what is.

Watching what my parents went through, the struggles they faced and all they’ve achieved, eliminated any excuse I could ever have for not achieving success in America. All I needed to do was define what “success” meant for me.

Turns out, this was a lot harder than it seems.

I woke up one day, a little hungover, and found that I was profoundly disillusioned with my life. The one I had built for myself. The night prior to this revelation, I was at my friend Tessa’s apartment loaded up on wine and complaining about work. Like most people our age, Tessa and I were disappointed with where the tuition dollars, hours of studying, and countless job interviews had gotten us. Tessa was a textile manufacturer’s bitch in Manhattan and I was a hardly paid financial blogger in Brooklyn. She wanted to be a fashion designer, and I wanted to be a stand-up comedian—we’d both missed the mark.

It wasn’t until I was sitting on Tessa’s floor that I realized I’d not only failed to achieve any successes, but I’d also developed a minor drinking problem in the process. I’d known how to say, “There are five eggs on the table. Do you want an egg?” for over twenty years and it got me nowhere. What was I doing with my life?

On this night, the too-much-wine night, our cynicism led us to an idea: a list of thirty things to complete by the time we each turned thirty. No rules. No impossibilities. Only a timeline.

We became intoxicated with the idea of having a hobby that would add some dimension to our stagnant lives. We spent the entire night yelling goals at each other, our excitement growing with each one. Drive a cab. Have a drink in every borough. Buy real furniture. Get published in The New York Times. Be on the Today Show. Eat at every dollar dumpling spot in Chinatown. In the end, the only goal we had in common was “Quit Shitty Job.”

The next morning, I woke up, faced with my mind-numbingly boring job, and made a decision: I was going to actually stick to my list. I didn’t want this thing to disappear into a drunken Brooklyn night like many of our other “genius ideas.”

My 30 before 30 list was the restart button I was looking for. I desperately wanted to prove to my parents that moving to America was a good choice and that I was taking advantage of the opportunities for which they worked so hard. I didn’t want to be another lost twentysomething, wasting my youth and smooth skin on a bad job and recurring existential crises. My father didn’t work himself to the bone so that I could curl up into an anxious ball every time I was confronted with my difficult-to-pursue dreams. Coming up with, and sticking to, my 30 before 30 list gave me some much-needed focus. It gave me a second chance at doing my twenties right and conquering my own version of the American Dream.

Slowly, I began valuing The List over everything else. It became more important than work, relationships, and gut instincts. I found that completing one goal led me to the next, which led to the next. I climbed it like a ladder, pounding my chest every time I got a little higher. I began to gain attention from people, first a couple hundred, then a thousand, and eventually millions—thanks to the great and terrifying equalizer that is the internet.

Emails from strangers asking for my advice on everything from romance to business flooded my inbox. My instinctual reaction was to tell them to ask someone more experienced, but I realized that my inexperience was what was making people comfortable enough to come to me. I’m not a guru of knowledge and sanity; I’m stressed, insecure, and sometimes shrewd, but mostly obsessed with finding ways to become a better/cooler/smarter person. I’m not an enlightened twenty-nine-year-old (there’s no such thing); I’m just a shmuck who figured out, finally, how to negotiate a decent salary, pack a suitcase in under thirty minutes, compose a direct email, ask a guy out, and wash my bras.

On paper, I shouldn’t have anything interesting to say about my life. My parents are still married. Aside from a few slippers (and unintelligible Russian curses) thrown in my direction, I was never abused. I grew up in the quiet, middle-class suburbs where the biggest obstacle kids face is whether to get on Ritalin, antidepressants, or both. I like to drink, but not enough to miss work. I’ve had a pretty fucking idyllic life. But thanks to The List, I’ve carved out a little bit of a name for myself, grown into a somewhat happy person, and squeezed out every perk my twenties had to offer.

I’ve had a lot of incredible opportunities, and it wouldn’t be fair to keep them to myself. That’s why I want you to read this book. I worked hard on it and I wrote it for you. Especially if “you” are: a young woman, a friend of mine, a follower of mine, an emotionally progressive frat boy, an entitled overachiever, a lawyer who wants to be more creative, an old man who wants a different perspective, a doctor who’s super inventive but a little depressed, an immigrant with beautiful handwriting, a programmer who likes to bake, an accountant who dreams of being a wedding planner, my dad, an Instagram celebrity, an unemployed administrative assistant, a comedian, an unfulfilled graphic designer, a teacher with a penchant for organizing, a parent with a college kid, a parent without a college kid, a college kid, rich, poor, or a person who is about to go on vacation and forgot the book you were reading so now you’re standing in the airport wanting to read something funny and uplifting.

This book will teach you how to take advantage of your twenties while simultaneously coming to terms with the fact that they are ending. I want every young person on earth to know it’s okay to have high, possibly unrealistic, expectations of yourself and that it’s also okay to pursue those expectations like the obsessive fool that you are. Throughout all the successes and failures of pursuing the goals on my 30 before 30 list, I found there is no defined pathway to success. There’s what works for you and what doesn’t.

So take that motorcycle riding class, construct a healthy relationship with failure, buy a one-way ticket to Japan, muster up the courage to tell someone you’re in love with them, or ask for a promotion—I’ll be here, cheering you on.

These stories will show you that you don’t have to be extraordinary to accomplish your biggest, dreamiest goals. I mean, just look at me: I am an average-looking, sometimes overweight Russian girl from the suburbs, and I’ve maintained your attention for this long. Anything is possible!

Copyright © 2018 by Marina Shifrin