Things I know at 30 I wish I knew at 20

A 30th birthday is an anomalous creature. For some, it’s a day of genuine celebration; for others a time of wistful reflection. As mine fast approaches, I find myself suitably philosophical. I look back on the last 10 years and, while I agree that we are who we are because of what we’ve seen and done, I wish I could reach back through the years with these five simple truths:

When you get there, there's no 'there' there
As with anyone, my twenties were a maelstrom of soaring highs and gutting lows, the latter of which involved arranged marriage, divorce, estrangement and bereavement. Today, one might say I have finally found peace. I live in a spacious flat in one of the world’s greatest cities, I travel far and wide, I work at the world's biggest publishing company, I’m writing my third novel and, most importantly, I’ve figured out that true love is the most precious thing one can have. Am I happy? Yes. Am I ‘there’? No. Because ‘there’ doesn’t exist. Human beings are hard-wired to want more; to chase the next thrill; to set the next goal; to want bigger, better, faster and NOW. There are days I question if I’m wasting my life on the London Underground. I dream about relocating to somewhere warm, living near a beach, revelling in a simpler life. I’d like to tell my 20-year-old self to stop chasing ‘there’ and instead enjoy here.  

Don’t be with someone you don’t love
I went from a working-class Tower Hamlets girl who wore a hand-me-down coat for six years to a lady of leisure in a 3-bedroom Greenwich semi, courtesy of my high-earning husband. I had everything I wanted – freedom, stability, space and time – and yet I’d find myself staring out the kitchen window, repeatedly asking a single question: ‘Is this it?’ My unhappiness stemmed from a single cause: I didn’t love the man I married. When I found his incriminating emails to another woman, more than anger or betrayal I felt relief; overwhelming relief that I could finally end our charade. Fast forward to February 2012 and I’m signing for a delivery at the office. It’s a stunning evening gown sent by someone who read in a column that I wanted it. My fashionista colleagues do some reconnaissance and we find out that it's worth several thousand pounds. They tell their friends about it, they tweet about it and they tell me in no uncertain terms that I have to keep the dress – alas, I am compelled to return it. My 20-year-old self would have been completely enamoured, but at 30 I know I can't be with a man that I do not love. Perhaps I had to earn this wisdom the hard way, but things would have been so much easier had I always known it. (I probably should have kept the dress though.)

Niceness is not a weakness

According to the professionals, all our issues and neuroses can be traced to back to childhood. I hate to admit it, but they might just be right. Growing up in a violent household with a drug addict brother meant that I was constantly striving to prove how strong, unafraid and invulnerable I was. The guilt-tinged relief I felt every time he chose to beat one of my sisters instead of me hardened instead of softened me. I dismissed kindness and compassion as weaknesses, and trained myself into the cynical, aloof, world-weary twenty-something I’ve been for the last 10 years. In my previous job, my staff would liken me to Anna Wintour, notorious for her steely demeanour, but I took it as a compliment. After all, who’s going to touch you when you’re made of ice? I don’t think I’ll ever have the optimism or open-heartedness of a well-adjusted adult, but I’m slowly learning to thaw. If I could tell my younger self that being nice is not a weakness, perhaps I wouldn’t have to work so hard at it now.

Smart and pretty aren’t mutually exclusive
I’ve never dyed my hair and I don’t own a lipstick. I have five pairs of decent shoes and even fewer handbags. I’ve always dismissed women who spend hours on hair, makeup and shopping as vacuous fools, blindly following the whims of fashion. I haughtily dedicated my time to more noble pursuits – learning a foreign language, taking horseriding lessons and reading Camus – while other girls found their perfect foundation, learnt to backcomb expertly and amassed a vast array of accessories to suit any occasion. I would like to tell my younger self to lighten up about this stuff; that being feminine doesn’t make you stupid; that you don’t have to try so hard to prove yourself; that it’s okay to want to look good. Sure, Camus was fun but so were the secret superpowers endowed to me by those semi-permanent lashes I trialled last summer. Enjoy your youth for it won’t last long.

Your parents (probably) did the best they could

This is a cliché I wish I had heeded. Alas, somewhere between my brother’s addiction and my parents’ inertia, my relationship with my mother disintegrated. I despised the fact that she protected her son as he destroyed her daughters. My family’s Asian conservatism won’t allow for the kind of angry, accusatory but ultimately cathartic and reconciliatory mother-daughter exchanges you see in the movies so I don’t know if I’ll ever work my way through this one. I guess what I’d say is: try not to get so angry with your mother. She’s probably doing the best she can and, one day, you’re going to have to forgive her.

If you could reach back through the ages, what would you say?