The Year of Chai, and not turning 30

graduating from my 20s

There is a Paul Graham lecture in Sam Altman’s How to Start a Startup series, which I watched just a few months shy of my 30th birthday. Now I don’t mind getting old; to an extent I even like it. From 24 to 30, I have continuously felt I am growing more into my age; the concerns, anxieties, ambitions I have are now finally reflected in my peers. 

But I was nervous about turning older this birthday because it would turn the page on a particularly lackluster professional year – setbacks, sabbaticals, financial drains, regretful decisions, as well as a heartbreaking personal one – falling for a friend and experiencing the highs and lows of unrequited love, all in the midst of so many friends’ weddings and promotions, I lost count by the end of it. 

Any emotion, experience, observation we make affects us in our mind, body, heart, and soul. In my experience, the most discomfort is when none of these senses are aligned. You are most comfortable when most of these senses agree with each other. 

In my mind, I knew it was okay that I would have to wait a little longer for some of the goals that I had had for myself. But the heart, the body, the soul were not happy at seeing everyone around me sort of move on with their lives – and me feeling like I was just watching it all happen passively. Like being stuck in the wrong lane in a traffic jam. 

Graham’s lecture is about mostly defining a startup, but the bit that stayed with me the most was a story about his son. “When my son was two,” Graham goes to say, “I asked him what he would be next year. And he says, ‘A bat’. Now the right answer was three, but the more interesting answer is bat.” 

I don’t mean to spout LinkedIn-friendly wisdom from this, but hearing this unlocked a synapse in my brain and I thought to myself, that’s right. I don’t have to be 30 this year; I could be anything. Maybe I could be chai (because a cup of chai was right in front of me at that moment). 

That became a thing in itself; and my friends on my birthday were forbidden from mentioning the big three O. Chai really meant nothing – except as a symbol of my love for the beverage. It was a placeholder. Maybe I would experiment with teas, learn more about tea brewing, and find flavourful teas to taste. Or maybe the rest of the year would not in any way live up to its name. 

I’ve been thinking since then, how even before Graham mentioned it and I defined it by through the sheer power of consistent repetition, how most years of my life can be defined by the big, large, small yet most memorable things I learnt, people I met, places I visited, activities that I undertook, hobbies I picked up. 

In 2022, it was the year of pool and co-working out of the WeWork next to my house. In 2021, it was the year of the return and reverse culture shock. The second half of 2023 was about making fitness a lifestyle. 2020 was the year of R and P (guys I dated during the lockdown). 2019 was the year of Chicago and New York. 2021 was the year of my roommates Amy and Chrissy and her lovely cat Louis. 

That’s possibly true for all of us. After a certain point, years begin to get remembered by the most momentous things to happen to us – which is why so many dinner table stories begin with “Remember the time when…”. We don’t say, “The year I was 43.” We say, “Oh, the first time I went skydiving? What was I, 42-43?”

Looked at from that lens, 2024 is less the year of chai, and more the year of prioritising myself over others, of giving work a direction. The year of purple, the year of focus, the year of trying to make things happen.

And this will change and be added to as the year passes; a way to mark progress that is less linear or chronological, and more about the sum total of the people and activities that mark this passage of time. 

Seeing my year this way took a lot of the nervousness of the year-end of 2023 (my birthday falls on January 4th, so the end of one year means the start of the pressure of my birthday), giving me a wiggle room to calculate this little life on earth in less mundane ways than numbers, and helping me define the significance of what ‘being older’ really means, on my own terms. 

Journaling and mindfulness exercises I see on Instagram talk about having ‘gratitude jars’ where you put in a chit every time something or someone makes you happy. 

I think of the Year of Chai as a little different; things that change who you are as a person or your work trajectory, or have a visible impact on yourself and life. When I started playing pool in 2022, I did not know I would love it so much that even when I traveled to Thailand, I would look for the pool table at all the bars we visited. It became a part of me, so that even though I have not played the game for months, I still get very excited at seeing a pool table.

In the same vein, when I began co-working, I was a content-writer trying to figure freelance life. But by the time I stopped going there, I had lived my 20s for the second time it seemed and decided that I did not want to stay a content writer for much longer. 

I think these high-impact events and experiences make for far better markers of our age than the candles on the cake (2022 was the year I stopped having cake and resonated with Praful who says, ‘Main toh apne birthday par bhi khichdi khata hoon’.) 

So thank you Paul Graham’s son, wherever you are. Thank you for giving your dad the more interesting answer. And to Graham for sharing this story with us. 

Want to talk more about it? Tweet to me @pramankapranam or email me at prakrut[at]purplepencilproject[dot]com