Turning 21 – Same Same, But Different

I am going to be completely honest – this essay is really challenging for me to write. Today is my birthday, 21 years old. The big “21.”

You see, I am not the biggest fan of birthdays. In general, I try not to think about, write about, or really bring much, if any, attention to my birthday. It is not that I am some “humble saint” who nobly shirks in the spotlight. The reality is that, well, I just do not love celebrating my birthday.

The common response I get to this unorthodox reaction of mine is perhaps what you are thinking about right now: “What Jordan? Birthdays are the best! They are a celebration. They are supposed to be super fun! You have to love your birthday! The cake, the memories, the love!”

Yes…I know. I know what society is telling me. I know that I am supposed to look forward to “the best day of my year.”

It is not that I am not grateful for all of the support I get on this day. I really do appreciate all of the people who think of me or take the time out of their day to write on fb, or send me a text. I know I am surrounded by awesome people, who think about me, love me, and care about me. All of that is clearly a gift – one bigger than I could ever ask for. I know I am standing on the shoulders of giants, and I will always remember that.

But this “fear” I write about does not involve anyone else. While a birthday is often an external celebration, I often see it as a time for deep reflection. And during that meditation, I often come to the realization that “oh sh*t” I am a year older now. In that, I am overwhelmed by anxiety.

Indeed, it is an internal fear that is provoked when I realize I am getting older. Call it a “lack of confidence.” Call it pessimism. Call it realism. Whatever you want to name it, that is often how I feel.

So once again, today, as I look at the calendar, I turn 21. But what does that mean to me? What is the feeling I get when I hear that?

Right away, I know 21 means I am closer to 24 than I am to 17. It means I am closer to 30 than I am to 12. It means I am a year closer to graduating college, becoming more serious, getting married, having kids, sending kids to college, losing loved ones – my mind rushes with obstacles ahead. I leave the present and am pushed into the future – pushed into a future version of myself who must take on, what feels like, the impossible.

That is what scares me. Those words, above, scare me. But, and importantly, allow me to qualify these thoughts and make things clear. This is not a bad type of scared. This is not a helpless type of scared. This is not a cry and lock myself in my room type of scared.

This is the exact same type of scared I felt 10 years ago. I was 11 years old. I loved sports (soccer, basketball). I loved my friends. I loved my family. Life was awesome.

But I was deeply afraid of the future. I was scared timid of sleepovers and most vegetables. I had anxiety about going to high school (let alone college). I was terrified of loneliness and getting lost.

That was 11 year old me. Now I am 21.

I am writing this while in Hong Kong, several timezones away from my “home” in the United States. In the last 10 years, an incredible amount has happened to me. In the past 4 months alone, I have been to 27 new cities, in foreign countries – sometimes completely alone.

If you had told the 11 year old Jordan Gonen, this is your future, he probably would have timidly smiled back, “sounds awesome.” And then when he went home, he probably would have cried his anxiety to sleep, thinking he could never, ever EVER do this.

I still love sports, but now I eat more vegetables. I have new friends and old friends. I have new hobbies, habits, and goals.

But I am still the same me. I feel different, sometimes. But I am still the same.

I still get scared about the future. I really am still not sure if I can make the next 10 years work, let alone the next few months.

Today, I turned 21. What an arbitrary number should mean to me? I am not exactly sure. But what I am sure of is that the future is coming. Time is moving. The clock is ticking.

I would be lying if I told you today feels like a completely normal day – it is my birthday. A day I fear, dread, and cannot sleep thinking about. But I would also be lying if I told you today feels like a completely “normal” birthday.

So what do I feel?

Pessimistic optimism. 

The pessimist within me is negative, “How am I already 21 years old…I have so much more to do…I am running out of time! I have to see more, experience more – BE MORE. I am not enough.”

The optimist is positive, “I am alive. I am breathing. I am healthy and surrounded by people that love me. Life is amazing.”

On most birthdays, I try my best to focus on the light. I focus on the optimistic voice in my head that helps me appreciate the present and get through the day.

I, like many, lock the dark voice away. I hide and suppress it. “That voice is dumb, ignorant, and evil.”

But today, especially today, on my birthday, I must embrace that character. I must embrace the darkness and welcome a sense of “pessimistic optimism” into my day.”


Why? Because, to be truly optimistic and positive, I need the darkness. I must be fueled as much by the negative as I am by the positive.

The pessimistic optimist says that “In spite of my flaws, errors, imperfections, and mistakes…where I am is where I am. I should appreciate today, live today – but I must also recognize that where I am going will be better. I am a realist about my past. I am an optimist about my future. I know I can and will do better. Today is enough, sure. But tomorrow is infinite. What is coming is great.”

It is hard (I’d say impossible) for me to imagine exactly what the future will hold. My 11 year old, basketball superstar aspiring self surely guessed wrong.

My hope, whether or not valid, is that 10 years from now, I will be living my biggest fears from today. I want my 31 year old self to laugh at this essay. I want my 31 year old self to mock and find it hard to believe that a past Jordan Gonen could even think these types of thoughts.

To every future Jordan…remember: