Yessir, I have been looking forward to three and thirty for some time now. Last February, I turned 33, an age I consider more of a milestone than 30 or 25. When I was in my late twenties, lamenting the end of the decade Americans see as youth’s golden chapter, a Moroccan friend consoled me with a novel perspective. Muslims, he said, contended that a man enjoyed the “fullest flower of youth” not in his twenties, but his early thirties – specifically at age 33. By his logic, I would continue improving for a few more years, slowly ageing into the most mature, complex, and seductive version of myself.
To back this claim up, my friend pointed to the Hadith, a compilation of wise sayings dispensed by the Prophet Mohammed throughout his life. Covering topics as wide-ranging as sartorial suggestions, prayer, and matrimonial best practices, the Hadith is Islam’s second most crucial body of scripture. And according to a well-known passage, all souls reincarnate in Paradise at thirty-three years old. Regardless of the age of the body’s death, the blessed live out eternity in God’s heavenly garden as thirty-three-year-olds. The implication, imams assert, is that thirty-three is a particular age: the year when mind and body flourish most completely.
My friend got me thinking: is there a peak of youth, a year when virtues like energy, beauty, and creativity simultaneously peak? It’s difficult to say. Take physical strength, for example. Explosiveness, the capacity to accelerate into a sprint or power clean jerk, peaks around 25 years of age. On the other hand, endurance athletes such as marathon runners or cyclists often break records in their thirties or forties. My college wrestling coach, formerly part of the Soviet Union’s Olympic team asserted that if they were lucky enough to avoid injuries, these athletes were best in their early thirties. It was the age when apex athleticism and tactical prowess merged. Look no farther than Tom Brady for living proof that world-class athleticism can last into life’s fifth decade.
It’s even trickier to determine when the powers of the mind reach their zenith. Neuroscientists hold that ‘fluid intelligence,’ the ability to recall information rapidly, peaks around the late teens or early twenties. The type of Promethean genius that breaks paradigms and changes entire fields usually peaks in the early to mid-twenties. Einstein published his theory of special relativity at 26 and Picasso and Mozart perfected their masterpieces in paint and music in their early twenties. In Silicon Valley, the entrepreneurs, spearheading bleeding-edge tech projects are barely out of college. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates hadn’t even reached the legal drinking age by the time they started companies that would revolutionize the digital world.
But while the early twenties might be the season when creative juices flow in torrents, other forms of mental prowess peak later – much later in some areas. The forebrain, responsible for regulating emotion and assessing risk, is not fully cooked until thirty.
White matter, the fatty lining of the neurons involved with long-term planning and complex reasoning, reaches its highest density in human brains in their 50s. It’s the average age of most federal judges.
Even if the most wild-eyed disruptors in tech might be cherubic twenty somethings, there’s a reason they choose middle-aged advisors to sit on their boards.
And what about wisdom? The human lifespan is too brief to find out if this virtue ever knows a peak age.
Even if life distributes the summits of mental and physical ability over decades, I am convinced that the Muslim lore around a man’s thirty-third year contains some truth. In their early thirties, men find themselves almost as vigorous as they were in their twenties but armed with hard-won wisdom, self-awareness, and a deeper understanding of the world. Ambition still burns hot, and dreams are more attainable with the well-developed skills, social networks, and curricula vitae the years have wrought.
History might bolster the claim that men make their most significant mark on the world in their early thirties. Jesus began his ministry at 30, laying the foundations of Christianity within only three years. Half a millennium earlier, Siddhartha Gautama, who would become the Buddha, or the “Awakened One,” left his father’s palace on a quest for enlightenment around his thirtieth birthday. Three years later, Siddhartha, after enduring superhuman levels of suffering and hardship, achieved nirvana, the final release from the cycles of birth and death. The Prophet Mohammed did not receive his first revelation from God until he was 40. Still, by his thirties, he had established himself as a community pillar and business leader in Mecca.
Alexander of Macedon won his immortal epithet of “the Great” in his early thirties. Although setting out to conquer the world in his twenties, in his thirties, Alexander pushed the limits of his empire beyond the known world, marching his armies over the Himalayas into India and across the Central Asian steppe to the frontiers of China. Around his thirtieth birthday, the golden-haired Macedonian prince subdued the entirety of Achaemenid Persia, the largest and most powerful empire the world had ever known.
Perhaps at the summit of youthful passion, some souls burn so brightly as to consume themselves in a brilliant blaze. Alexander and Jesus both died at 33. By his thirty-third year, Jesus had disturbed the established order of Judea so fundamentally that both the Roman and Jewish authorities saw it necessary to execute him. After years of sleep deprivation, war, and alcoholism, Alexander breathed his last at 33, emaciated and half-insane, according to ancient biographers. The Buddha lived into his 80s, but part of him died in his thirties. Nirvana means, “to extinguish” in Sanskrit, and the Buddha’s ego expired during those days meditating under the Bo tree – aged 33.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously lamented entering his thirties: “The promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of singles to know, a brief thinning case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.” But I will embrace the Muslim view that I am not over the hill but, instead, on a plateau at the very summit of the mountain. My mind, body, and spirit are fully formed and as robust as ever. It is the season to seize the day, to chase crazy dreams.
As Alexander the Great must have told his soldiers, there will be time for sleep after death. And Wadih reminded me too, that life after thirty leaves plenty of new summits to scale. Even if the youth’s flower gradually withers, we can, with the proper care, grow, refine, and beautify the intellect and soul indefinitely.