I’ve had a few things percolating in my head for a while now. I guess this post is my attempt to tie them all together in a coherent way.
I don’t know about you, but in high school I felt a lot of pressure to do something big. I got good grades, and I won some awards, and I began to hear people say, “I wonder what she’ll do.” And I was the one asking myself this loudest of all, because I believed everyone when they told me I was talented and smart.
But even if you manage to do great things with your youth, it won’t last forever. The clock is ticking for all of us, and for a long time – still, sometimes – that terrified me. I began to wonder if it was possible to grow out of being exceptional. We glorify young people to the point where we don’t know what we’re supposed to do as we grow up. If you’re known for being young and talented, what do you do when you’re no longer young? If that’s your self-concept, you necessarily lose yourself as you grow older.
We glorify bright young idealists, and shrug sadly when we look at middle-aged dreamers who made compromises so that something actually happened.
Teenagers, especially, get patted on the back for their idealism and passion. These are good things, of course, but really making a difference takes a lot more than that. You need empathy and commitment and the ability to make tough choices. At the risk of sounding like a bitter old woman (I’m 20, a teenager no more), lots of teenagers point out problems thinking that they’re the first ones to see them, when in fact generations of people have been trying to fix those problems.
I read an Art of Manliness post that summed up my feelings pretty well:
“Teenagers think they know everything because they haven’t tested their mettle. They don’t know anything and so they feel like they know everything. They are just beginning to learn about theories and possibilities. They haven’t done anything so they feel like they can do anything.
…After the young realize they can’t do everything they become disillusioned. They stop trying anything. They fall into inaction.
This is why most adults end up so dull. They don’t do anything because it’s probably going to fail. They mistook early failures for a sign that they should stop trying.
That’s why they’re bored, depressed, and lethargic.
Instead, our failures should strengthen us. We should recognize that failures are how we learn and grow.”
Easier said than done, of course, but we can’t be afraid to jump into the fray.
We love Alexander Hamilton when he’s young, scrappy, and hungry, but at that point, he hasn’t actually accomplished much. The quieter, more sober Alexander we find at the end of the show is the one who’s shaped the course of the country.
To loop in another musical theater reference, in Les Mis, the slaughtered students are obviously one of the most affecting parts of the story. And yes, they sacrificed their lives for something they believed in, and self-sacrifice has its place. But I would’ve liked to know what could’ve happened if they all finished school and took up positions in government, if they’d have used their power to make a real change in the lives of the poor. As it is, I can’t help thinking their deaths were a tragic waste.
There’s a quote in the Brothers Karamazov that captures this idea pretty well. It’s lengthy, but worth reading carefully:
[Alyosha] was to some extent a youth of our last epoch – that is, honest in nature, desiring the truth, seeking for it and believing in it, and seeking to serve it at once with all the strength of his soul, seeking for immediate action, and ready to sacrifice everything, life itself, for it. Though these young men unhappily fail to understand that the sacrifice of life is, in many cases, the easiest of all sacrifices, and that to sacrifice, for instance, five or six years of their seething youth to hard and tedious study, if only to multiply tenfold their powers of serving the truth and the cause they have set before them as their goal, such a sacrifice is utterly beyond the strength of many of them.
Bruce Springsteen, whose musical career spans over 40 years, wrote in his book Born to Run,
“Aging is scary but fascinating, and great talent morphs in strange and often enlightening ways.”
I want to see your talent age.
I want to see what you produce when you’re twenty, and when you’re thirty-five, and when you’re sixty-two. I want to see how wisdom builds on your enthusiasm, how experience supplements and refines your dreams.
There are a lot of incredibly talented young people out there, passionate about all sorts of things – from superheroes to anime to sustainability. Let’s not be afraid to grow up. Let’s be creators, not just consumers. Let’s dive into the fray, make mistakes, and make a difference.