The old adage that you become wiser as you get older has, so far, proved to be absolute crap as I have watched my own odometer turn over. I have met a wide range of people in my life, many of which were older than I, and most of which were no more skilled or able to make sense of this world (or any other) than I have been able to on my own. More pointedly, the desire to gain wisdom needs to be present first, before anyone of any age can make heads or tails of it. Like with self-help, religion, exercise, or really anything worth a crap, you have to want it to get there first, you have to want to take action in order make it happen, and when you stop moving in that direction, you stop making any kind of progress toward wisdom. You can’t get there without trying.
I remember as a child thinking that people older than me had insight or knowledge that could be useful to me, and for many years that was true. But by the time High School rolled around, I started to notice my teachers began to make stuff up if they didn’t actually know, and would stutter and fumble with ideas and thoughts almost as often as I did. They were capable of as much pettiness and poor judgement as any teenager I had every met, and I started to suspect that they had no insight that I didn’t have myself. My theory was that they had all stopped trying to make sense of the world, assuming they had as much as they already needed. In the years that followed High School, I distrusted anyone who acted older, and made a point of illustrating that they are no different or more informed than I could be after a trip to the library.
Now that I have passed 40, I not only feel certain that I was right then, but the evidence at hand points to the same kind of self-help axiom I’ve always struggled with: you have to want something to get something. Because, essentially, that is the case for anyone who hasn’t tried to pick a direction for themselves and pursue it. That component of reaching out for something that you want – again: personal improvement, a new faith or belief in something, a goal or desire that you will not let yourself live without – if you can’t be bothered to even want it or find out if you do want it badly enough, then you will have no idea what you are doing and why you are doing it. This happens to be the case with most people – young or old – and is the state of being most people prefer to adopt because it is easy.
But what do I do with this revelation? This is the problem that I have encountered in the mental exercise of working out how you communicate this information downstream. At 17, what would have resonated with me that would have opened my eyes? How could anyone have taught me that I need to chase my desires with confidence, that I need to outline what I want and take physical actions to achieve my goals. How do you make that clear to a teenager who is convinced that everything is unfair, and stacked against him? It’s a hard nut to crack. My natural state as a youth was to feel put-upon, to feel abused, to feel distrust toward the world around me, and to feel that the only place I was understood was in music and books of my choosing. Short of taking me to a $5 show where all the bands I like had written ‘zines about how you need to set desire-based goals and pursue them, how would I have ever made this observation at that age? Is is even possible?
A lot of this has to do with confidence, something that I have never been good at and felt little reason to carry as a defining trait. I was not confident. Until I met my wife, I was pretty sure I would be doomed to having short and largely meaningless relationships, and only in the years since we have met, fell in love, and got married do I feel the kind of confidence that I longed for a needed as a teen. But how do you imbue confidence to the awkward and uncomfortable, without the years of experience that created it in me? I still feel this overwhelming panic that my wife will leave me at any moment, and for any reason, and this hyper-vigilance regarding this thought tends to color my every action, even when I know in my heart that this won’t happen. I want her in my life, but the nearly 25 years of experience prior to meeting her has trained me to think that everyone leaves. Even at 40, I don’t have the confidence I’d like to have.
If learning confidence is complicated, developing sophistication is even more challenging. I value my ability to think critically, to hold two thoughts in my mind at once, to consider new ideas and to abandon old ones that no longer work. This is something I wish I had at my disposal as a teen, because in those days, I clung to the one idea I liked with a virulent fervency that bordered on being unhinged. I was convinced that everyone’s ideals never wavered their entire life, that you would always cling to these powerful thoughts of “right” and “wrong,” and that these notions would guide you as you move forward in life. But as you move out into the world, and meet more and more people who challenge you and your ideas, your own level of sophistication begins to increase dramatically. Punk Rock is not the only kind of interesting (or valid) music being made (in spite of a comment to that effect that I might have made as a teen), and the greatest movie of all time is not Pump Up The Volume. (Though that movie is quite excellent, nonetheless, there are much more interesting movies that I’ve come to love more.)
Sophistication allows us to recognize when something is of high quality, even if we don’t like it ourselves. Sophistication suggests that there are more ideas in the world than our own, and that the exploration of them – and the discarding of things that are insane or poorly developed – is a healthy part of interacting with the world around us. We need confidence, to become fully realized people who feel they have purpose and direction, and we need sophistication so we can make sense of other people who are different from us without resorting to racist, sexist, or other exclusionist kinds of behaviors when we meet them.
So: how do you teach a teenager, who is still more excited about video games and exploring their own body and ignoring the entirety of the world that is outside of their peer group, how do you convey the value of analytical thought and personal self-worth? To a teenager, everything is emotion and frenzied thought, barreling through life with a pulsing pleasure center between their legs, an uncomfortable body still growing into maturity, and a huge set of social rules and axioms that dictate how you should be acting. Even the idea of embodying confidence and sophistication is outside of everything a teenager experiences, save for the few that have extreme skill in one area or who have been forced to grow up quickly.
I’ve wrestled with this for a while, but I have no real insight into how to help out my past-self, or even the current crop of youth that are coming to terms with unfairness and adolescence here and now. Being young is hard, and only as I am starting to consider the second half of my life do I feel as if I’m starting to get a sense of how I should have gone about things then. It isn’t that I have a secret that I can share with kids that will even be helpful, any really they must experience this for themselves for it to really hit home. But if anyone younger (or, perhaps, older who still isn’t sure) happens across this and might want to distill my thoughts into something they can use in a practical sense, here are a few thoughts to consider as you try and deal with the universe around you:
1.) Nobody Else Knows What You Need. Only you can make that call. Only you know what your dreams and goals are, what your hopes and desires might look like, and what will keep you motivated to live the way you want to. Describe what you want to yourself, make it as clear as possible, and be willing to do this as many times as you need until you think you’re on the right path. You don’t have to share it with anyone unless you want to, but you should ask yourself regularly, “What do I need? What do I want? Can I define it?”
2.) Most Everyone Else Doesn’t Know What’s Going On. They may say they are adults, they may point to more education or experience, they may think they are genuine authority figures, and they may claim that they know better. But they don’t. They never did, and they are faking it if they say they do. They don’t know what your life is like, they don’t know what you’re after and what is important to you, and they probably never will if they haven’t defined what they want in their own lives, too. Be patient with them. Try to understand that they are clueless, and don’t take the things they say as “truth” or “valid” unless you happen to agree. When they are ready to see the world from your eyes, then you will be able to have a valuable conversation (for both of you). Until then: be patient. They mean well, but they don’t know any better.
3.) Try Not To Be A Dick. This is really the only rule in life that I have to say is 100% worth following, even if you don’t believe it or see the value in it at first. This won’t stop others from being a dick. You might even be a dick occasionally, and that is okay too. We all make mistakes. But try not to be. Imagine someone else acting the way you are acting, and see how that feels for a while before you do it yourself. None of us are always successful, and that’s okay. We can forgive you if you are trying. But please try. It is easy to be a dick, and you might even get somewhere at first by being one. But once you start acting like that often, you will find that it becomes a lot harder to stop. Act the way you want to be remembered, not the way you think will yield the biggest result immediately.
4.) Be Willing To Be Wrong. We learn from our mistakes, honestly. It seems counter-intuitive, but as I get older I see it in action every single day. A mistake might seem bad at first, and can be awful depending on the kind of mistake. (And I’ve made plenty of them, for sure.) But you will not be the first person to make a mistake, and you will not be the last, either. I have changed my mind hundreds of times, I have been wrong more times than I can count, and I will continue to make mistakes and be wrong for most of my life, not because I’m trying to make mistakes, but because I only learn the right way after I have exhausted all the wrong ways around me. Be willing to fuck up. But also be willing to learn from that experience.
5.) Don’t Be Afraid To Be Childish If You Want To Be. There is a race in this world to grow up, to put away the interests of your youth and to “embrace” the world of adulthood as soon as possible. This is absolutely insane, because these same people eventually get older and insist that adults should, “never grow up,” and that the way kids see things is precious and valuable. Clearly, they want kids to act like adults, so the old people can act like kids. Don’t listen to them, and pursue your interests, even if they are childish. If you like cartoons, watch cartoons. I do, and I love them. If you want to color, color every day. My wife has coloring books that she loves and uses often. My passions as a kid – computers, comics, writing – these are things that have been lifetime companions for me, both as a child and as an adult, and they have made me happy throughout my life, in spite of what adults told me when I was younger. There is no “one time” when you should act a certain way, and when people start telling you otherwise, you don’t have to listen.
And, it is also likely that I don’t know what I’m talking about, so you don’t really have to listen to this advice at all. Maybe you shouldn’t, at first. Maybe you need to learn these on your own. But maybe it is helpful. Maybe you already know it, and maybe you think I’m full of shit and will never understand you. All three are probably true, for some of you anyway. But these are the things I wish I had heard in High School, and more importantly, things I wish I had believed then, too.
Getting older can be awful. There are times when you want to give up being responsible, give up acting the way everyone says you need to, and you will long to give up adulthood and move on to something more fulfilling.
What I’m saying is: you can do this at any age. But only if you want to.