in doing what you love

Navigating life without a roadmap

Kids are never the problem. They are born scientists. The problem is always the adults. The beat the curiosity out of the kids. They out-number kids. They vote. They wield resources. That’s why my public focus is primarily adults.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

I was thinking about this powerful quote, which didn’t come from a talk but rather from a reddit thread in response to a question about kids and science. As with many things, I felt the need to personalize it to something beyond talk of science.

Between working in higher ed and spending summers at camp, I interact a lot with kids at different ends of the spectrum. Kids entering high school with precocious hopes and dreams, often buoyed by parents who want the best for their little starlets. Then there are the kids in college who face an entirely different reality of putting into practice much of what they’ve been thinking or dreaming of; perhaps realizing along the way which of their ideas will come to fruition and which ones will not.

One of the things I think about a lot is how much I didn’t know about the barriers to entry to so many things prior to doing them. That might seem like a no-brainer. But I’m talking about things that depending on where you grew up and what kinds of schools you went to and perhaps whether or not anyone in your immediate family had gone to college; that were otherwise opaque. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who actually went to four-year school and graduated. It was a pipe dream I mostly conjured on my own. And while I talked about the ideas a lot, because from an early age I’d been reading about these places and things and decided they fit me, I didn’t really have a strong concept of how to put them into action.

One of the reasons my own personal philosophy has changed dramatically over the past three years or so, is borne out of embracing a very upstart ethos about how life works. I think so many young adults are frustrated because the secular religion has let them down. In an era where the mass media showcases the 20-something college dropout as a status symbol, there’s a not-so-subtle idea that “if you work hard enough, are smart and have a good idea, you could launch a million dollar business.” This simplistic insanity of this notwithstanding, this myth gets swaddled into the warm towels of a non-existent caste system. The notion that we are a meritocracy, that a kid from an average state school could someday become President or work for NASA or write the next Harry Potter.

There is no better time to be an icon doing amazing things, because word travels faster than it ever did before. It’s harder not to be self-conscious in a world that’s doing everything it can to make you more self-conscious in the hopes that they can sell you something to satiate whatever ails you. At some point, reality sets in. You learn that “hey, maybe you’re smart. But smarts aren’t currency.” All that snooping on the internet has done is bringing to light what people have always wanted the means to do — judge other people. It’s not always nefarious, but folks want marketers to indicate who they’re dealing with. So it trends earlier than ever before. Didn’t go to that awesome prep school in high school? Okay, fine. But college, that’s supposed to be all under your control. Can’t get into an “elite” school? Welp, I guess that’s something you’ll have to deal with. But there’s no manual for this life stuff and no one puts that disclaimer on the warning label before you swallow the pill at some early age.

I’m not really lamenting unfairness here. Just awareness of the realities that make life what it is. What I want now isn’t all that different than what I wanted before. I just measure success differently than I used to. The moment you get off the rails and stop trying to impress people with how fast you can go by, the easier it gets to plot your own course to the destination that might make you the most happy. It comes with some sacrifices and often, reeks of loneliness that comes with sitting in a room full of people who aren’t wired as you are. But if you listen, there’s lessons in everything we do and every place we go.

And I’m still learning that lesson every day.