A while ago a friend asked me to critique her writing. I said “You sound like a teenager”. It was less patronizing than it might have been, because she was a teenager, although I guess still pretty patronizing. Then she asked me for an explanation, and I didn’t have one, because some kind of “essence of teenagerdom” is hard to place.
But recently I was thinking about this again, because I was rereading Byron’s “Growing Old”. Part of his Don Juan, it’s a series of reflections about turning thirty (really, Byron? Growing Old? Thirty?). I was reading it because I had read it when I was fifteen or so, and gotten some things out of it, and I’d resolved to reread it when I was older to see if I could get anything else:
But now at thirty years my hair is grey—
(I wonder what it will be like at forty ?
I thought of a peruke the other day—)
My heart is not much greener ; and, in short, I
Have squandered my whole summer while ’twas May,
And feel no more the spirit to retort ; I
Have spent my life, both interest and principal,
And deem not, what I deemed, my soul invincible.
And lo and behold, I do sympathize a lot more now. For example, what’s with my hair? It’s not turning grey. But it is falling out en masse. I haven’t thought about a peruke – which I think it one of those big white old-timey wigs George Washington used to wear – yet. But maybe I should.
But moving on:
No more—no more—Oh ! never more on me
The freshness of the heart can fall like dew,
Which out of all the lovely things we see
Extracts emotions beautiful and new ;
Hived in our bosoms like the bag o’ the bee.
Think’st thou the honey with those objects grew ?
Alas ! ’twas not in them, but in thy power
To double even the sweetness of a flower.
There’s something very raw about being young. I remember reading a psychotherapy book that, like most psychotherapy books, talks about childhood trauma. Their prescription was that it gets buried under lots of layers of unconscious baggage, and you need to bring it to the surface. Once it’s at the surface, the patient’s reaction should be something like “That? That was what bothered me all this time?” Because when you’re a child, everything is more intense. Yeah, some childhood trauma is getting beaten or abused. But other childhood trauma is getting called names on the playground, or being left alone without knowing where your parents were. I find a lot of the “inner child” school of psychology to be kind of bunk, but I find interesting the idea of your inner child as somebody who you’re much stronger than, somebody who they respect because you’ve developed really powerful psychological coping mechanisms they could never dream of, so that you’re a protector figure.
Ozy talks about this a lot in the context of their borderline personality disorder. I tend to think of a lot of symptoms of borderline as being associated with neoteny – a preservation of childlikeness into adulthood (I don’t know how orthodox this is). For Ozy, everything is still raw, maybe will always be raw. Every even slightly good thing that happens delights them. Every even slightly bad thing that happen traumatizes them.
The flip side of childhood trauma is childhood wonder. When you’re young, and to a lesser degree when you’re a teenager and even in your early twenties, you have a great capacity to be amazed at the raw beauty of the world. As you grow older, you get less direct exposure to things as you have more and more schemas to put them in: “Oh, yeah, that’s a beautiful sunset, it looks a lot like the five thousand other sunsets I’ve seen. I’ll just tag it ‘sunset’ and move on.” There’s a big loss there, but there’s a compensatory gain:
No more–no more–Oh! never more, my heart,
Canst thou be my sole world, my universe!
Once all in all, but now a thing apart,
Thou canst not be my blessing or my curse:
The illusion’s gone for ever, and thou art
Insensible, I trust, but none the worse,
And in thy stead I’ve got a deal of judgment,
Though Heaven knows how it ever found a lodgment.
That last couplet really resonates with me. You tend to think of judgment and wisdom as something you gain by laborious cultivation. And here’s Byron, saying “Somehow I seem to have gotten some good qualities. God only knows how that happened. Seriously, of all people, me?”
A lot of the time we make fun of teenagers for having crazy high libido. And then they grow older, and their sex drive calms down a little bit. I actually haven’t checked whether anyone knows if this is due to objective reductions in hormone levels, or if maybe once you’ve gone on a couple of dates and been in a couple of relationships it’s no longer quite so exciting.
But it’s not just sex. There’s this entire complex of teenage and early-twenties things around sex and extreme politics and mysticism and fashion, and some of it is praiseworthy in the sense of being really excited about new things, and part of it is just not having any idea what you’re doing, so that realistic opportunities and insane opportunities look about the same. And so you end up on this roller coaster of grandiose plans, inevitable letdowns, gnawing horrible fears, and unexpected relief. And then eventually you kind of bottom out and stop doing this.
I don’t know if this is biological either. Michael Vassar (and as far as I know no one else) theorizes about a “second puberty” in the late teens/early twenties where the brain starts to take on an adult form. There’s some evidence for – for example, this is the age at which a lot of previously latent mental disorders like schizophrenia develop. And there’s some evidence against – nobody had a conception of teenagerdom until like 1940s America or so. But it’s certainly a useful concept. Just as after puberty dies down you kind of naturally stop being so concerned about sex and acne and whatever, so after second puberty get a deal of judgment. You stop being so concerned about…what?
What is the end of Fame ? ’tis but to fill
A certain portion of uncertain paper :
Some liken it to climbing up a hill,
Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour ;
For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill,
And bards burn what they call their ‘midnight taper’,
To have, when the original is dust,
A name, a wretched picture and worse bust.
Erikson calls the psychological crisis of the teenage years “identity versus role confusion”, and Reb Wiki’s commentary on his work adds that:
Erikson does note that the time of identity crisis for persons of genius is frequently prolonged. He further notes that in our industrial society, identity formation tends to be long, because it takes us so long to gain the skills needed for adulthood’s tasks in our technological world. So… we do not have an exact time span in which to find ourselves. It doesn’t happen automatically at eighteen or at twenty-one. A very approximate rule of thumb for our society would put the end somewhere in one’s twenties.
Let me take a stab at that “persons of genius” exemption, since some of my friends whom I’ve gotten a chance to observe are probably smart enough to qualify.
Anyone even a little bit smarter than normal gets feted and celebrated as a kid. I remember my fourth grade teacher telling my parents during a conference that “your son needs to go into science so he can cure cancer.” This is dumb. In a school of a thousand people, you can be the smartest kid in the school, more than smart enough to impress your teachers – and still be only one of the 300,000 smartest people in the country. If those other 300,000 people didn’t cure cancer, there’s a pretty good chance your son won’t either. But when you’re a kid, all you have to do to look smart is read the occasional science book and cultivate an interest in quarks. You can just go around saying “Did you know there are six types of quarks?” and everyone will think you’re some kind of genius.
Then you grow older. You reach the point where nobody thinks you’re a genius unless you can prove some kind of new result, which is a lot harder. You go to a good college, and suddenly you’re in an environment preselected so that everybody else is about as smart as you are. If you’ve been coasting through life on being able to name all six types of quark (and who’s going to know if you get one wrong?) this is pretty disorienting.
And so part of Erikson’s “role confusion” is thinking “Wait, I was the guy who was going to cure cancer. I can feel my status slipping away from me as I become more and more mediocre. What am I going to do to prove that I really am that cool?”
I think a lot of the pathologies of adolescence are part of that urge, hollow promises of regaining lost status. The key is to provide a narrative in which you are great and which is impervious to external disconfirmation. Extremist politics, mysticism and fashion all fit the bill for different personalities.
Along with the pathologies there were the ill-advised adventures. “I’m going to be a great person by…um…exercising an hour a day, from now on, all the time, and eventually becoming really buff.” Lasted a month. Then “I’m going to be a great person by…um…learning to speak ten languages, one at a time.” Lasted until first encounter with the Finnish case system. “I’m going to become a great person by…” The problem with all of these were that none of these were things I actually wanted to do (cf Randall Munroe, “Never trust anyone who’s more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at.”)
Actually, forget Randall Munroe. The best related quote is a different Monroe, who said that “although you are ambitious, you have no ambition.” And so:
Ambition was my idol, which was broken
Before the shrines of Sorrow, and of Pleasure ;
And the two last have left me many a token
O’er which reflection may be made at leisure :
Now, like Friar Bacon’s Brazen Head, I’ve spoken,
‘Time is, Time was, Time’s past’ : a chymic treasure
Is glittering Youth, which I have spent betimes—
My heart in passion, and my head on rhymes.
One of the key points of the rationalist community is to learn to “optimize” rather than “satisfice” things, and it’s a useful lesson. But everyone sometimes needs reverse advice, and younger me – and younger lots of people – didn’t really understand satisficing.
When I was about ten, I decided to just optimize my entire life. I made a schedule of exactly what I would do every day – each minute filled with some sort of very productive character-building activity. Then I followed it for two days. Then I gave up and felt bad about it for a while.
That’s the sort of optimizing that only Young Scott could love. But I’ve been reading On The Road recently, and I wonder if the sort of Beat culture of authenticity is a different kind of optimizing, where you’re throwing everything at being different and more real, to the point of abandoning family and financial stability and whatever else.
There’s a place for this kind of optimization, if it’s what you want to do. But I eventually noticed that attempts to optimize my life and be maximally good were making me kind of miserable. I think that’s where the judgment part comes in. You learn when it’s okay to stop getting mad at yourself for not being perfect and take a little bit of time to relax and enjoy.
Byron is maybe a bad example of learning to overcome ambition, since he did kind of become super famous. But even that can be a kind of relaxing ambition. You learn what you’re good at, even if it’s something like poetry that might not be the most lucrative and world-changing thing around, and you focus on that. You’re not going to be Julius Caesar, but you might be Lord Byron. Or if not Lord Byron, you might at least have a career and be good at it. Role confusion gives way to identity.
(even MIRI, the most healthily ambitious people I know, have backed down from “we will save the world all by ourselves, right now” to “we will contribute an important part in an eventual effort to save the world”)
In fact, I think that’s the most important part of the solution, the part that makes it a little more dignified than abject surrender to being a cog in the machine. Vague formless ambition crystallizes into a couple of things that you’re good at and want to pursue, and then it doesn’t seem like ambition any longer. It just seems like the thing you’re doing.
Byron also got one other thing right, which was that he was able to sacrifice ambition to pleasure. This seems a better shrine to sacrifice at than “akrasia” or “conformity” or “vague feelings that I shouldn’t be doing this.”
But I, being fond of true philosophy,
Say very often to myself, ‘Alas!
All things that have been born were born to die,
And flesh (which Death mows down to hay) is grass ;
You’ve passed your youth not so unpleasantly,
And if you had it o’er again—’twould pass—
So thank your stars that matters are no worse,
And read your Bible, sir, and mind your purse.’
Seems like another riff on the same subject. Ambition and the raw energy of youth turning to a vague fondness that he got things mostly right, for a human.
I hate to change poets in midstream, but Chesterton says much the same:
…the doubts that drove us through the night as we two talked amain,
And day had broken on the streets e’er it broke upon the brain.
Between us, by the peace of God, such truth can now be told;
Yea, there is strength in striking root and good in growing old.
We have found common things at last and marriage and a creed,
And I may safely write it now, and you may safely read.
The theme to me seems the same. Youth is scary. Everything is important. Philosophy seems perilously close. Every tiny thing inspires doubts. Then “there is strength in striking root and good in growing old”. You get a base. You know where you are standing. Things feel calmer and safer. You go from role confusion to identity.
Byron talks of “reading your Bible and minding your purse”. Chesterton talks about “we have marriage and a creed”. I read these as kind of similar. It’s about finding an ideology – in contrast to the constant ideology-searching of youth where you get your Communists and your Daoist and your anarchists and whatever. And then it’s about turning to be more interested in the everyday world of things like marriage and family and relationships and balancing your checkbook.
If this were about suddenly ceasing to care about ideas, then it would be monstrous and I’d be trying to resist it every way I can. But neither Chesterton nor Byron became intellectual lightweights in their old age. I think of it as getting to participate in the world of ideas because you want to, rather than because you have to. In Jung’s words, “swimming rather than drowning”. Or since the ocean of thought is maybe too big for a swimming metaphor, you’re still out at sea, but you’ve got a nice sturdy ship instead of a Neurath’s boat where you have to build your vessel while you’re sailing on it.
In an unhealthy society, it can be dangerous to lose revolutionary fervor. But in a healthy society, it seems to be a natural and important process. I don’t know if our society is healthy enough for me to be entirely comfortable with it. There are a lot of people who can’t get a stable career, people who are trying as hard as they can. But even in a revolution you need a couple of people to keep things running and maybe donate money earned at a stable job to the people with more zeal (see: Engels), and in the spirit of satisficing rather than optimizing I’m pretty okay with this role.
…or maybe you stay an anarchist or a Daoist or a communist. But then it’s because you’re set in that philosophy and you like it and you’re making a stand there, rather than because it’s your Experiment Of The Month. It’s good to have Experiments Of The Month – high expected value of information, low transaction costs for changing your mind – but it’s also a relief to be done with that. Identity in place of role confusion. As for the adult world of relationships and checkbooks, it’s a different and lower-variance way of contributing to the community, and if you’re lucky you can have kids and start the whole cycle over again.
Yesterday I turned thirty years old. People keep asking me how I feel about it. I think I agree with Byron. I passed my youth not too unpleasantly. And if I had it over again, it’d pass. So thank the stars that matters are no worse.
Happy birthday for yesterday! Loved the post. 🙂
I’m 48. I have become more sensitive with age, not less. Maybe that’s why I am so anxious (I probably have GAD but eh). When I was younger I used to be so stable I’d literally worry about myself and whether my equanimity was normal. My Irishman husband, on the other hand, would say the opposite of me, and in fact told me last night, “I just don’t get depressed”. He’s not correct; he went into a huge slump after his father’s death several years ago for a few years that only meeting me seems to have snapped him out of. But in Ireland people just don’t think of psychology/psychiatry as an option like we Yanks do. They appear to believe all therapy is suicide counseling; we think we’re hiring a personal trainer. (That misquote from Freud? Got legs because it’s almost true.)
My mind immediately went to Emerson and Thoreau. Vive la difference. We all have elements of both in each of us.
Edited to add this beautiful visualization I just found: http://www.informationisbeautifulawards.com/showcase/607-lifelines
I, too, have gotten more anxious about some things – and conversely, have now the attitude of “I don’t give a shit” about things that would have crucified me with embarrassment and self-consciousness when I was younger.
I think it’s because, again, young you hasn’t gone through those experiences yet so they’re in the realm of the “theoretical possible but not really real to my apprehension”, especially when it comes to the physical.
As you get older (and creakier), you don’t heal as fast, you can’t bounce back the way you did when you stayed up all night when you were nineteen and went into school/work the next day on one hour of sleep. You appreciate, because you’ve suffered it in yourself, the fragility of the body and so it does make you anxious about possible physical and emotional pain.
The flip side for me is that, even into my twenties and thirties, I was constantly anxious to please and never said “boo” to a goose, whereas now that I’m 51 and falling apart physically (I’ve never had it together mentally), I have no problem saying “This is a heap of crap and I’m not going to waste your time and mine on it”.
That’s an awesome insight (pardon the Americanism, heh). Yes, my anxieties pretty much take the form of “bad thing X happened before as a result of Y, and Y is happening now, therefore X”. I also have issues with “every idiot can do this thing, therefore I, not being an idiot, should have no problem with it.” For example, currently I am struggling with learning how to drive a manual transmission since we have nobody living near us I can practice with, so the latter comes into play. But since I have bad memories of learning to drive the first time in a car that stalled constantly, the former also comes into play. It’s massively frustrating and I have to work myself over with some “CBT first aid” every time I force myself to practice. OK, that’s funny. Less funny is when my poor husband has to reassure me, “I’m not like that… I’m not going to do that to you” when his raised voice (not even directed at me) triggers memories of my abusive first marriage, and try as I might, I can’t keep the old fear from rising in my eyes.
We also see in ourselves the weaknesses of our parents when they were our age. Although I’m not going to become like my father, who had a congenital brain tumor that got out of hand in late middle age and took his mental wellness before it took his life, or like my mother, who had plenty of issues of her own (to the extent any of her feelings and thoughts could be said to have been her own), I’m constantly on guard against those things that they suffered.
How interesting, as well, that you and I both basically kicked over the traces in our 30s and said, “Life is too short to kiss ass”. Well, I still have a little to work on. 🙂
Oh, took longer than my thirties – well into my mid-forties before I was able to say “Hang on, I don’t have to put up with this” 🙂
I think it is only at the point when you look at your life and see (a) you’re at the half-way mark (depending on how old you think you will live to be) or (b) there is more of your life behind you than ahead of you (realistically, when I was forty-plus, even if I lived into my eighties like grandparents and uncles/aunts, I still only had thirty-forty years ahead of me), that you can say to yourself “And what is the very worst that can happen?”
Now, there are very worst things that CAN happen, but things like “People will stare at me in the streets” or “If I don’t fill in this form correctly, I will be in trouble with the person behind the counter” or (in my case) “I know this interview I’m going for is bullshit but I have to do it or else the DSP is going to get on my case” really are much less terrifying than they are to younger me.
I mean, I was able to say to the person who was conducting the interview “Look, this is pointless. I have absolutely no interest in, or training for, running employment schemes for young people. I’m not interested in learning how to do this, either. You want clerical support, I can support the living daylights out of someone running that programme, but that’s not me. So there really is no point doing this interview, other than box-ticking for the dole office. I’ll do it if you like, but if you prefer not to waste the next thirty minutes of your time and get back early, that suits me.”
Suited the poor bastard doing the interview (sole candidate: me) because although they were obviously really badly stuck for someone to set up this programme (else I’d never have been called), he appreciated the honesty.
Thirty year old me would have been TERRIFIED of THE CONSEQUENCES THIS IS A GOVERNMENT EMPLOYMENT PROGRAMME I HAVE TO PARTICIPATE I HAVE TO SUBMIT.
Forty-seven year old me went “Fuck ’em. This is bullshit and what will they do if I refuse? Stop my unemployment payment and I’ll have nothing to live on? Okay, I’ll rob a shop and they’ll put me in jail and then they’ll have to feed and shelter me.”
Did Freud say of the Irish “This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.”?
This remark is discussed in the Oscar-winning movie ‘The Departed’. However, there is no evidence Freud ever said it.
Edited to add: And Happy Birthday, Scott. Just found out I’m a year older than Byron was when he died. For some reason I thought he made it to 37.
I’m 39. Still consider myself young, and I believe I can still pass for late 20s though I might need to dye my hair a little, a small vanity :).
Having wasted my life seems like a standard feeling, but I think I probably would have done everything the same again if I had the chance, because that’s what makes me who I am. Free will is an illusion anyway, right?
Besides that, it’s nice to have 20 years of adult life to swing about, a time period where I was basically “me” like I am now. I have a different perception of what 20 years is like now, it feels like such a short time. Back when I was a kid the 40s seemed like ancient times, but that’s just 35 years before I was born… not that long at all.
I would appreciate life extension to prolong this feeling a little bit, another 20 and I’m gonna be hitting 60 and I don’t think I’ll be able to keep pretending I’m a kid by then, though I’ll no doubt feel like it (If I aten’t dead)
Exercising an hour every day isn’t really enough to make you super buff, alas, I’ve been doing that for a while and I look pretty normal.
It was your birthday? Many happy returns!
Now! I get to rub my hands in delight as I can finally be Really Old Person telling all you kids to get off my lawn, I remember when it was all trees round here (I really do remember when it was all trees round here) and In My Day we had none of this fancy modern stuff!
Re: fifteen and thirty – back when I was fifteen, I thought thirty was ancient. I have since, of course, changed my mind as thirty is now a good ways behind me 🙂
nobody had a conception of teenagerdom until like 1940s America or so.
There may not have been a concept of “teenagerdom” as such, but there certainly was the recognition, even before the U.S.A. enlightened the rest of we darksome globe, that there was a period of “you can’t put an old head on young shoulders” and “physically mature but still not an adult”. From “A Winter’s Tale”:
From “The Three Musketeers”:
And my late mother (who reached adulthood in 1940s Ireland, not the U.S., and as Ireland was roughly considered to lag fifty years behind everywhere else, this was the equivalent of 1890s England or America) used to quote a common Irish saying to us about “Your bones aren’t set until you’re eighteen”.
That’s why I think there was a lot of sense in setting legal majority at 21, and why I don’t necessarily think it’s so good nowadays to have “You’re 18, you’re legally adult” (and the corollary which I see in my day job “Now you can be turfed out of the foster care system to sink or swim on your own and the State has nothing more to do with you unless and until you come up before the courts”, meaning a lot of vulnerable young adults with no family or other support left to try and navigate on their own with little capability of doing so and ending up in various kinds of trouble).
That is also why the proposal to bump down the legal age of majority from 18 to 16 because “16 year olds nowadays are much more aware and sophisticated than previous generations” makes my heart sink. No, 16 and 14 and 12 and 10 year olds have been exposed to a lot more, they are more aware of things that older generations wouldn’t have known about until later, they’ve heard and seen more in the mass media, but that does not mean they are more mature psychologically or emotionally, or able to deal with things in an adult manner.
I think the thing about “you sound like a teenager”, and Byron’s “I seem, despite myself, to have acquired some judgement” is that everything for the teenager is a first experience. Not just sex and love – hey, the world is unfair! Hey, there are problems! Hey, suffering! Hey, I have this feeling which nobody else in the history of the universe ever had before, you can’t possibly understand me, don’t tell me it’s not that big a deal, adults are all heartless and only want to crush you!
Whereas merely by getting older, you have gone through the same, or similar, experiences more than once, or you’ve seen it happen to other people. So you know what to do (or not do), more or less; you can see the warning signs ahead when “this is a bad idea” crops up. You’re not necessarily smarter or wiser, you just know this stretch of the road, whereas for the teenager it’s a whole new map they’ve never been on before.
…hey, the world is unfair! Hey, there are problems! Hey, suffering!
Francois Guizot is perhaps apocryphally reported to have said, “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.“
Adolescence has definitely been a thing for… a long time.
However, I do think that teenagers are a slightly more specific phenomenon, and I’m pretty sure that it has to do with high school. Because we have all of these people with raging hormones, half-formed identities, poor judgement, and little experience with adult bodies and minds, and what do we do with them? We cram them all into a building with a few hundred other people in the exact same condition, where they outnumber the sane by a factor of 20:1, let them form most of their social relationships with other adolescents, and implicitly wink at all the trouble they cause. Is there any wonder that high school is such a bubbling cauldron of misery, cruelty, loneliness, passion, petty social strife, and injuries inflicted on the self and others, both deliberately and through pure block-headed ignorance? We’ve taken all of the implicit awfulness of adolescence and concentrated it into one institution for maximum awfulness.
(And my high school experience wasn’t even very bad. It was typical: neither hell nor “the best years of my life,” but nonetheless I look back at it and think who designed this and what were they thinking?)
I’m 32. Turning 30 didn’t actually mean much to me, because hey, 30 is almost like 29. But turning 31 was a bit more impactful, because at that point it was no longer possible to pretend that I was “almost in my 20s”. Also, 31 is a prime number, and prime birthdays are the most significant.
Well, see, I don’t think they have adult minds yet. Lord God above, I would not be fourteen again if you paid me ten million euro (which I would like to have ten million euro) because it was a terrible time (and I wasn’t bullied, etc. at school; just general hormonal and developmental hell).
Even eighteen or nineteen year olds – though that depends. When I was twenty and attending the local regional college, we had lectures once a week off-campus and in the bad weather (this is Ireland, it rains) it was a miserable trek. Two of the guys in the class who had cars volunteered to drive us back so about twelve of us all piled into two cars.
Being twenty year old males, the drivers – when they stopped at a traffic light – revved up their engines and decided to race one another through the city streets back to the college. When we got back, every single girl vowed she would rather walk in the lashing rain and spend the entire day soaking wet rather than get into a car again with either of these two lunatics. The guys, of course, thought it was hilarious.
“Boiled brains of nineteen or two and twenty”, indeed 🙂
From Aristotle’s Rhetoric:
Wrt rights, I think that we should split legal majority and grant more rights earlier — I think a bunch should be granted at 15.
You’re 30 and you write posts like this. That makes me feel old 🙂
Happy birthday, btw.
I’m 25.5 and aging horrifies me. I’ve been fearing getting older ever since my seventh birthday. Articles about “30 things to stop doing in your 30’s” trigger me. I don’t think I’ve sorted out my identity yet and I’m worried I’m running out of time. There’s a serious chance I’ll be the 50 year old guy who wears dark eyeliner and listens to Pretty Reckless.
But hey, my credit score is good.
In a way, since we are now living longer, this emphasis on “Thirty is old” is silly, since in former times (when lifespans were allegedly shorter), you weren’t an adult till you were twenty-one, and forty was considered (for men, anyway) your prime.
You’re not thirty yet? You’re only a child! 🙂
I didn’t even feel like a grownup until a week or two after my 30th birthday. It felt like, “Hey, yeah, now everyone can take me seriously for a change”. It felt good. 40, meh. I’m looking at 50, and my older friends say they all mostly “took another level in grownup”. That’s a good metaphor, “leveling up”; I’m sticking to that.
21 tomorrow, and I feel the same way. Although, to gently troll you and Deiseach; 25 and a half? You’re soooo oooold!
Dear infant, multiply “twenty five and a half” by two, and you’ll have my age 🙂
I am old enough to be your mother, a thought that probably horrifies both of us (one reason amongst several I never married/had kids is because I know I would be a terrible mother, actively harmful to any children I might have).
I don’t know so much about Byron sacrificing ambition to pleasure; it seems to me a lot of women got sacrificed along the way, as well.
Whatever you think about his wife (and I agree she wasn’t the nicest or most pleasant of women), or Lady Caroline Lamb, it probably wasn’t much fun for his half-sister Augusta and the rumours of incest (and having a child by him): Byron could pack up and head for the Continent with a new mistress and have an intriguingly scandalous reputation which made his poems sell like hot cakes, but for a woman it wasn’t so easy.
Even the International Association of Byron Societies website, when discussing his Swiss sojourn, has this brief but sobering phrase:
Claire, for whom Byron felt no affection, bore his daughter Allegra in Bath the following year.
You can sacrifice ambition to pleasure and good luck to you, but when it involves sacrificing the ambition or wellbeing of others alongside your ambition, it begins to look less like revolutionary boldness and more like selfishness.
Even if you do get good poetry out of it. And what seems to me to be more important, a daughter who did sterling work in mathematics (interestingly, it was the abandoned and bitter mother who encouraged her in this, not the father who picked up and left a month after she was born).
I’m still approaching my 20th birthday, stunted in some areas and advanced in others, and it sometimes leaves me feeling like a severely dysfunctional person in their mid 20s instead of a moderately dysfunctional person at 19. I don’t extend myself the lenience and hope I would to anyone else at my age.
But that’s normal. You’re stuck between “too big for a youth, too small for a grown man” – you’re certainly not a child anymore, but you still don’t have the (a) lived life experience (b) physical and mental completion of growth of an adult.
There’s stuff you don’t know, because you can’t know it yet. You won’t have everything figured out (and going off on a tangent, that drives me mad about current school: expecting seventeen year olds to know exactly what ‘career’ they want and what they intend to do allegedly for the rest of their lives).
There’s stuff you know because of your circumstances, both as an older adolescent and in your own personal experiences.
So you’ll be ahead of some people in some things and behind other people in other things. This is called “life”. That’s my All Growed-Up Secret Adult Knowledge, for what it’s worth.
In my teens I was more passionate, but I think this was not just for experiences and ideas but for affirmation. I hope that as people age they can feel inspired to act and learn without such cravings for esteem. (There are, of course, adults whose deeds suggest that this is optimistic.)
P.S. …to the point of abandoning family and financial stability and whatever else. Always worth remembering that Burroughs had an allowance until his parents died and Kerouac went home and lived with his Mum.
I’ve just passed the next awful line – 35. It’s the point where you can’t say “I’m in my early thirties” any more.
It’s odd. On the one hand I reckon I’m more fundamentally happy than at any point in my life until now. On the other hand, I’m kind of having the opposite phenomenon to that you describe – I’m doing the whole “I don’t fucking know anything and I’m just beginning to realise that” thing.
The biggest problem that I have regarding the whole “gradual calming down” thing, which is definitely happening in spades, is that the natural ongoing churn of friendship and contacts has left me painfully missing my close friends from that early-20s maximal-emotion period. I have plenty of friends now, so it’s not the emotional support I miss, but that distinct sense of rawness and immediacy that accompanies those memories. And I know from experience that reconnecting with those friends doesn’t restore that sense, and in many cases makes it worse. I have a different relationship with those people now, a kind of deep trust built out of having been around them at a vulnerable period in my life. It’s a beautiful thing, certainly, but it’s not the same.
Much like you, I don’t think I want to take those years back. I’m happy, overall, with how they went and where I’ve ended up. One thing that strikes me about this whole “ages of life” thing is that if there’s actually anything to it besides cultural norms or psychological development processes, what effect will anti-agathic treatment have on it? What happens when human personalities have more time to develop? Will we fixate? Cycle? I’m really intrigued by the possibilities.
Could be that you are lacking friends where you have a deep emotional connection / intimacy? Or it could be that you want more immediacy – going out on an impulsive adventure, etc.?
I’m 31, and have been noticing that my life is very distinctly lacking the previous categories of “Best Friend” and “Adventure Partner”. And since I am now an “Adult”, I get to decide that I want these things and try to get them ^.^
You are too cheerful. Here, have some Whyte Melville:
A child in the nursery crying—a boy in the cricket field, “out!”
A youth for a fantasy sighing—a man with a fit of the gout,
A heart dried up and narrowed—a task repeated in vain,
A field plowed deep and harrowed, but bare and barren of grain.
Some sense of experience wasted, of counsel misunderstood,
Of pleasure, bitter when tasted, and pain that did him no good,
Some sparks of sentiment perished—some flashes of genius lost,
A torrent of false love cherished—a ripple of true love crossed,
Some feeble breasting of trouble to glide again with the stream,
In principle void as a bubble—in purpose vague as a dream,
A future hope half-hearted, for dim is the future now—
That the triple crown has parted, and death is damp on the brow,
And a debt is to pay by the debtor—a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse,
A feeling he should have been better, a doubt if he could have been worse,
While the ghostly finger traces its ghostly message of doom,
And a troop of ghostly faces pass on in a darkened room,
With ghostly shapes to beckon and ghostly voices to call,
And the grim recorder to reckon, and add the total of all,
The sum of a life expended—a pearl in a pig trough cast,
A comedy played and ended—and what has it come to at last?
The dead man, propped on a pillow—the journey taken alone,
The tomb with an urn and a willow, and a lie carved deep in the stone.
Oh, if we’re quoting poetry:
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
“Man wants but little here below.”
Little I ask; my wants are few;
I only wish a hut of stone,
(A very plain brown stone will do,)
That I may call my own;
And close at hand is such a one,
In yonder street that fronts the sun.
Plain food is quite enough for me;
Three courses are as good as ten; –
If Nature can subsist on three,
Thank Heaven for three. Amen!
I always thought cold victual nice; –
My choice would be vanilla-ice.
I care not much for gold or land; –
Give me a mortgage here and there, –
Some good bank-stock, some note of hand,
Or trifling railroad share, –
I only ask that Fortune send
A little more than I shall spend.
Honors are silly toys, I know,
And titles are but empty names;
I would, perhaps, be Plenipo, –
But only near St. James;
I’m very sure I should not care
To fill our Gubernator’s chair.
Jewels are baubles; ‘t is a sin
To care for such unfruitful things; –
One good-sized diamond in a pin, –
Some, not so large, in rings, –
A ruby, and a pearl, or so,
Will do for me; – I laugh at show.
My dame should dress in cheap attire;
(Good, heavy silks are never dear;) –
I own perhaps I might desire
Some shawls of true Cashmere, –
Some marrowy crapes of China silk,
Like wrinkled skins on scalded milk.
I would not have the horse I drive
So fast that folks must stop and stare;
An easy gait – two forty-five –
Suits me; I do not care; –
Perhaps, for just a single spurt,
Some seconds less would do no hurt.
Of pictures, I should like to own
Titians and Raphaels three or four, –
I love so much their style and tone,
One Turner, and no more,
(A landscape, – foreground golden dirt, –
The sunshine painted with a squirt.)
Of books but few, – some fifty score
For daily use, and bound for wear;
The rest upon an upper floor; –
Some little luxury there
Of red morocco’s gilded gleam
And vellum rich as country cream.
Busts, cameos, gems, – such things as these,
Which others often show for pride,
I value for their power to please,
And selfish churls deride; –
One Stradivarius, I confess,
Two Meerschaums, I would fain possess.
Wealth’s wasteful tricks I will not learn,
Nor ape the glittering upstart fool; –
Shall not carved tables serve my turn,
But all must be of buhl?
Give grasping pomp its double share, –
I ask but one recumbent chair.
Thus humble let me live and die,
Nor long for Midas’ golden touch;
If Heaven more generous gifts deny,
I shall not miss them much, –
Too grateful for the blessing lent
Of simple tastes and mind content!
Have you ever watched the Up documentary series–49up, 56up, etc?
It is a long-running documentary series following a group of British schoolchildren. They started interviewing them at 7 and re-interviewing them every 7 years.
It is my favorite documentary. One insight that comes through quite strongly–and this is where this post comes in–is how vastly better their later, adult years were compared to their teens and twenties. Most of them are clearly happier at 42+. It was a stunning insight for me because I think our pop culture generally tends to assume that life peaks at 28 and declines miserably thereafter.
oh, and happy birthday
If I had ONE SINGLE SOLITARY THING to tell my younger self and all my younger friends, it’s that time heals, while not all wounds, quite a good many.
Never watched the documentary. I’ve heard pretty conflicting things about this.
Happy not your birthday anymore!
> I tend to think of a lot of symptoms of borderline as being associated with neoteny
Yeah, that’s a tad unorthodox. Can you expand on this? (My understanding of BPD is primarily informed by the work of Linehan and her contemporaries, which characterisation is hard to reconcile with “imitating children”.)
First of all, happy birthday!
This is maybe the only post of yours with which I have to disagree, so here it goes 🙂
“One of the key points of the rationalist community is to learn to “optimize” rather than “satisfice” things, and it’s a useful lesson. But everyone sometimes needs reverse advice, and younger me – and younger lots of people – didn’t really understand satisficing.”
I agree that too much optimizing (I will use the synonymous term “maximizing” hereafter) can sometimes be overwhelming and generally negative, especially for your own well-being. Research backs this up: Schwartz el al. (2002) found “negative correlations between maximization and happiness, optimism, self-esteem, and life satisfaction, and positive correlations between maximization and depression, perfectionism, and regret.“
So satisficing may be good for your own happiness, but we don’t live for the sake of happiness alone. I think people should generally maximize *more*, not less. I even wrote a 5000 word essay about this: http://wallowinmaya.com/2014/10/02/in-praise-of-maximizing/.
Some of the important points:
1) You could think of curiosity (e.g. the wish to “understand whatever holds the world together in its inmost folds“, a trait most great scientists share) as ‘epistemic maximizing’. Furthermore, rationality, especially epistemic rationality, can also be conceived of as epistemic maximizing because as an aspiring rationalist you desire to update your beliefs about the world until they are maximally consistent and maximally correspondent with reality. But most people are epistemic satisficers: They realize that their worldview has many gaps and they may even notice some inconsistencies in it but all in all their worldview is good enough for them and they don’t see the need to optimize it.
2) Similarly, the world would also be a better place if more people engaged in ethical maximizing (basically effective altruism, i.e. trying to improve the world in the most effective way), whereas many people are ‘ethical satisficers” in the sense that they just try to be ‘good enough’ and often end up donating a few bucks to random charities in order to buy some fuzzies.
3) This point will be a bit more speculative and I won’t go into details here but you could think of transhumanism (or the desire to achieve a positive intelligence explosion) as „existential maximizing“. Transhumanists realize the horrors of nature (and of human nature) and wish to alter the human condition in such fundamental ways that needless suffering, disease, aging and death no longer exist. In contrast, many people are ‚existential satisficers‘: they apparently don’t give much thought to essential big picture questions and and content themselves with the fundamental evils of the human condition.
But I agree that too much maximizing (especially misguided maximizing) can be bad because it can result in depression and burn-out which in turn makes you less able to optimize the world. (I made this mistake probably myself.)
Would be curious to hear your take on this.
I agree you should try to maximize certain problems of the sort “Given that I want to invest X resources in this, what’s the best way to do it.”
Trying to maximize your entire life for some specific goal might be a mistake.
For example, no one is an altruism maximizer; even the best effective altruists I know still keep more money than literally the lowest amount they could live on. I think that’s a good choice. But I also support that if you’re going to devote resources to altruism, you should try to do that as effectively as possible.
I think calling curiosity “epistemic maximizing” is incorrect. Curiosity is generally unguided and capricious, it flows like water into the area surrounding your attention. Its not a process that’s guided from the top down, it’s the brain’s object level thoughts flowing in shapes suggested by the environment, it’s a feedback mechanism and it promotes an understanding of context that allows for harmonious stability. Maximization, in contrast, would ignore seemingly unimportant problems.
People often naively maximize without acknowledgement of constraints and diminishing returns. I’m not hot on the term “satisficing,” and certainly people should not satisfied by stasis at any level, but common thresholds are a good heuristic for where diminishing returns set in. Maybe it’s not optimal, but is it worth the information cost to figure out what is? That doesn’t mean that they should be satisfied with the threshold, but they should focus on optimizing a lot of things before pushing individual things too far.
I don’t have to work (I’m retired), my hair is sun kissed and distinguished (white) and with the advantage of age I can look back and tell people that they are *different people* when they are a child, a teenager, a young adult, and adult… and finally an old git like me. They need not struggle to make up some story of lifelong ambition when each of the different people they have been were driven by different motivations.
I’ve often thought that it is one of life’s cruel ironies that we are conscious while our minds and bodies are reshaped in adolescence. Grubs can chill out as pupae or chrysalises before they emerge as adults.
I don’t know if you were trying to make that last paragraph into poetry, but you certainly succeeded. -@Scott
Scott, have you read this: http://www.bartleby.com/101/536.html The ultimate poem, I think, on the subject of the loss of childhood and adolescent intensity, and the fear of death and aging. Your quoting all that other English Romanticism reminded me of it.
Sorry to be entirely off-topic, but I noticed you’ve switched from referring to Ozy by “ze” pronouns to “they” pronouns. Is there a reason for the change?
In some of Scott’s older posts I’ve also seen “ve” and “ey”, so I would guess there’s been some trial-and-error in this regard.
I try to use whatever my friends are using in order to help people converge on a single one so I don’t have to worry about this any more.
Why is convergence important? If Ozy gets 200 different programs, would that upset zhierir? I would think veyr would be indifferent to that, mostly. (Provided that they weren’t all intentionally silly like these ones. But maybe hirehss would find it entertaining. Ozy, you here?)
This seems vaguely useful to society, though. And maybe *very* useful to trans/genderqueer people, IDK.
I’m not Ozy, just genderqueer, but anyone that called me “zhierir” would probably instantly move in to my “cool friend” category ^_^
Man, I hope I didn’t bum you out with the question. I do happen to have pretty strong pronoun opinions, but the question itself was thoroughly neutral.
Great post, and happy birthday! Much wisdom here–maybe you should read the poem again when you’re 45 or when you’re 60….
I thought of Haruhi a lot while reading this. Maybe second adolescence is much like the first.
When I turned 30 I didn’t really feel old. Even to this day, I pass for an early/mid 20s guy in look and behavior. Unfortunately, what made me feel old was the death of parents. I have two ex-gfs who had one parent pass away in the last year or so and one of mine passed this year as well. Granted, they were from cancer or heart attacks so it wasn’t necessarily a dying from old age thing.
The other half of that coin is having friends and family members having children of their own. You start to realize that the aunts and uncles that you remember growing up are now the role that you’re going to fill. It’s kind of a surreal thought.
30 is old, because that’s about the time when your body starts to really make you earn it. I’m not talking about things like gray hairs (I found my first in my early 20s). When I was in my 20s, just thinking about working out was enough to get me into pretty good shape. Now, I have to keep consistent just to hold on to any gains I made. I assume after 40 these gains will slip away even if I keep at it.
My ability to pull all-nighters has also drastically reduced.
I’ve turned in favor of having kids early precisely because I didn’t, and regret it. Just the ability to skip sleep would make things a lot, lot easier.
Happy birthday, and thanks for everything.
Upon reaching 40 a month ago, I had a similar set of reflections – thankfully interrupted by the delightful company of someone half my age, reminding me that I’ve still “got it”. Begging your and the dear readers’ indulgences, I’d like to riff of yours, the way you riffed off Byron’s.
Yeah, wow. When I was in my 20s, I think I tried really, really hard to hold onto my capacity to be delighted and traumatized – I certainly managed to hold onto a very youthful emotional outlook long past the age where most of my friends had lost theirs – without quite understanding why I was doing it.
Around age 35, I tried to abandon it, because it turns out that 35+ years of trauma is a lot harder to manage than 15+ years of trauma, and you can’t compensate for this by just maintaining a proper delight/trauma balance.
Then, sometime in the past few years, a miracle happened: I ditched the capacity for intense childlike trauma while maintaining the capacity for intense childlike delight.
I’m not sure how I did this – I suspect that part of it is simply burying and masking the trauma, while maintaining sufficient conscious awareness to let the delight flow freely – but however the miracle happened, I’m very glad for it.
mmm, yeah. Part of my 40th birthday conversation with said 19 year old regarded their transition out of teenagerhood, and the lament that they were no longer a “child prodigy”. And I suddenly, intensely and acutely remembered those feels. Realizing that you’re not going to save the world on sheer genius alone, and that no one really taught you how to work hard except by being fervently passionate, and you weren’t quite genius enough to figure it out on your own… some people respond by writing the Sequences of Rationality, and others respond by wandering off into the industrial wilderness for 20 years. (I chose the latter, to my deep regret.)
In the interest of reversing advice, I think there’s also a strength to be found in maintaining role confusion. When I Tell The Story Of My Life, my narrative structure breaks into several spans that I like to call “Misspent Youths”. (I am currently on my tenth.) Reminding myself that I am in the midst of yet another Misspent Youth helps me keep my identity small, and reminds me that as soon as I feel myself settling into a role I don’t particularly care to grow to fit well, I can just Eight of Cups the whole damn thing and start over.
And Happy Birthday, and Thanks, again.
When I Tell The Story Of My Life, my narrative structure breaks into several spans that I like to call “Misspent Youths”. (I am currently on my tenth.) Reminding myself that I am in the midst of yet another Misspent Youth helps me keep my identity small, and reminds me that as soon as I feel myself settling into a role I don’t particularly care to grow to fit well, I can just Eight of Cups the whole damn thing and start over.
So have I. About the time one lifestyle starts to get comfortable, no more suspense and contrivance and swinging on grapevines, partner and I chuck it all and run off and start over from scratch on something different. Now we’re running out of energy, so I hope this one will last.
Seconding the childlike delight part. (Nothing traumatic has happened to me in quite a while, but I suppose I would still be susceptible.) I guess my memory is too small to fit the intensity of my experiences, because every few days I stare at the sky, or listen to a song, and my socks are just blown off. And I’m 52, so Deiseach, get off my lawn!
“The flip side of childhood trauma is childhood wonder. When you’re young, and to a lesser degree when you’re a teenager and even in your early twenties, you have a great capacity to be amazed at the raw beauty of the world. As you grow older, you get less direct exposure to things as you have more and more schemas to put them in: “Oh, yeah, that’s a beautiful sunset, it looks a lot like the five thousand other sunsets I’ve seen. I’ll just tag it ‘sunset’ and move on.”
“A lot of the time we make fun of teenagers for having crazy high libido. And then they grow older, and their sex drive calms down a little bit. I actually haven’t checked whether anyone knows if this is due to objective reductions in hormone levels, or if maybe once you’ve gone on a couple of dates and been in a couple of relationships it’s no longer quite so exciting.”
I’m 23 and this scares me a lot. I hate the idea of losing the ability to enjoy things. Being an adult just sounds boring and awful. This is compounded by the fact that I have depression, and feel like I won’t ever be able to make up for the awful days and nights where I’ve had suicidal thoughts.
I was much the same way- early-20’s-me was a deeply miserable person, and I was especially troubled by the prospect of losing all the ‘intensity’ years to the negative stuff. Pretty bitter about it, I suppose, but life has improved a lot since then.
At 29, I’m just starting to level out a bit and see what people mean by aging, and at least so far it’s been very satisfying. The worry about wasted time never entirely goes away, but it is (ha) less intense. And remember that ‘boring’ is not the opposite of ‘intense’. Astronomy analogy:
The emotional consequences of aging are like gaining mass as a planetary body. If anything, the forces on you increase, it’s just that you have your own momentum to contend with now, and so the center of balance is somewhere in the middle. A light object is constantly falling and getting dragged around by gravity wells; a heavy object is more of a partner in the dance.
I understand where you’re coming from. When I was going through my depressive episode in late adolescence, I clung fiercely to the intensity of emotion that I associated with my depression. The thought of getting to a state where I was “balanced”, and no longer experienced either the highs or the lows, was terrifying, and I was deeply concerned when I realized that my depression was actually leaving.
A decade later let me tell you: this was silly. I still enjoy things. I enjoy them a lot, actually, and arguably I enjoy them more because I’m not constantly dancing on the edge between mania and soul-crushing depression. Good feelings are good, and they don’t go away simply because you gain the ability to handle them.
[Content note: coercion/brainwashing]
I find it terrifying that there’s so much outside pressure not to be depressed. If I decide I want to be more balanced, fine, but until then it’s nobody else’s goddamn business and it’s pretty fucking scary when other people decide that who you currently are is not someone who should be permitted to exist. And with all this pressure, it’s even harder to tell if it’s what I really want.
I was forced into counseling as a child. (Literally dragged kicking and screaming, for years, because I believed this nonconsensual effort to modify my mind was similar to murder – not that anyone gave a shit. After all, this sort of “acting out” is just a sign that you need more coercion.) And I kind of feel like any attempt to be less depressed even decades later is legitimizing that somehow. At least any attempt that involves the official mental health system.
It’s not that you’ll never enjoy things again, just not with the same intensity of the shock of novelty. Things you encounter, even for the first time, will remind you of other things. It will be, in some ways, a richer and deeper experience because it will be more reflective, more fruitful under contemplation, but the “ah!” effect of the first time ever seeing/feeling/knowing this thing exists – that’s not going to happen very much.
The other side is that bad things will not be as bad because again, you’ll be a little hardened, you’ll have experiences of “well, I got through X bad thing before that I thought at the time was the worst thing ever, I can get through this”. It’s like developing callouses on your hands from hard work so the tender skin does not blister and bleed; the trick is not to let the hardening go so far that you get jaded and uncaring.
This was an excellent post. You should do emotional/personal stuff more often, when it touches on a broad theme like this does. I loved this. I also love that it inspired people to post poetry in the comments.
You claim it’s good for people to “sacrifice ambition to pleasure”. But to me, this seems like a bad idea. I’ve got ADHD and depression. If it weren’t for my ambition and pride, I would probably drop out of college, play video games while living at my parents house for a month, get kicked out, then kill myself. I mentioned something similar on the original Moloch post. How do we worship Elua without becoming slaves to our desires in the immediate present? It seems to me like the only way to become happy sans luck is to make myself miserable for some spurts of time and then to hope that the good times make up for it. But this strategy is highly vulnerable to Moloch. Elua can be hard to resist as well, his delights are rather addictive. I’m being pulled in two directions at once and have no idea how to resolve it without either giving up or turning myself into an awesome superperson.
“If this were about suddenly ceasing to care about ideas, then it would be monstrous and I’d be trying to resist it every way I can. But neither Chesterton nor Byron became intellectual lightweights in their old age. I think of it as getting to participate in the world of ideas because you want to, rather than because you have to. In Jung’s words, “swimming rather than drowning”.
PLEASE ELABORATE MORE THIS IS VERY INTERESTING.
What does it feel like to be “drowning” in philosophy or ideas ? What does it feel like to be “swimming” instead? I think I might be drowning, but I also kind of like it.
“a vague fondness that he got things mostly right, for a human.”
To me, this seems kind of tragic or even pathetic, self-indulgent. It bothers my pride. There’s some value in acknowledging limitations, but not in acknowledging them in death, where they cannot be grappled with or enjoyed.
In other news, I still do not understand block quote. If anyone will explain this to me like I am a technologically illiterate grandmother, I will pinch their cheeks and bake them cookies and (maaaaaybe… ;p) slip them a $10 when their parents aren’t looking.
To do a block quote, you surround the stuff you want to be inside a block quote between these two tags: <
blockquote> and <
For example, if you type this into the comment box:
blockquote>This is a blockquote test.<
it will display like this when you submit your comment:
Don’t forget the / in the second “blockquote” tag.
Doing this: [LT]blockquote[GT]I will pinch their cheeks and bake them cookies[LT]/blockquote[GT]
Where [LT] and [GT] should be replaced with the lessThan and greaterThan signs, respectively. Note the forwardSlash after the last lessThan.
Edit: Dang, Anonymous did it with no-parse! I’ve been schooled.
I initially approached this post assuming that since this did not appear to be as much of a rationalist, argumentative essay as usual (plus, the writing is interspersed with poetry, a medium that I have little experience with and never gained much appreciation for), I would probably not find it all that engaging. By the time I was finished reading it, I found myself both inspired and moved (well, the poetry still mostly went past me, but that’s my own problem).
The level of engagement comes, as usual, largely from the degree to which I can personally relate to the struggles described here, most particularly the following:
This is one of the primary internal struggles I’ve been facing on a daily basis in the most recent portion of my life. I’ve always felt a desire to achieve some kind of “greatness”, and sort of assumed that I had high potential for it* (I wouldn’t think of using the word “cool” here, since that sounds sort of juvenile, but maybe that was the whole point). My expectation has very gradually shifted from “Given my obvious talent relative to my peers, the sky is the limit and if I set my mind to it nothing can stop me from becoming one of the world’s elite mathematicians” when I was in my early 20’s and entering graduate school, to “I’ll be lucky to get a postdoc position for next year and even luckier to be able to stay in academia in the long term” now that I’m in my late 20’s and approaching the end of graduate school. For the first time in my life, I keep catching myself longing for the feeling of being younger with so many potential achievements to look forward to, before some of the doors that were once wide open gradually began to close. However, the mindset advocated here, while not a magical solution, appears to provide a mentally productive way forward.
And you, Scott, should know that you probably have already touched more people’s mental, emotional, and intellectual lives by the age of 30 than many do in a lifetime, just by keeping up this blog, not to mention your service as a doctor. Churning out ideas powerful enough to attract the interest of intellectual celebrities may not be as earth-shaking as curing cancer, but it is in my opinion a “great” achievement. Oh, and happy birthday!
* I think this conviction is very far from universal, by the way, and I try to remember that I was privileged just to have been able to hold it.
Regarding “second puberty” and “nobody had a conception of teenagerdom until like 1940s America or so”, I would love more information on this. Afaik, in Roman law you would be of age with 14, but you could be placed under tutelage until the age of 21 (or 24?), especially if you were an heir (i.e. plebeians could be used as mules or cannon fodder (ballista fodder?) from age 14, but people with economic or political weight were kept from doing stupid things until they were safely past adolescence).
Ages 7-14 counted as pueritia and ages 14-21 as adolescentia. So clearly the Roman legal concept of “adolescentia” seems to begin at puberty and end with “second puberty”, and more or less correspond to “teenagerdom”.
Also, regarding the question, what part of losing youthful “rawness” is purely biological (hormonal) and what part is cognitive? I am sure there must be some sort of research literature on this? I would love to learn more about it.
As a final point, the topic of “rawness” made me consider ‘satori’. When you are a child, I suppose it is difficult to tell whether you are incapable of satori or experiencing it as default state (this has religious repercussions of course, as in “let the little children” and so on). But there you are, plodding along in your late 30s, and suddenly you experience a flash of completely undescribable rawness for half a minute, and then it’s gone and your life continues. I suppose this is a kind of neurological quirk, sort of a weird fallback into childhood mode which would get you into psychiatry if it persisted but being very brief serves as a really cool condensation nucleus for spiritual thought, and I am tempted to argue that it is almost worth to lose default “rawness” only for the opportunity to experience it in flashes and so see it highlighted as extraordinary.
Not just the Romans either, the 7/14/21 system of dividing up stages of life is actually fairly common from my (admittedly non-expert) knowledge of history.
One pertinent example is the medieval nobility: you spent your first seven years living with your own family as a child, the subsequent seven serving another family as a page, and seven more apprenticed to a knight as a squire before you could become a knight yourself.
Given that it matches up reasonably well to what we know about the biology of growth, and that seven is a magical number in the Traditional view, the idea of a sort of teenager/initiate period ought to be fairly easy to find in premodern civilization.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the medievals got it from the Romans. No one was exactly widely read back then, when a book could cost a year’s earnings for a lot of the population, but the Romans were about as close as non-religious texts got.
Veneration of the classical world and generally low literacy occasionally led to some entertaining consequences, like for example the medieval view of Virgil as some kind of scholar-magician-action hero figure. (Whence comes his character in The Divine Comedy, and thus all that that spawned in modern media.)
The important Roman threshold was 25, not 21. But the really important threshold was emancipation at the death of the father.
Cicero defined adolescentia to extend to age 30.
A lot of us snark and snipe at each other here, rant, and occasionally try to learn something but most often spend considerable effort jealously defending what we think we know from those who would teach us something new. At least, that’s what I usually do.
But thank you for this. I am 35. I don’t feel 35. I don’t want to be 35. I want to be 22, but not the 22 year-old that I was, but rather the 22 year-old that 35 year-old me thinks he could optimize… knowing what he knows now. A fool’s errand, in short.
This is a beautiful meditation on aging, and I appreciate you having written it.
To fix my past self is something I wish as well. Watching the movie Groundhog’s Day or reading other similar stories makes me feel very sad. I feel cheated by not living in a magic world or videogame, which does absolutely terrible things to my motivation.
>> I feel cheated by not living in a magic world or videogame
Just be glad you are not living in the magic world of Warhammer 40K.
Speak for yourself lol
What kind of person could possibly hope for the grim darkness of the 41st millenium? Where humanity struggles between the myriad legions of its alien foes, but even more urgently against the grasping clutches and diabolical schemes of the eldritch Chaos gods? So terrible are these latter that, should they win, every citizen of the Imperium should see his soul consumed, leaving none but those Chaos cultists… who will rejoice at the coming of their lords… and who work tirelessly to expedite their arrival even now…
…and who might seem suspiciously happy on this subject…
…Emperor protect me, I’m going in. I’ve read the Eisenhorn books, this Morgenstern guy won’t know what hit him.
Why? In real life, nobody gets the ontological privilege of being a PC when everyone else is an NPC. You count here.
I don’t agree. IRL I’m just a cog in the machine who might as well be an NPC; in World of Warcraft, everywhere I pass, my exalted name is mentioned in awe: “There goes Berna the Insane, savior of the world!”
And then the next guy sends me off to examine piles of poop to look for some trinket. ;-p
>>>, but rather the 22 year-old that 35 year-old me thinks he could optimize…
With some data on the behavior of the stock market, you could optimize your young self into a billionaire I’m sure.
But then the Time Patrol will hunt you down and kill you…
But that’s the thing, isn’t it? “Youth is wasted on the young”, “If I knew then what I knew now”, and all the rest of it?
We don’t really want to be 22 again if it meant being 22 again; we want our 22 year old bodies with our 30s/40s/50s minds, so we don’t get the shocks and make the bad choices we did the first time round. We want to remember that maybe, given how it turned out, dropping everything and running off with that person was a bad idea just like our parents tried to tell us, or that we should take that dull, boring job for at least a couple of years because put the grind in now, have the chance later to do what you really want without drowning in debt.
But that would defeat everything, because we’d lose the very thing we wanted back – the freshness, the novelty, the sense of boundless possibilities. You can’t go back again, and you can’t put an old head on young shoulders (because even if a time machine let 40 year old you tell 20 year old you “Do this, don’t do that”, 20 year old you would still be arrogant and ignorant and confident in the blissful blindness of youth that you could make it work out all right anyway).
I haven’t seen good evidence for the view young adults are naturally ideologically radical. They are more radical than very old people, I admit, but in absolute terms they seem fairly mild to me except in stereotypes. I think young people are more inclined to be naive or stupid or violent, and that these can exacerbate the effects of radical behavior and make it more visible, but there’s little evidence of any important relationship beyond this.
I’ve definitely known people who were outspoken communists during high school but who mellowed out afterwards. This is one reason that Scott’s claim rang true to me. But now that I think of it, (1) there are definitely older people around who are quite politically radical, and I have no way of knowing what they were like in high school; and (2) it’s hard from an outside perspective to tell when someone is actually more politically radical or just less inhibited from outwardly expressing their political radicalism. In high school, there are definitely fewer potential consequences for advocating something like communism.
it isn’t that they are inclined to be radical, but that every new generation (at least in modern times) comes up with a bunch of new ideas that they think are perfectly sensible but everyone else thinks are radical. some go away, but some stick. then those people grow up and those ideas become the new status quo, and all is right in the world, at least until that generation has kids. those kids then come up with a new set of ideas that are clearly crazy from the perspective of their parents, and the cycle repeats.
WordPress just ate my comment before I finished it.
As a Boomer, I see recent generations of radicals not as having crazy ideas, but as criticizing us for not working hard enough for the ideas we introduced.
We marched for Civil Rights, they elected a black President. We planted marijuana, they legalized it. Etc.
The only reversal I’ve noticed, is about population growth. We wanted to get to Zero Population Growth and lower worldwide, to keep the Earth healthy till space and L5 colonies could handle an increase.
Happy Borthday Scott. I enjoyed the post especially your defense of older people still interested in ideas. I think in America many consider it childish to debate philosophy.
As a teenager, I’m not sure which is more worrying: this post, or the comments saying it’s right about everything.
I’m in my late 20s and I don’t think this post is right about everything. My experience of the world became a lot more “raw” around the time I went to college, and has stayed that way since. Possible explanation: found a better social circle, one where it’s possible to openly enjoy things without being teased for years as a result. (What the heck is this “childlike delight” that people keep talking about? Children are absolutely merciless to other children who admit to liking uncool things. It’s only as an adult that it’s easy to get away with really, properly enjoying a sunset. Sure, people might think it’s kind of odd – “Whoa, you actually stop to smell flowers?” – but they’re not dicks about it like they would have been in school.) I’ve also noticed that things like social isolation are much more painful now when they do happen, maybe just because now I have something to compare them to.
Caveat: haven’t established that much of an identity yet, still in some phase of flailing because man, nine years ago I used to be smart and what happened to that? and maybe in five years I’ll decide this post was right about everything after all.
Edit: I do agree with people who note that with age it becomes easier to not give a shit what other people think of you, but I doubt that’s the scary part.
Agreed. But that doesn’t contradict the fact that most children probably do experience this “childhood delight”. The troublesome thing is that children generally refuse to acknowledge it to other children, and that there is a general stigma against being too enthusiastic which doesn’t really begin to lift until around high school.
there is a general stigma against being too enthusiastic
From G.K. Chesterton’s autobiography, Chapter Three, ‘How To Be A Dunce’:
What I meant is that putting all your reactions through a “will they make fun of me for this?” filter reduces the strength of your internal experience.
It worries you because you can’t look at it from the right distance yet. Do things in the order in which they come to your hand. There’s no point worrying about it since there’s nothing you can do about it. Do your best to be kind and careful (by careful I mean don’t do stupid shit), and you’ll probably be all right. Look for the elders (there are a few of us around) who consider it a duty to look after younger people. And don’t forget to breathe, as a Navy friend used to say after a guy got swept overboard in a storm because his duty was so tense that he held his breath in concentration and passed out.
I’m not as old as Scott, but I’m older than a teenager, and I disagree with the part about things feeling less intense. Yes, childhood had a lot of intense feelings, but that’s because children don’t have much money or agency – when something bothers or annoys them, they can’t do much about it, and when they want to have something they’d enjoy, they have to beg their parents to buy it for them. For example, I remember intensely anticipating my birthday or Christmas, because that would be the two times in the year when I’d get new computer games. Now, I don’t have to wait, because I can buy what I want whenever I want. That’s less anticipation, but more enjoyment – but I can see how something with similar experiences could interpret their memories of anticipation as having enjoyed the new games more, even if that wasn’t actually the case. Similarly, being bullied by delinquents at school was a constant annoyance, but not feeling that anymore doesn’t mean that I have less ability to feel, it means that the negative stimulus has been removed. I may be Typical Minding here, but I think at least sometimes differences in stimulation are mistaken for differences in sensitivity. If I currently had the same lack of autonomy as I did when I was a kid, I would feel most of the same sensations.
I think you may be Typical Minding a bit.
I’m 22 now. I remember that when I was in my mid-teens, feeling bittersweet and like I wasn’t feeling as much as I should at happy events like this. Now I feel more.
Happy birthday dude. Really.
Sometimes people optimize for some salient metric (such as being maximally productive or altruistic or “cool”), then are unhappy or unable to stick to the tasks that they’ve given themselves – and blame optimization for it. But the problem isn’t that optimization is bad, it’s that they optimized for the wrong thing. If you optimize for being able to fulfill the extremely ambitious role of “cancer-curer”, you will probably fail, but even if you don’t, you’ll still be almost certainly be miserable because you optimized incorrectly. And yet, because messages like “optimize for you own happiness” are uncommon, optimization is associated with things like productivity and altruism, which coalesces into the concept of Straw Optimization, a cousin of the Straw Vulcan. But optimizers should win, so if (all things considered) you don’t like being or can’t be “optimally good” but are still mistakenly optimizing for that, switching to something else is the truly optimal thing to do. Doing “the thing that you’re doing” is likely to be much closer to the true optimum than pursuing your ambitions would be.
On your old blog, you praised Epicurus, who wisely said –
aww i loved this post too 🙂
My goal with aging, I’ve decided, is to remain scared and confused and overwhelmed by life, but always at a higher level and about more important things. It’s going ok so far!
Re. Michael Vassar’s theory about second puberty; he says it’s around 26, not late teens – early twenties.
Maybe he’s changed his mind since we talked. I remember him pointing out the schizophrenia connection, but if it’s 26 then the connection totally disappears.
Really? I thought that was still within the typical onset period. E.g. John Nash got it right around … 30.
I’m turning 32 in a little over a week, and feel like I’m barely getting out of childhood and my true teenage / young adulthood years are yet to come (and will never be a full adult).
Yes I feel that I’ve grown but I feel that I’ve grown from being a nerdy 10 years old, to finally being like all the cool 17-18 year olds I knew when I was 17-18.
Meanwhile they’re all getting married and having kids, to my shock. I will never catch up.
You seem to be implying that being acclaimed as a poet relaxed Byron’s ambition to be Caesar…
It sometimes feels like things don’t burn as hot as they did, like I don’t care, or can’t care as much as I did before. But I think that’s an illusion; I remember being a lot less charitable, a lot pushier, and a lot more of a dick when talking to people.
It sometimes feels like I can’t or don’t learn like I used to, back in high school, or even in college. Attempts to learn new things have met with mixed success; I have been made inordinately happy by learning to do pen-and-paper square roots, and am considering making my way through Penrose’s “The Road to Reality” to get an understanding of physics I sort of skated past when I was in school. (Bonus: I’ll appreciate Greg Egan’s work way more.) If anyone has comments on this idea, please share before I spent a month or two picking my way through the book.
I think heavy use of the internet has burned my attention span. I don’t know how to deal with that. Trying to make sure I still read books has helped, a bit.
Happy birthday, Scott. Take it from at least one person; you’re doing admirably, as far as I can tell. Please keep it up with the blogging; I think I’m a better human for having read your work.
Amen. Oh, and I picked up extropianism to boot.
Mind, I find the whole concept of getting “mentally older” a bit weird. I’ve always been the most precocious, and most precociously “old and bitter”, among my own age-cohort. My girlfriend describes me as “born to be a crotchety old man.”
But actually, in recent years, on the inside, I feel younger than I think I’ve felt since age 7 or so. The world is wild and alive; I’ve got things to do and nothing weighs down my heart.
And when it passes, I’ll have no regrets, because I finally learned to stop apologizing for the world and just fight it.
Happy birthday, Scott. (That was mandatory.)
Happy birthday Scott!
Happy Birthday Scott!
Obligatory life-experience status report: early 20’s and hopelessly naive and oh god what am I even doing with my life?
I was born 32 years ago, but I don’t feel like someone who’s 32 years old, rather someone who’s turned 22 ten times. On a trivial level, I don’t look 32; I could easily play a teenager on TV and you might ask for ID if I tried to buy alcohol from you. On a social level, I feel like I’ve spent the last ten years failing to grow up. I live with my parents and am stuck catering to their whims. (This amounts to a pretty big burden these days because my mom has multiple sclerosis and is in a wheelchair.) Jobs horrify me; the last time I had an employer was in 2006. So I’m still living the same social role I’ve always held: “child of my parents”, and I still feel like I’m pretty much the same person I was at 17…
36 +/-1 here, and my libido is just as raging now as it was then. I wasn’t aware that other people make fun of teenagers for their libido, and I wouldn’t have thought I was unusual for still having mine until reading this. Is Scott making a Typical Mind failure, or am I?
Most people lose some libido upon growing up just because adult life is more physically and mentally exhausting than teenage life. You try a 10-hour workday plus a commute and see how “in the mood” you are when you get home!
Here’s a neat fact: I turned thirty on the very day — in fact, during the very hour — of last year’s Winter Solstice celebration in New York City, which I attended. It was one of the most poetically appropriate experiences I have ever had (augmented by the snow — was it the first snow of the season? — that began to fall on the way there).
I recently turned 30, and have been thinking a lot about the middle-class job and middle-class lifestyle I seem to be falling into. When I was younger, it was of the UTMOST IMPORTANCE that I avoid this, and instead do something or create something that was important and meaningful (and of course lucrative).
Last year I started a website that helps people buy certain things cheaper. It gets used by a couple thousand people a month, and for a while I was entertaining the idea that this (or some extension of this) could be the meaningful and important work I had been looking for. Unfortunately, a back of the envelope calculation showed that even under extremely charitable assumptions, any value I was creating was a small fraction of what I was getting paid in my ‘unimportant’, middle-class job.
The idea of favoring meaningful work over a meaningless job is pretty common, but the more I think the more it seems that as long as your definition of meaning can be turned into a dollar amount, getting a job and doing it well is pretty tough to beat.
I don’t know if much has been theorized about the “second puberty” in the late teens, but I did recently read an essay about a second puberty of sorts during middle age, which seems to come with these same identity questions and also refers to Eriksson: http://aeon.co/magazine/psychology/can-midlife-be-a-time-of-new-generativity/
I empathize with speedwell saying that they used to be “so stable I’d literally worry about myself and whether my equanimity was normal.” I was the same way when I was younger. Even though I was emotionally angsty, I never really did anything risky (simply because I didn’t want to) and the angst never manifested itself in any sort of extremism. I do wonder how common this is (and sometimes still wonder if this means that one day, when I’m much older, I’ll regret having a “boring” youth).
After a lot of roaming and adventures pulling one way and another. finally they’re all sort of pulling together. Main cause environmentalism best served now by protecting this acre, which is best served by us having some money and community standing and health, which is best served by relaxing to be ready for the next demand — instead of packing every day with urgent little projects.
I’ve always had an incredibly stable identity and I think this has helped me understand why. I have never attached any of my identity to my job. My job has always been this annoying thing that I do to make money so I can do other stuff. My identity has always been other stuff.
Likewise. Attaching your identity to your job seems really strange to me. Likewise for the notion of “meaningful work” – yes, some work may tangibly help people in addition to paying your bills, but on the list of Important Job-Related Things, it’s pushed to near-irrelevance by considerations like pay and a good work environment.
I suspect intrinsic motivation from making a difference through your work, for most people, would last about two weeks. You could treat impressing your friends or getting fuzzies from grateful clients as an intangible benefit of your career, but I don’t imagine they’d usually be a major one.
(My attitude toward employment has historically been pretty mercenary, though, so take that with as many grains of salt as you feel you need to. I did spend some time doing IT work for a nonprofit, for what it’s worth.)
I’m so old, I can remember when notoriety was different from fame.
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The overall attitude people have when growing old is acceptance of circumstances. Like a stoic, tranquility is something we gain by training.
I, at first, skimmed through this post. Later on I decided to read portions of it. This led me to start over and read it fully and attentively.
I really liked this post and I believe I’ll read it over many more times. It helps me understand more about a person very close to me with Borderline personality and the ways this person behaves and thinks.
It also made me more aware of some of my own thought patterns. I am biologically a 31-year-old person but I always tell people that I’m 32, and when I think about my age I also think I am 32. I’ve always wanted to be perceived as older by others, for a variety of reasons.
At any rate, my real reason to write the comment was to say that I liked this post very much! Makes me remember why I should check this blog out more often!