Against the Commonplace Wunderkind
Mgbe onye ji tete ụra bụ ụtụtụ ya. / Whenever one wakes up is his own morning. — Igbo proverb
The above Igbo proverb highlights the importance of understanding that life is an individual race, not a competition to see who arrives at the finish line first. It emphasizes that individuals peak at different times, and it is futile to judge someone’s success by how early another person succeeded. There is a lot of wisdom in this proverb that is lost in contemporary culture.
Lamentably, the current world is one where people venerate youth. Some people fastidiously keep up with whatever trends are occurring among the youth in order to remain “relevant” and “current.” Some even try to mimic the sartorial choices of the young. There are entire industries devoted to people who are fervent about looking young for as long as possible. Aside from just venerating youth, more problematically, people are irrationally obsessed with being perceived as having achieved success while young. The worldwide cultural obsession with the Forbes 30 Under 30 lists shows that many think achieving global recognition and tremendous success by the age of 30—society’s arbitrary endpoint for youth—is the best way to define a successful life.
Education is one area where achievements are bizarrely valued more when attained while young. Periodically, people on social media anxiously complain about how old they are and ask others whether or not it is a good idea to go back to graduate school at what they consider an advanced age. The “advanced age” is almost always 30. While it is definitely a good idea to go to school while one is young if the resources to do so are available, the idea that academic achievements lose their meaning or value at a later age is inane. Life is not linear. For some people, it makes perfect sense to accomplish other goals first and return to education when time and resources permit.
Practically every young person wants to be considered a wunderkind, and it is often said that every parent believes that his or her child is a genius. Because of the implausibility of every person actually being a genius, people are choosing to celebrate things that were once considered normal, and these normal things are elevated to the level of the spectacular. All one has to do to find evidence of this is look at the average Forbes 30 Under 30 list. While some of the people on these lists have achievements that are undeniably impressive and laudable, one will also find some awardees whose inclusion induce nothing but puzzled head-scratching. In contemporary society, an adolescent who is capable of reciting bromides advancing a political agenda is considered a moral leader to whom all must obey. (See my essay on the elevation of such a character here.) A young college graduate who writes in complete sentences about culture is not just a decent writer, but possibly the next Harold Bloom. When the veneration of youth is mixed with the desire to make the ordinary genius, it ineluctably leads to the concretization of a culture of mediocrity. If genius can be found in everything, then genius loses its meaning and value.
Accepting the fact that people have different peaks is by no means an encouragement to young people to waste their time. In fact, the years from age 15-30 are some of the most important of a person’s life. If those years are wasted, it does not mean that a person will never achieve success or is doomed to fail, but it will take a lot more work to get back on track, and one’s thirties and forties will suffer the consequences of those poor decisions made during those pivotal years. One’s youth should be used to build a strong foundation for later life; however, this is different than suggesting that the entire house ought to be built before one turns thirty, which is the peculiar modern approach to success.
Needless to say, success is something that takes dedication, effort, and, most importantly, time. The desperate desire to be seen as wunderkinds often means that young people are taking shortcuts to success, as opposed to building with patience. Society has also promoted this folly by dramatically defining success down. This is why social media virality in the past decade has become a key indicator of success among many young people. Because building lasting things is extremely difficult and time-consuming, people have opted for fleeting attention as the new metric of success. Starting a business that fails after five years does not matter these days, as long as it was viral for two of the five years and got one’s name on a fancy list of successful new entrepreneurs. Genuine success is the result of years of hard work, concentration, and discipline to achieve mastery, but success today (defined down) can be garnered by merely producing viral TikTok videos.
Are there people who have ever genuinely achieved success while young? Of course, but they look markedly different to many of the modern day “successes.” There are numerous prodigies that have created intellectual and musical monuments that have shaped civilization. For example, Blaise Pascal unfortunately only lived to the age of 39, but he made commendable use of his time on the planet, contributing enormously to the fields of mathematics, philosophy, and physics—even while still a teenager. Similarly, Mozart died early, aged 35, but his notable contributions to music, even during his adolescence, are still important today. More recently, one could credibly argue that the musical contributions of Christopher Wallace, who died at the age of 24, are on par with the genius work of Mozart. (Another essay for another day.) However, those great people were not reared in a culture that extolled the mediocrity of the young as though it were the same as authentic genius. Those great people of yore were held to sincere standards of excellence, where success was not defined down to make the distinctly average feel special.
It is important to also highlight the fact that advanced age does not necessarily confer wisdom. There are some people who are old, but have the wisdom of the average prepubescent child. Age does not always mean that a person has achieved greatness, either. There are some old people who never recognized that the key to a well-lived life is applying oneself until one has built something over time that can be looked back on with immense pride. As a result, after squandering decades, such old people with wasted potential look back on their lives ruefully.
Until society returns to the understanding that exceptionalness is something that is by definition not commonplace, that success takes time and effort, and that expecting the majority of young people to be great during their youth will necessarily lead to the defining down of greatness, there will continue to be young people chasing the wrong things, and young people will continue foolhardily building their lofty mansions of “success” on the unstable quicksand of social media virality and dubious “honor” lists. It is time to normalize building slowly.