I must have been nine or ten when I first heard the Blink-182 song, What’s My Age Again and because I was so young, a lot of its humor was lost on me. Blink was always that band that never wanted to grow up, and at least as a fan, I never wanted them to. Even at nine or ten years old, I knew I never wanted to grow up either. But most of things I was singing along with Mark Hoppus about, were in my future. I remember thinking about that age, twenty three that he was singing about, and wondering what was so special about it? Why was that such a difficult and weird time?
I actually just turned twenty three this past week, when that song came on my shuffle. Music has that special power to bring you back to a specific time and place. For me, that song brought me back to being a little kid. It brought back the excitement I had in opening Enema of the State for the first time, with it’s too hot for most middle schools, porn star cover. Music has the power to show us that the more we change, the more we stay the same. I still rocked out to that song, but I stopped when I heard that line about twenty three, because finally, I was there. It wasn’t some far off date that I’d get to eventually, after high school, after college. It was here, finally. So I decided to write down some thoughts about being twenty three, and being in my early twenties in general.
First, twenty three is just going to be a weird age. It’s a transition age. Almost everyone is done with college by now. Most have found work, or holed up in school for a while. Twenty three is hard because there’s no real right answer, no agreed upon next step. For all of our early lives, we’re put on a very set path. We go to school, play sports, maybe play an instrument or do some other hobby. At least for me, every minute of the day in high school was pre-planned and compartmentalized. There was almost no part of my life that was left completely up to choice. After high school, almost everyone went to college. For me, it wasn’t a choice, it was always an assumption that I’d be going. I realize it isn’t like that for everyone, but at least for most the goal is always to get into a good college. Once you hit college, the free time can be overwhelming, but that’s fine, because you’ve got some easily identifiable goals still. First is to do well in school, which means to get good grades, not necessarily to learn anything. So you go along in college, doing well, until you hit senior year. At first, people are calm, applying to job interviews, graduate schools and service or fellowship programs. The path begins branching, and the and the anxiety rises.
Up until that year, there’s a fairly well laid out map, that supposedly tells us how to follow the magic path to wealth and happiness. Of course, a degree from a “good” college is a major step in this process. For me, the map started to become blurry senior year. As I looked at my career prospects with an English/ Sociology degree, I wondered if I had seriously wandered astray from the success path. This was extremely disconcerting because in my mind, I had “done everything right.” I’d gone to a competitive college, I’d done very well in terms of grades and awards. But the next step was upon me, and I didn’t see myself getting to the next square: stable, well-compensated, employment. I chose a different route and headed off to Germany on a Fulbright. While I’m happy with my decision, I still have my doubts, because beyond having no one set path through life after college…
In your early twenties, it’s hard to tell who’s winning and losing. Making the “right” choice is the same as making the choice that lets you win. Unfortunately, in your early twenties, it’s really hard to know who’s winning, because there’s no one keeping score anymore. In the same way that we’re shepherded along through life up until the end of college, we’re also given constant feedback about how we’re progressing along that path. We’re constantly evaluated as kids, by teachers, coaches, conductors, and parents. In fact, it’s pretty hard not to know how we’re doing when we’re growing up. In addition, we also piece together a pretty good idea of how everyone else is doing. It may be none of our business, but every kid in class has a pretty good idea of where he stands compared to the others in terms of intelligence, athleticism, and musical ability. It’s hard not to, when we see the constant feedback. Unfortunately for our self image, and sense of where we are in the world, after college, we aren’t evaluated in the same way anymore, and that makes it hard to know who’s winning, and therefore, who went down the right path. Of course we’re evaluated by employers, and graduate schools still give grades, but it’s different. How do you equate an A in a graduate particle physics course with a Christmas bonus? You can’t unless you want to take the reductionist line that money rules all. And even if we do operate under that assumption, it’s hard to follow to its conclusion. People doing well early on in their career might not continue that success. Someone investing in more education or training now, at an early opportunity cost, might recoup those losses.
I don’t mean to suggest that we always have to feel like we’re beating other people to feel successful, but the lack of meaningful and comparable evaluation is disturbing for people who’ve spent their entire lives competing and being evaluated especially against each other. Which brings me to my next point, that…
Being in your early twenties is hard, because for the first time in your life, you’re going to have to create, instead of absorb. Yes, I know you made a nice “vase” in ceramics 101. But for the first time, creating is going to be your number one task. If you have a job, you’re going to have to start generating value for the company. I work as a teacher, and I literally have the opposite job I had just six months ago as a student. I create the lessons now, instead of sitting there, soaking them up. Even if you’re still in grad school, you’re creating original research, on top of TAing courses. But more importantly than all that, you’re going to have to create yourself in your early twenties.
Luckily, a lot of the work is already done. We aren’t blank slates by the time we hit our twenties. We have interests and ideas. But these are the times that try men’s souls. We’re caught up in this morass of confusion, about what to do next, and about how to tell if what we’re doing next is good or worth it. To me, the only way to get past these questions is to really figure out who you are. This is such a cliche term, that I shudder to use it, yet I can think of no other way to put it. If we want to figure out how to “keep score” of our lives outside of the tightly refereed game of college and high school, we have to figure out what the object of the game is. As I said, that’s hard because not everyone is playing the same game anymore. But the flip side of that, is that we can choose finally. We can play the game that suits our strengths, but maybe more importantly, we can play the game that suits our values. As we get older, success has to increasingly defined in our own terms. You have to figure out what’s important to you, for no other reason than that it’s the only way to figure which of the many directions to head off into.
I realize with a bad economy, and a sense of fear for the future, especially in America, it’s hard to swallow “find yourself hippy talk” I put up here. We have to live in the real world, and most people just don’t have the time or the money for journey’s of self discovery. Society will always find ways to “objectively” evaluate people. One of the most prevalent is by income. We have to make money in order to be taken seriously, to be “winning the game.” And it’s true. Money is important, and everyone needs at least a little. Having a nice house can be important, or a nice car. They just need to be important to you, and honestly important to you, for no other reason than that you’ve decided that’s a value you want in your life.
Just as I age, the people around me do as well. I see my parents and their friends, and the generation before me, going through a similar transition period. For the most part, the kids are out of the house, out of college, and their careers are winding down. Sadly, many of them have had a confrontation with nihilism in the absence of these formerly all consuming pursuits. What happens to a parent who no longer needs to be a parent after 23 years, or an employee who’s no longer employed? Some of them see Nothing as I call it. Seeing Nothing is the worst thing in the world, as Thomas Pynchon puts it in V.
“‘What did you see’ asked Signor Mantissa, leaning forward.
“Nothing,” Godolphin whispered. “It was Nothing I saw… A dream of annihilation.”
Godolphin is driven a bit insane (or perhaps, driven sane) by his confrontation with Nothing, but it haunts him. So many older people see Nothing because they lose the things that constituted who they were as people, kids work etc. That’s why it’s so vitally important that we put in the work in our early twenties, because in your early twenties, you see Nothing too. There’s the terrifying feeling that maybe nothing we’ve done is really worth anything yet. Maybe all the gold stars didn’t really count for much, and maybe all those “A” papers were garbage. We see Nothing when we first look ahead after college, when we don’t know what to do next; when we have that terrifying notion that we might not amount to anything after all. All the definitions we’ve used before are obsolete, and only the new ones that we forge for ourselves will do.
But it’s crucial that we see Nothing when we’re young, and in it’s place build Something. Figure yourself out. You don’t need to go spend a year in the Himalayas to do it. You can do it while you’re working or in school. Read some books. Travel. Give yourself time to think and meet new people. Staring into the abyss, seeing Nothing, is scary, but we all have to do it, and it’s better sooner than later.
And finally, don’t underestimate the power of a trip down memory lane to figure out what’s important. Listen to music you loved when you were younger. Some of it you’ll hate, and wonder how you ever listened to it. But some will stick, and that’s a good indication that it’s an important part of who you are. Keep it safe, and keep it with you, and listen to it often, especially when you’ve just seen Nothing.