The Time Press

Our prodigy obsession: Life is not a Guinness record

There is an age for everything,” says an old proverb. If such were the case, why are there only Forbes 30 under 30, New Yorker 20 under 40, and Time’s 30 under 30 sort of lists for successful people? Do those who succeed later in life not matter? “Youngest Oscar winner”, “Youngest self-made entrepreneur”, “Youngest Nobel laureate”. There is one adjective that stands out: ‘Youngest’! There is no getting around the fact that we are all more or less youth-obsessed. Ironically, I used to wish I’d age quickly so I could experience success, independence and freedom. But as I grew older, I realized I wanted all of that in addition to being younger.

When I started working at 17, I was the youngest employee in my company. My biggest error was believing Kylie Jenner, who was declared the planet’s “youngest self-made billionaire” at the age of 20, was in direct competition with me. When my primary concern should’ve been period cycles, I was experiencing ‘comparison cycles’. Of course, a constant barrage of news about the Timothée Chalamets of the world did not help. At 19, Olivia Rodrigo won three Grammys, but I wasn’t even certified to be a bathroom singer.

The comparison game: Today’s culture has moved towards measuring youth in terms of success rather than looks. I wonder whether that is a good progression or a serious downgrade. Kim Kardashian saying she can consume her poop everyday for youth is disgusting, but not surprising. And I thought watching Kendall trying to cut cucumbers was torturous. I too was drawn to these young and glorious personalities, wanting to be like them. It was the packaging: young success.

Tech giants like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Evan Spiegel all achieved remarkable success at a young age. The concept of a young prodigy predates modern culture. We have always strived to outperform classmates in school to earn the respect of teachers and perhaps even our parents. I worry that’s where we blurred the distinction between constructive competition and compulsive comparison. Although Olivia Rodrigo’s song Jealousy, Jealousy is catchy, it mustn’t be applied to the life we live.

What’s poppin’ in cinetown: Culture and entertainment are our refuges from everyday life. But even there, we are reminded of the youth factor. The headmaster in Sex Education prided herself for being the youngest head teacher in the UK. Young Sheldon had Sheldon Cooper deemed a bona fide genius and promoted four grades up. Samuel ‘Screech’ Powers created the most advanced robot of the era when he was only in high school in Saved by the Bell. I was curious: Was it them or was it me? I could hear Central Cee singing in my head, “I’m obsessed with you in a way I can’t believe.”

I admired Liza in Younger for the story of a woman taking control of her life in her forties although she wasn’t perfect. I was relieved not to see another youthful story about kids and teenagers saving the world. I’m not targeting Stranger Things, but with all due respect, some of the characters seem much too young.

The art of self-actualization: I derived pleasure from the art of reading. I would read anything I laid my eyes on: school textbooks, newspapers, novels, recipe books and even magazines in waiting rooms. I also have a fondness for drawing. Writing caught up with me later. I feel as if I have given up my hobbies to achieve something that doesn’t provide me with the fulfilment I crave. It’s the same feeling Andy had in The Devil Wears Prada when she got sucked into the fashion world. But if she could come out of it, why can’t I?

Instead of pushing yourself in your teens and early adulthood, isn’t it preferable to hone your skills further and try becoming a prodigy at a later stage? After all, it’s a choice between being the youngest achiever or the absolute best. There will always be someone who will occasionally make you face reality. You will always meet your match. It’s like an unwritten law in the history of life.

While speaking with a friend, the discussion suddenly began to revolve around growing old and what that would entail for both of us. I asked her, “Everyone is obsessed with being young, isn’t it?” Her response made so much sense, “Yeah, but it’s because there’s so much pressure as you grow old. I’m sure we’d be just fine left on our own.”

It’s not competition that makes us want to achieve everything while we are young. It’s more about the carefreeness of youth, the conviction that you could scale mountains without being harshly criticized for failure. By celebrating the achievements of some exceptional people, we have inadvertently created a competitive youth success system. Age is not just a number, it is a privilege.

I don’t want to achieve success with a small number in my age column because life is not a Guinness Book of World Records entry. So no more singing, “If I was you I’d wanna be me too.” These young Olympic champions, tech wizards and creative artists aren’t the norm. They are anomalies. Significant creative breakthroughs actually tend to occur in your late 30s, according to research.

The whole youth prodigy obsession is best resisted. As we realize soon enough, there’s always someone younger.

Nuha Bubere is a final year mass media student pursuing a major in journalism.

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