Yesterday, I found a cure for cancer. Well, not just any cure; this baby blasts away all traces of malignant tumors while simultaneously resuscitating hair growth, reducing exhaustion and speeding up metabolism. It’s even been theorized that just one taste of my new elixir (it comes in both syrup and pill forms) will have Ariel Sharon back on his feet and running before you can say “Gaza Strip.” And, I might point out, all this achieved months before my 19th birthday.
Fine, you got me. I didn’t really discover any cures for cancer, hair loss or the shaky state of politics in the Middle East.
Just what defines true success for today’s youth? Come on, admit it: we all want to know, or we wouldn’t have come to Yale. And since we all had to pass through those pearly gates of the admissions office on our way, we’re already grasping at part of the answer, even if it might not reflect most of our cases. In an age when educational and professional meritocracy is on a continuous rise, exceptionality is all the rage. Eventual success through discovery and pursuit of passions isn’t cutting it these days; it’s that initial burst of spectacular achievement at a young age that seems to separate those worthy of fame and fortune from everyone else.
The idolization of young exceptionals is nothing new. Just look at Western society’s obsession with stars who achieved wonders at unthinkably young ages and then fell victim to tragedy well before their time: Mozart, Nash and Joplin, to name a few. But the main difference between these icons of genius and the model achievers of our generation lies in the modern expectation of continuity. Today’s mantra of success is “Start young and keep going,” and it’s being marketed to anyone within earshot.
Take “The Prodigy Puzzle,” Ann Hulbert’s cover story in the Nov. 20 issue of the New York Times Magazine. Featuring eerie photographs of stiff, cookie-cutteresque schoolchildren, the article documents the increasing fervor of parents and academics alike to figure out the minds of high-achieving children and to consciously manufacture genius in their offspring. These are the kinds of children who started scientific research into the nature of Alzheimer’s at age eight, beat an infallible computer at chess at 12, and submitted excerpts from their bestselling novels with their college applications. At least one of them may have been sitting next to me in the dining hall this morning.
But does this focus on early and extraordinary achievement really set a precedent for future success, or does it just split the best minds of our era into two categories, with the members of the one continuously scrambling to surpass their early accomplishments while those in the other anxiously search for their own influential niche?
The insatiable drive to prove oneself not merely excellent but surpassingly exceptional at something may be the trap of our generation. In today’s culture of overachievement and hyperprogramming, those who require more time and knowledge — or simply more experience — before they can produce their best work are likely to be shoved aside in favor of insta-achievers. By valuing the date of an achievement over its quality or depth, we risk stunting a crucial process of development that leads great members of a society to sustain and expand upon their work for the entirety of their lives.
Virginia Woolf, author of some of the best-known books of the 20th century, was, among other things, astonishingly prolific. But by today’s terms of success, she was quite a late starter. Woolf published her first book at the age of 33. “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To The Lighthouse,” her two masterpieces, followed 10 and 12 years later respectively, when Woolf was already in her mid-40s. With the current pressure to turn out masterpieces before the age of 25, such a delay seems increasingly unlikely for a modern author.
So what was Woolf doing in the decades before she got around to publishing novels? It turns out she was mostly learning: reading piles of books, debating with other great minds who formed her social circle, writing book reviews for the “London Times.” Woolf succeeded at the unthinkable, ignoring the glamour of youthful fame to allow for the development of knowledge and maturity as predecessors to creative output.
I am not leveling criticism at those who have achieved remarkable things at a young age, nor am I advocating inaction as the best path to future accomplishment. If anything, I suffer from that freshman syndrome of dramatic, unfocused ambition to do Great Things as soon as possible, an ambition that can seem all the more frustrating when contrasted with the feats many of my classmates have already pulled off. But I hope that Frank McCourt, another notoriously late-blooming author, got it right in the prologue to his memoir “Teacher Man.” In it, he opined, “F. Scott Fitzgerald said that in American lives there are no second acts. He simply did not live long enough.”
Maybe it’s in our collective interest to keep our eyes on that elusive second act. Otherwise, we may exhaust what we have to offer before the first act is even underway.
Alexandra Schwartz is a freshman in Saybrook College.