I’m a Workhorse, Not a Racehorse

It is said that youth is wasted on the young, but tell that to Evan Spiegel, co-founder of Snapchat, who at the tender age of 25 is valued at a personal net worth of 2.1 billion dollars this year. And with legions more following in that same direction –according to what our media and society would have us believe (looking at you Forbes) – 30 really is the new 65.

Success being prized in the young is nothing new; after all plenty of child prodigies have come and gone. While we were awed at their accomplishments, this fascination did not necessarily lead us into qualms. They, it was understood, were the special cases, so if by age 11 you hadn’t also managed to get into Harvard it was no big deal.

Then something happened, maybe it was the high-tech bubble, maybe it was something in the water, whatever it was it seemed to make everybody better, and sooner. Suddenly every twenty year old worker at the grocery store was throwing off their uniform and walking out a CEO. The assistant at the cash register was low key on the side growing her online store into a global conglomerate.

Everyone and their grandmothers knew someone, who knew someone, who was making an app (and they themselves were secretly big time investors). Move over happily ever after, the 21st century fairy tale now ends with ‘and all before the age of (insert pre-pubescent time frame here)!’ Welcome to the new normal.

Nobody is knocking success. Success is good, success is great! But when did age become such an indefinite marker of how success should look, should feel? Why do we put so much esteem on what is at the end of the day just a man-made measurement of time? It’s a means, not an end.

How many of us get caught up, falsely, staring at ourselves in the mirror with our age hanging above our heads like a prison sentence. You are twenty five years, six months, and two weeks old, and you still haven’t made your big contribution yet? No C level career prominence on the horizon? What’s wrong with you, why are you a waste of time?

Stop that. Stop that right now. If you think you are doing life all wrong, guess what, you’re wrong. There is more than one way to climb a wall, skin a cat, or be your best self. So what if Mozart wrote his breakthrough composition, Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat major, at age 21; Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips fame worked as a fry cook for eleven years after high school before getting his big break.

For every Pablo Picasso, a bona fide prodigy who was admitted into the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona at age 13, there will always be a Paul Cézanne, a pinnacle of the art world with a success story starting only in his late 50’s (whose work incidentally went on to influence Picasso’s).

Not everyone is meant to climb Everest in their 20’s or 30’s, or even their 80’s (props to Millard Kaufman for writing his first novel at 90!). Stop comparing yourself to the measuring stick of others; you are only shooting yourself in the foot. Success in this life is not a zero-sum game, and someone else’s success is not equal to your failure. Release the hold of this societal infatuation with prodigies, and look beyond it. Hiding all over in plain view are late bloomers, up and comers, and slow and steady performers galore. And they will be successful; they already are.

Whatever your work ethic, work style, whether you burst forth in a firework of inspiration, or chip away for years in experimental conception, there is space enough for you in this world. Don’t panic, don’t rush. If you are just developing your voice now, then develop it. Work on it. And when you are ready bring it forth, because we want to hear it, we need to hear it. But we will not berate you for working on it, for honing your craft. Let your 25th birthday pass, let your 35th birthday come up, and celebrate your 40th freely. These are not the markers of a failed dream, they are just road signs telling you that you are getting better. Don’t give up, don’t give in. Just keep working.

Evan Spiegel may be making plans to spend his billions, but I happen to know of one other 25 year old, who having been given the exact same amount of time here on God’s green earth, is currently looking under the couch for spare change to go to a movie. We are all living our lives to the fullest, some may sprint and some may walk. But at the end of the day, we are all going to reach the same place anyways, so what’s the rush?

Author’s Note: This post was originally inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker magazine on Late Bloomers. Feel free to check it out to learn more about Picasso and Cézanne’s stories, and many more inspiring tales besides. Happy reading! 

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