As a kid, I should’ve broken more rules. I knew so little about what mattered that I couldn’t even imagine how little anything I did mattered. Everything from brushing my baby teeth to “fitting in” was a wasted, once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity to act without consequences. I knew baby teeth fall out, but I didn’t connect the dots. I should’ve stowed away on airplanes, hacked into the FBI, and snuck into the white house. Nothing matters when you’re a kid! You’re held to the standard of a circus animal and anything you do remotely adult-like is extra, like how we applaud dogs for sitting. Why was kid Nancy role-playing her fake idea of an adult- like a chump!- when she had no idea what being an adult meant? Kid Nancy took on random burdens without realizing the potential benefits.
I guess if I had actually been a kid hoodlum I might not’ve transitioned fast enough into a law abiding adult, so better safe than sorry. But you can see there’s some sort of inefficiency there. Transitions are hard. Our minds are slow to update. The change from kid to adult is painful. You don’t move so much as get dunked from high school into college, college into yuppy real life, yuppy real life into Real real life where family and team members depend on you. Your actions acquire more and more consequences and you affect a bigger and bigger impact on the world.
At least earlier in life you’re alerted to these boundaries and in some ways prepared for them. In high school we noticed that standards were changing. We became aware we had to get our acts together at least by junior year because that stuff would be sent off to colleges. We started doing extracurriculars and conducting pretend lab work during the summer. In college, you know that the pressure is on for you to get stuff down on paper that looks legit enough for you to get a job. You apply for internships and participate in leadership.
But after college, no one warns you about the next transition. There’s no ceremony to ascend, so the post-college life boundaries sneak up on you. No one tells you there’s another event horizon in your late 20’s / early 30’s when you’re undramatically dunked into yet another category of human and the laws of gravity change again. After high school, I stopped celebrating my birthday and the years blended together. After college, I stopped seeing age as a thing. I have friends ages 18 to 70, and I don’t think about their ages (you find that nerds don’t really age).
It wasn’t until this “30 under 30” stuff started happening that I realized how close I was to the boundary of having an unflattering age. If I’d recognized that 29 would be my last laudable age, I would’ve tried to beef up my resume. I might’ve done more public speaking and maybe written a book. I’d probably have tried to get more twitter followers (Follow @HuaNancy) and set some world records. But I didn’t glimpse this horizon until I was within its radius. I didn’t look up until I saw this “30 under 30” thing and the light hit that if I hadn’t won this year, I never would’ve gotten it.
I was ~22 when I first thought, “Oh crap, I now have to become legitimately accomplished instead of just accomplished ‘for my age.’”
All the stuff I didn’t know as a kid: was I dumb because of my age or was it my role as a person that age? It’s hard to imagine people used to get married at 13. Maybe that’s why human history’s so messed up; for millennia we had teenagers running things. It took me way too long to realize that the line between kid and adult was just not real. I was Hermione: “That’s not fair, Harry!… You can’t put that on people! It’s not our job to do that sort of thing, we’re kids!”
I think I lived my childhood ok. If I had to do it again, I’d say here’s how to be a successful kid:
- Learn languages while your brain’s language centers are plastic enough to instinctively feel out everything natively.
- Play with a variety of kids of different ages and learn to deal with different types of people.
- Get into a moderate amount of trouble (not via boring stuff like drugs/alcohol/vandalism/theft but good original stuff like science experiments) because nothing that bad can happen to you.
- Take initiative bc adults are nice to precocious kids.
- Own a differentiated hobby so you can carnally know the direct relationship between relentless hours of practice and excellence.
- Surprise people with some skill so that you realize no one knows anything and you can decide reality.
- Deviate from what’s popular and set some trends so you can exercise knowing that human ideas are impermanent and aren’t like the laws of nature.
What does being an adult mean? I think it means realizing the extent of the consequences of your potential ideas and actions, and then figuring out how to navigate that to affect change in the world. It’s amazing the amount of impact you can have on the world.
Here’s everything I’ve figured out about how to prepare for your late 20’s. I’ll check back in a few years, but for now feel free to start altering the course of your life and career based on my advice:
- Figure out what’s unique about you.
- Figure out your niche target audience.
- Expand beyond this niche.
- Find the biggest problem you can plausibly successfully attack.
- Talk about it and commit so that if you don’t at least make a dent in your problem it’s really mortifying.
- Network with people who share ambitions similar to yours, possibly via some kind of incubator. Don’t just befriend or live with whoever happens to be around you because the people you spend the most time with matters and can set the trajectory of your life.
- Get mentors and advisors.
- Inspire strangers to give you resources, whether it’s charity, investments, crowdfunding, etc.
- Identify the attributes of people you admire and sketch out a plan for acquiring those for yourself.
At 30 the bar gets higher. It’s like when you turn 18 and suddenly you’re kicked out of the house and into the army. I haven’t figured out that part yet and will keep you guys updated.
I’m 29. I’m turning 30 in the fall. I have 8 more months to get awards for not yet being 30. After that I will no longer be cool for “my age” until I’m 100 and will have to become legitimately cool for the next 70 years. Publications and societies, THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE TO CONSIDER ME FOR 30 UNDER 30 AWARDS. Won’t it be embarrassing for everyone if I turn out to be a bazillionaire and I never won your x under x award? Better to be safe and consider me! You’ll be in good company; here’s some publicity I’ve gotten during the last year of my 20’s:
MIT Alumni Profile,
Forbes 30 under 30,
Alley Watch Women in Tech,
Fox Business News (I still haven’t watched this video- too embarrassing).