I used to be entranced, like a deer in Time’s headlights, with the idea of “paying dues.”
People in positions of power, older people, and a lot of losers used that phrase a lot. In case you’re wondering, I fell into the category of loser because I believed it. A lot of people denigrate the “kids” in the Occupy Wall Street protests. We’re told twenty-year-olds don’t have fully developed brains and when we’re young we don’t know the ways of the world. Well, fuck that. A bunch of twenty to twenty-five-year-olds were largely responsible for getting Apollo rockets into space. The young may not know the ways of the world, but they have adult responsibilities. Very young people are killing for their nations, going to jail, getting executed and being kept down by the established order. No wonder they’re pissed. (Thankfully, after the young led the charge, many much older people are recognizing they, too, are the 99% and have joined in the cause and lent their experience from the sixties civil rights struggle.)
If you’re young, don’t wait for someone else’s approval to follow your heart’s desire. Take action. If you’re old, please don’t dampen their enthusiasm with caution. (You probably didn’t. A bunch of you went to war.) Being young is risky and it’s the perfect time to risk more, not less. When I was in my twenties, I did a lot of low-level grunt work in newspapers and magazines and books. I once went to a job interview where the publisher told me I wouldn’t get to have an opinion for seven years. He figured it would take that long before I would be worthy to even utter a single opinion. Really. I told him I guessed I’d just go to med school. At least there they let you start saving lives much earlier in the learning process.
I believe in learning. But I believe in learning by doing. For instance, I went to journalism school for four years, but two weeks on the job at a daily newspaper pretty much equalled those four expensive years. University, for me, was not ultimately about getting a marketable skill. It was to enjoy myself for four years while delaying entry into the workforce. And no wonder. Look what awaited me. Grunt jobs where some self-regarding asshole tells you that you don’t get to have an opinion until you’re thirty-three.
Life is short. We don’t have time for delays. We think of Einstein as a much-lauded old man, but he came up with the theory of relativity when he was young and surprisingly sexed up. The brilliant people I know now in their forties were just as bright and ready to contribute in their twenties. Young people change the world while older people often try to keep things the same. (Not all old people, but there’s an easily recognized pattern there.) Instead of being active mentors, many mid-level managers try to dampen youthful energy in the name of systems and organization. Meanwhile, the CEO started the company out of his parents’ garage when he was seventeen and packed full of that same creative enthusiasm for innovation.
Sadly, in my twenties, I wasn’t one of the strong ones. I believed the lies that respected established power and past accomplishment more than new, personal and future accomplishment. I was told to wait and I did. I kept apprenticing while a young Kevin Smith went out and took risks and made movies and a young Neil Gaiman wrote comics.
I’m writing full-time now. I wish I’d started younger. I wish I had a time machine. (I’d also stop myself from buying parachute pants. That was also a terrible mistake.)
The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.
The next best time? Today.