I’ve missed my chance to be a prodigy. By my 25th birthday in November this year, I’ll enter a new age bracket.
The thing about prodigies is, their achievement has to fill a sentence. I call it The Prodigy Sentence. It must read “Harry had completed a degree in astrophysics by the time he was 19,” or “Charlotte was Managing Director of a PR agency by the time she was 23.”
Indeed, I often think of Mamamia’s Prodigy Sentence! “Mia Freedman was Editor of Cosmopolitan at age 24.” It inspires me and haunts me. It’s such a concise, definitive summary of achievement.
“Kate had dabbled in comedy, had a stint in magazine publishing, accidentally become a finance journalist, dreamed of writing a novel and mostly been quite clumsy about her career… by the time she was 24” doesn’t have quite the same ring.
When I realised Rihanna was younger than me, my world seemed minuscule.
I can’t be sure but I’d hazard a guess that this is a defining Gen Y fear. Gen Y-ers have a reputation for being flighty and selfish in their work ethic. We’re known for being tech-savvy but more arrogant or garish in our work lives than our Gen X and Baby Boomer predecessors. Perhaps our workplace superiors would understand the Gen Y predicament a little better, if they imagined this Prodigy Pressure. We have so many opportunities – so many! More than ever before! The world is our oyster! – that it’s no longer about sensibly choosing one, but sampling and excelling at as many as humanly possible. It’s exhausting.
I’m a fiercely loyal employee, I adore my current job because of the people I work with, and I’m lucky enough to have a genuine mentor looking out for me. I’m busily adding to my artillery of skills, and learning to understand myself more every day. And yet, and yet! There’s a small voice, taunting me – “Why are you taking your sweet time to reach your potential?”
A friend of mine had invented, created and sold a very nifty website to a major media conglomerate for $12 million before he hit 22. He rested five days and moved onto his next wildly successful venture. A dear girlfriend published her first – and wonderfully brave – autobiographical book when she was 18. Other friends have climbed the corporate ladder at lightning speed, stacked up promotions and gleefully finished off their Five Year Plans.
The desire to earn my Prodigy Sentence undermines my self-assurance more often than I’d like to admit. Everyone in the vicinity of my age I’ve discussed this idea with has vigorously agreed that it worries them too. “That feeling of impending failure to be exceptional plagues me all the time!” one girlfriend said to me, wide-eyed. She’s wonderfully talented, and kind, and finding her way in the professional world like the rest of us. But most days, it occurs to her that she’s running out of time to be a prodigy.
It troubles me to think that people my age are desperate to be so successful so soon in an adulthood that stretches before us for decades. It’s a specific strain of anxiety, this profound fear of reaching 24 or 25 without immense success. Do we mean to say that any achievement reached after age 25 is bland, or expected? Are we suggesting that career success is more important than happiness, friendship, love, knowledge and the space to understand ourselves?
How silly! How fickle, to let the absence of extraordinary teenage success get us down.
How woefully self-indulgent, to yearn for prodigy-level status when our own accomplishments are perfectly lovely. How dangerous, to risk missing valuable chances to get to know ourselves because we’re fixated on some arbitrary deadline for youthful success.
I graduated from university in 2010. Even as I wrapped the rabbit fur stole around my academic gown and placed that trencher cap on my hair just so, I was anxious to get out and get achieving. As I crossed the stage to shake hands with a pomp, richly dressed professor, I had this feeling of foreboding, this urge to start my career immediately.
It’s been two years since my graduation ceremony. I don’t know what I want from my career yet. But I do know I value peace, a restless intellect, a relationship with my love-friend and friend-friends, time with my family, steady mental health and kindness above all else.
And I know these years are best spent searching for what I want to do with life.
I’ve recently coined a phrase, used largely in my inner monologue, that grants me some peace and perspective: Adaptable Ambition.
Except for a brief period as a very small person, when I thought vet science exclusively involved cuddling animals, I’ve always know I wanted to be a writer. My dear late Papa taught me to cherish words, to revere the English language and to always be playful with intellect. I want to stay true to that, but otherwise I’m ready to take on whatever comes my way. In my heart of hearts, my truest career goal is creative satisfaction. My ambition is completely flexible, depending mostly on my insistence on being healthy and realistic about what I expect of myself.
I encourage anyone else who has been plagued by Prodigy Pressure to do the same.
Have you ever been plagued by Prodigy Pressure?
Do you remember these child stars?
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