I’m excited to share some thoughts from a conversation I had with two of our members who are high school students. One is making the decision about which college to go to and he talked about how he can see a strict path laid out before him. First you get into college, then you have to pick “the right” clubs, then “the right” internship, then “the right” bippity-boppity-boo. He’s really daunted by this deterministic escalator to dronehood and is haunted by a fear that it doesn’t seem to end.
The other person is a young woman I met with who was contemplating how she can best develop herself and was wondering if there was one area I’d recommend that she focus on, what would it be.
The answer came as I thought about my life in my early 20s figuring out which path I would get on — would I go to graduate school for neuropsychology? I didn’t have an “or”…I was solidly on a path until I started reading Zen and the Art of Making a Living and saw that what I really wanted to be was a teacher.
That said, my social groups weren’t supportive of this. When I talked about education — and didn’t yet have the ideas I have about school now — people’s eyes would glaze over. “Those who can’t teach” says it all. When I mentioned neuropsychology and my work therein, I got lots of head pats, “You must be so smart!” “Wow, that’s so interesting!” really playing into the kudos I craved and my insecurity about not being smart or interesting enough. It was while making this big decision to go to grad school or not, that I started to see how much I was influenced by others’ desires for me versus what I really wanted. Noticing that changed everything.
It is incredibly difficult to suss out the difference between when you are truly motivated to do something and when you are motivated by the influence of others, craving their approval. I know I still struggle with this — we all do — and I suppose I always will since belonging is very important in finding satisfaction and survival in this human life. The question becomes what do we give up when we are too approval seeking? There is likely some ratio here that shifts for everyone and is right at any given time or set of circumstances.
When I met with the young woman, I suggested that she could practice rubbing up against other’s expectations of her by doing micro-exercises. On the spot I came up with a silly but doable example: she could wear two different colored socks. Or really anything seemingly small but still something she wants to do that is norm breaking. If taken at a meta level, she’d get the experience of choosing something on her own that isn’t approved of, checking in with her own internal reactions to trying it out, observing other people’s reactions (even seeing that maybe no one notices at all), and if people do notice, getting to answer questions about her outside the box act (such as, does she feel the need to justify it and give reasons for what she’s doing? Is she allowing herself the space to say “yeah, I just like this” and for that to be enough, etc.). Doing these “calisthenics,” she’ll get to grapple with the inner dynamic that comes with wanting approval from others while also wanting to do her own thing. Ideally practicing with these finger exercises can help us become more comfortable when it really counts.
What I wasn’t expecting was that a week later I’d get a photo of her in what looks like a classroom in a bright yellow Pikachu onesie on a random day at school. She’s calling this experiment her “uncomfort challenge” — she plays on hard mode. I messaged her back immediately asking how it went for her and if there were any interesting learnings. I’m quite eager for her response.
When I was talking with the young man about the confusing choices ahead of him, we spoke about the enjoyment he had interning at Muse and he beamed as he talked about thriving in that environment with a strict deadline for work but an unknown outcome. The best choice for a school for him may be one with a project based focus with real-life results, a place like Olin College (we should also do a future piece on the archetypes of people that go to certain schools — in thirty minutes we can get a pretty good sense of which type of places are good for wizards vs scholars). He came into the conversation saying he didn’t know what he wants or how to choose, but when he spoke about his experience at Muse, his face said it all. Sadly we’re not taught well to listen to our internal compass and sift out the signals of others.
A quote from Nietzsche sums this up: “Any human being who does not wish to be part of the masses need only stop making things easy for himself. Let him follow conscience, which calls out to him: ‘Be yourself! All that you are now doing, thinking, desiring, all that is not you…Every young soul hears this call by day and by night and shudders with excitement at the premonition of that degree of happiness which eternities have prepared for those who will give thought to their true liberation. There is no way to help any soul attain this happiness, however, so long as it remains shackled with the chains of opinion and fear.’”
Or more simply stated by a wise yogi, “Let that shit go!”
If you’re interested in learning more about this subject, Rene Girard, an anthropological philosopher, observed that “imitation is the fundamental mechanism of human behavior” and studied the roots and effects of mimesis. We are only lightly scratching the surface here; it gets deep fast.
How do you teach disobedience? What would a class even look like?
Recently I made my own observations that there are a growing number of programs and supports for young people who are taking a different path like Next Gen, the Thiel Fellowship, Kairos, hackathons, boot camps, etc (and it’s not to say that these groups aren’t without their own influential pressures, too). But there isn’t support for parents of teens and young adults who also face the issue of wanting approval from others versus growing comfortable with having their son or daughter take a different path.
Thanksgiving dinner becomes a lot more challenging when everyone will be on the defensive if your young person isn’t doing what everyone else is. The young woman I mentioned above, her parents can’t talk about her at family gatherings because she’s doing too much — it seems weird to her extended family that she’d want to do more than just high school and clubs. So her parents stopped talking about her at family gatherings. I was beside myself when I heard this because I would hope that a young woman working in STEM and more so than just in school would be celebrated. Turns out that that is still too radical for some people.
As someone who loves building communities, I’ve recently started a new one called Mutant Families. Yes, it’s a spin on X-Men. If you are a parent (of teens or young adults) or have parents who are supporting you on your atypical path and you think they would enjoy connecting with other like-minded parents, reach out! If your folks need some support, this is a good group for them too if they are new to this though ultimately supportive of you (albeit probably terrified). If your parents are against what you’re up to, remember, they too face mimetic pressures and it’s a really tough road.