Why I Hate “Top” Talent Lists

or “Why youth doesn’t hold the monopoly on talent, creativity + innovation

We live in a world that highly values and rewards youth.

We routinely recognize “extraordinary” achievements of those under 20, 25, 30, 35 and — since it’s the “new 30” — 40 years of age.

But there’s something fundamentally wrong about this mindset. I don’t mind celebrating the potential and talent of young people, but linking age to achievement just doesn’t feel right.

I didn’t understand why until I read writer Robin Black’s op-ed in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times. In it, she astutely articulates my unease:

“…age-based awards perpetuate the notion that there is a sanctioned norm for when one should get started in a career.

And bazinga!

Black hits the nail on the head with such accuracy, it had me cheering her on for expressing something I didn’t even realize had affected — and still affects — my thinking.

When I was 11 years old and started writing stories on my own, I fell into my creativity much like all children do: whole-heartedly and without pretension.

But as I grew into teenagedom, I started taking a keener interest in how the world perceives and accepts writing. Looking back, I’m a bit confounded by how many “top” lists there were — you know the ones: top 20 under 25, top 30 under 30 and many others.

Seeing those lists and how those writers were praised somehow changed how I saw my creativity. I started to believe that unless I wrote the next great American novel by the age of 25, I wouldn’t be a “real” writer with a long, successful career.

When you start thinking in those terms, your approach to creativity completely morphs. Gone is the joy and lack of pretension; in comes an unproductive pressure and self-consciousness that tells you you’re not good enough.

It’s ridiculous and it makes me so upset, but it’s why now, in my early 30s, there are times (more often than I’d like to admit) that I feel like I can never be the writer I want to be.

And this doesn’t just apply to prototypical creative endeavors like writing, designing, painting and other arts.

It’s also why at times I feel like I’m “behind” because I started my business in my early 30s and am not yet a resounding, super impactful, profitable success.

(You and I both know that the business world loves its “top” lists dearly.)

Linking age to achievement and potential is dangerous. And so many of us do it without even realizing it.

This mindset can hurt anything you want to do, be it to start a business or champion a cause. Those terrible “top” lists are so ubiquitous, and the subliminal message is that unless you do something at this particular age, you’re toast.

I call bullshit. Big time.

Age is not indicative of talent, creativity or innovation. It’s not indicative of whether or not you can make an impact or if you are extraordinary.

Whether you’re 10 or 100, that number shouldn’t hold you back.

The only real thing we know about success is that you have to keep doing the work. Come Hell or high water, you have to keep on keeping on.

If you’re passionate about something and you want to start something, do it. Don’t let any seemingly misguided social norm prevent you from embracing your creativity and making something new.

I don’t know what the “cure” for this mindset is. I do know that when I feel frustrated by own lack of extraordinariness at an age that’s long past, the only thing that helps is to focus on my work.

Working on my business.

Working on my writing.

Working on living my life.

As the cliche goes, we’re works-in-progress.

Everything I’ve done until this point has brought me here. I couldn’t have started writing at any other time except when I was 11, and I couldn’t have started my business at any other time except when I was 31.

And you know what?

I’m going to do my hardest to create work that I’m proud of. All those “top” lists be damned.


Did you like this article? It appeared in the April 29th issue of my weekly e-newsletter, Talk + Engage, where I share stories, thoughts + tips on being your own boss, doing work that matters, becoming a better storyteller on- and off-line, creative confidence + so much more.

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