The Kid in You

Why so much depends on remembering who you were at age 10.

Posted Mar 15, 2019

Teddy Kelley / Unsplash
Source: Teddy Kelley / Unsplash

     “Adults are always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up, ‘cuz they’re lookin’ for ideas.” —Paula Poundstone

Scratching an itch 

“Everyone who works at NASA or Google or Space X got excited about science before he or she was 10 years old,” TV host Bill Nye “The Science Guy” said recently. “This is well documented. If it isn’t 10, it’s 11 or 12. But it ain’t 17, I’ll tell you that much.”

You can plainly see the 10-year-old inside Nye, who is now 63, just as you can see the 10-year-old in anyone who works at the junction where their deep happiness meet the world’s deep needs.

Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning film editor who likewise discovered his passion in childhood, followed a twistier—and perhaps more typical—career path than the lifelong science geeks. You can’t do kid stuff for a living, he was told—“kid stuff” in this case meaning fooling around with a friend’s dad’s cassette tape recorder, sampling snippets of sound. He was steered toward more practical pursuits, like engineering and oceanography. Forty-odd years later, Murch landed roundabout in the movie business. And one day it dawned on him why this new job, film editing, felt so right. It scratched the same itch that splicing audio had all those years ago in his pal’s basement. “I was doing almost exactly what excited me most when I was 10," he said.

Murch wondered if he’d stumbled on a general rule: What if what we really loved doing between age 9 and 11 is what most of us ought to be doing, somehow, for our actual job as adults? If that’s true, he thought, then our life satisfaction depends rather heavily on recalling precisely what that thing was—on remembering who we were during that unique developmental stage, where everything that it’s in us to be shows itself for the first time.

*

While I was researching my book, U-Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life?, a pattern emerged that seemed to confirm Murch’s insight. Among the hundreds of stories of midlife career changes I sifted through, the "Rule of Age 10" came up over and again. These were lives of “aha moments” decades delayed. And of better-late-than-never course corrections, back in the direction of those early enthusiasms, following co-ordinates established before what we ought to do (according to parents and teachers and other well-meaning adults) began to smother what we loved and who we were.

The trend was so striking that after I finished writing that book, I started telling everyone who was floundering in midlife: “Try to remember what you were all about when you were 10. If you kept a diary, dig it out. If you’re still in contact with friends from that era, call them up. Ask them who you were.”

On both my daughters’ 10th birthdays, I gave them a blank journal: “Please, please, record what you’re going through, day by day, in as much detail as you can. That’s going to be your blueprint in about thirty years.”

What’s so special about age 10?

A 10-year-old is a tiny superhero, at the apex of his or her powers in many ways.

“If we could maintain our body functions as they are at age 10,” said Leonid Gavrilov, a research scientist at the University of Chicago, “we could expect to live about 5,000 years on average.” At age 10, physical co-ordination—as any soccer parent will tell you—suddenly gels. Growth actually slows for a year or two, but only on the outside. The real show is happening in the brain.

At age 10, kids graduate from being biologists, searching for a theory of life, to philosophers, grappling with the truth that no one escapes death. (In some ways, a 10-year-old is thinking more soundly than their 13-year-old sibling, who's undergoing the massive neural renovations of puberty.) They're reconciling what they think with how they feel.

At age 10, a kid may suddenly become the family’s truth-teller.

“You guys are boring,” our eldest daughter casually eviscerated her mom at dinner, after being told not to read her Harry Potter book at the table. “Dad just talks about sports. And you just talk about problems at work. And mom, your new glasses are kinda ugly. Just sayin’.” Her voice was chillingly without affect. “And I’m not sure about the hair.”

But then, almost in the next breath, this girl was as sensitive as a sandpapered fingertip. Not to our feelings, particularly, but to the idea that the world was full of people who were not her and who felt differently—the beginning of empathy.

Around age 10 comes the birth of taste. (Take a memo, all parents of 10-year-olds: Expose your kid to more beauty and less tripe, for what they learn to like right now will register forever.)

At 10, the lights come on full beam, revealing the road ahead. Professional athletes choose their sport. Lifelong rooting affiliations solidify. A worldview—the beginning of political affiliation—forms. Cornell psychologists found that a commitment to environmentalism often traces directly back to the “wild nature” that kids were exposed to before the age of 11.

As kids figure out who they are, they start kicking around their future lives—sometimes in elaborate detail.

The graphic designer and podcaster Debbie Millman discovered, as an adult, a drawing she’d made as a young girl. “It predicted my whole life,” she recalled recently. There she was, 10-year-old (ish) Debbie, on the streets of Manhattan. “I’m walking my mother. There are buildings and buses and taxis and cleaners. I labeled everything. In the middle of the street there’s a delivery truck. The sign on the side of it says 'Lays Potato Chips.'” When she found that old drawing, Millman was, after many career meanderings, drawing logos for a living in New York City. One of her clients was PepsiCo. Which owns Frito-Lay.

“I still have a journal from fourth grade—so 10 years old,” the writer Mary Karr revealed not long ago. “One of the entries says, ‘When I grow up I will write one-half poetry and one-half autobiography.’ I also say: ‘I am not very successful as a little girl. When I grow up, I will probably be a mess.’” Karr, who had an up-and-down life and spent some time in a mental institution, bloomed into a memoirist with three acclaimed best-sellers.

“Okay, but look, at age 10, I wanted to be a detective in Hawaii, and I don’t think that’s necessarily what would be good for me now,” my level-headed friend Alan anted in recently. The world would be glutted with firefighters and ballerinas if we all literally pursued the jobs we professed to favor as kids.

But this is not so much about honoring the literal order that went into the kitchen back then. It’s about honoring the impulse: what you thought about, what you did in your spare time, what made you happy. And then finding an appropriate expression of that impulse in your life right now.

Gary Vaynerchuk, the entrepreneur and digital-media Svengali, recently dug out his fourth-grade yearbook, which was plastered with players from his newly adopted football team, the New York Jets. “This was the first Americana for me,” he recalled. “It’s like one of the first moments of caring about anything in this country.” At 43, Vaynerchuk is still obsessed with the Jets, but in a different way. He wants to buy them.

He probably will. 

(Coming up in part two of this post: Yo Yo Ma, Bobby Fischer, and the man who finally cracked Fermat’s Theorem.)

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