The Kid in You, Part 2

"Forty is the New 10," says Lena Dunham. She's on to something.

Posted Mar 26, 2019

Annie Spratt / Unsplash
Source: Annie Spratt / Unsplash

The writer John McPhee was handed the script for his whole life as a 10-year-old boy, only he didn’t know it. McPhee, who just turned 88, calculated recently that at least 90 percent of the magazine stories he has done for The New Yorker are based on interests he developed during idyllic childhood summers in Ontario. On Lake Temagami, he learned to fish and swim and paddle a canoe. To McPhee, Camp Keewaydin was paradise. So he found a way to live there forever.

The term “inner child” got kicked to the curb sometime around the turn of the millennium—not long after PBS stopped running those specials by the psychologist John Bradshaw. (Coincidentally, this was around the same time “mindfulness meditation” started catching on big-time. Maybe we decided that “being in the now” beats wallowing in the “then” – the then being our days of short pants and the Atari 2600.) But folks, I don’t know how else to say this: grab a shovel. It’s time to resurrect that inner child. Because the stifled voice of the kid in you — specifically, the 10-year-old kid in you — has never more needed to be heard.

Social science tells us there’s something special about age 10, as I touched on in part one of this post. It’s a developmental sweet spot; at 10 you’re old enough to know what lights you up, yet not so old that well-meaning adults have extinguished that fire by dumping more practical and “realistic” options on it. Age 10 contains, in a sense, our source code. Now that as many as 85 percent of North Americans fail to find much meaning in their jobs, and the charged firehose of the Internet makes sure we drink before we’re thirsty (or maybe more accurately, before we’ve decided what we’re thirsty for) the most reliable signal of what might actually fulfill us is getting lost in the noise. If you really listen, though, you can hear it. 

“Forty is the new 10,” the actress Lena Dunham said, not long ago. Which sounds like an excuse to ditch adult responsibilities and be Bart Simpson forever, but is actually a deft capture of exactly what we’re talking about. It’s just manifestly useful to try to recall who we were at ten. What that felt like.

Here’s what the science says is going on in the brain of 10-year-olds:

They are about to experience the biggest surge of intellectual horsepower in their lifetimes – as measured by gains in “executive function.” But with those gains will come some losses. The “divergent thinking of childhood is starting to give way to practicality and logic. Ten-year-olds are transitioning, in other words, from dreamers to lawyers.

“I was a real artist until I turned 11,” the cartoonist Liana Finck recalled in a recent interview. At 11 she started trying to be a “professional.” That changed everything. The personality trait of “openness,” related to a childlike state of receptive curiosity, dampens in expression as we grow older, studies show. So your life’s work, if you’re an artist, is a project of undoing. Of lifting your foot off the brake you’ve so painstakingly learned to feather.

The poet Philip Schultz worked in obscurity for years before breaking through in 2007 with his collection called Failure. The difference this time? He’d finally found his voice. By going backward. The diction in the new book was plain and direct, “the way I probably wanted to write when I was 11,” he explained to his son Eli’s grade 8 class. “Language straight from the heart, that doesn’t call attention to itself, that wants only to be listened to, to be heard in a way that matters.” Failure won the Pulitzer Prize.

After reigning world chess champion Boris Spassky was dethroned by Bobby Fischer in 1972, the Russian was asked to comment on his maverick American foe, who had just shown off some of the most audaciously creative chess ever seen. “He plays like a child,” Spassky said of Fischer. He meant it as a compliment.

Cellist Yo-Y0 Ma says he needs to constantly remind himself to “play with the abandon of the child who is just learning the cello.” It’s that quality of being 10 that so often goes AWOL round about midlife: doing things, getting lost in things, for the pure pleasure of it. A 10-year-old doesn’t yet know the word “monetize.” You can’t unlearn that word.

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But here’s the thing – and why I felt there needed to be a part two of this post. This whole project of recovering the inner kid is complicated. Not just because most of us haven’t seen that kid in a long time. (Unlike John McPhee, we didn’t spend our whole lives on Lake Temagami, even figuratively. We “put the ways of childhood behind us,” meandering so far from those old enthusiasms that we forgot them entirely.) And even if we were to perfectly remember what lit us up at 10, there’s still the matter of how to … scale that feeling to the adult world of today. How to age our childhood gifts, as the podcaster James Altucher recently put it, to give them value in our lives right now.

“I knew when I was about eight years old that I loved writing and books and I wanted to be a writer,” author Robert Greene said, “but I could never figure out what to write. I started off with journalism. Then I tried to write novels and plays. Then I got into Hollywood and I wrote screenplays. I could basically say I was a failure in all of those different arenas — because they weren’t connecting to who I really was. Finally, in 1996, I met a man who produces books, and he said, ‘Robert, why don’t you write a book? A nonfiction book.’ Lightbulb. I thought, goddamn it, yes. This takes all of my interests and all of my experiences and funnels them into something that fits me. So the lesson is, I kept trying my hand at things that excited me but weren’t quite right, until I found the right thing.”

That’s the trouble with the “right thing”: it’s only obvious in retrospect. And even if you ripped the page out of your age-10 diary that explicitly stated your deepest desire, it’d be hard to take that to the bank today. “I love to cut” could be the source code of a surgeon or a dressmaker or a killer.

When I was 10 I wanted to be in advertising. My wife might have preferred it if I'd stuck to those marching orders; we might be living in a house with an actual yard. (Thank you for your patience, J.) Then again, I’d be hawking wrinkle cream. So I guess the recipe is, you take that 10-year-old voice, run it through the filter of what you can live with, and make peace with the result.

Oh, and my friend Alan, the gentleman you met in part one of this post? At age 10 he wanted to be “a detective in Hawaii.” Like that was going to happen, he said, chuckling.

He is now a health-policy analyst — a detective of sorts. He lives by the ocean. Owns a stand-up paddleboard. And wears at least one shirt Steve McGarrett would approve of.