Tuesday, October 28, 2014

where are you going, where have you been?

I'm seventeen, which means that I'm overdue for the Next Big Thing. 

That's the way the voice in the back of my head talks. It's the voice that feeds on every "So what are you doing now?" "Are you planning on writing another book?" "What are the issues you care about?" "When's your next speaking engagement?" -- in short, every question that could possibly be asked by some well-meaning person who's watched my TED Talk and recognizes that I'm not a twelve-year-old girl anymore.

In wishing me happy birthday on my Facebook wall, one of my roommates welcomed me to my "last year of being a child prodigy." I never really thought of myself as a prodigy, mainly because prodigies are people like Mozart. Prodigies don't sway enthusiastically to the song "Stay High" at parties or get B's on history papers (sorry, Mom and Dad). They most definitely don't write angsty blog posts about their past and future while listening to Marina and the Diamonds in order to procrastinate on writing speeches they need to deliver in less than a week.

But for the sake of discussion, let's say that this is my last year of being a prodigy. That means 18 will be my first year of being...what? Will the candle on my eighteenth birthday cake be, like a swaying flame in one of those mysterious ceremonies for sororities or secret societies I never joined, a first initiation into blissful, anonymous, normality?

That question, or some version of it, reliably wraps my mind in knots tighter and cleverer than anything my fingers could tie. It's done that ever since I turned 13 or 14, when I first became conscious of the fact that luck and opportunity had pushed my starting block ahead on the track of the archetypal rat race. At that age I was turning down some opportunities to speak in front of lots of people for various reasons: the impact wouldn't be great enough or the travel time would be too much.

I knew I had friends who would kill for those same chances.

Those are the moments when you think I'd look down at my metaphorical starting block and just be glad for where it was, but all I wondered was this: could I keep pushing it ahead? At what point my friends would catch up and start lapping me? And would anyone forgive me if I turned around and ran in the other direction, to join them? Because I wanted to go to prom. I wanted to have summer romances. I wanted to stay up too late talking to friends on weekday evenings.

But didn't I also want the inspiration of the people I met at conferences? The chance to be an influencer? The opportunities?

Por que no los dos?

The voice in the back of my head believes in a Wonder Woman, of the type that illustrates Barnard College president Debora Spar's book of the same name. A woman (or girl, I haven't decided which I am yet) who can be productive and popular, who can study in the library and finish writing her speeches and stories on time and run infinite miles per week, make oodles of close friends who she calls up for 2 AM heart-to-hearts and snuggle parties watching her favorite tear-jerkers (Philadelphia, A Single Man, and Casablanca, fyi). She is able to sing. She faithfully attends those free Zumba group classes at the gym. She delivers well-prepared speeches at every conference she attends, speeches that earn her standing ovations, and writes books that earn her all the money, power, and glory of the Lana Del Rey song. She is perfect. And she is not me.

The problem with the rat race is that it treats life like one of those clear white lines on a track, and if there's anything that isn't linear, it's life. Screw the rat race. Screw running in one direction. And you know what, screw the fact that I'm using "screw" here because using the more profane alternative in a public blog would compromise my "image" (to quote the sole line I remember from Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," "The horror! The horror!")

The other night, my friend Julian asked me what makes me wake up in the morning and I realized I didn't have a good answer. This morning I woke up around noon (in my defense, I went to bed pretty late) and stayed there until almost 1pm trying to figure out the answer, finally fixing on the thought that I really, really needed a glass of water. "I wake up in the morning because I realize I need water" is so low on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs that the distance between me and self-actualization seems mildly insurmountable at 1pm.

The truth is, I don't know sometimes why I wake up in the morning. I don't know if my verbose anger at the rat race is just my sturm-und-drang-heavy defense of an imperfect life.

Maybe the whole rat race metaphor is the wrong one, at least one that's been keeping me looking at my feet for too long. I like to think instead that we're ships on a vast and endless sea with no land in sight. That's terrifying to some, but it gives me the thought that the sooner we stop searching for the land we'll never reach, the sooner we can turn our gaze away and upwards, to lose ourselves in the twinkling constellations where we will someday find our place.

So you're saying achieving temporal perfection is less important than finding grander meaning?


Nice try. Now get your f***ing speech done, kid.


  1. Anonymous3:02 PM

    As another angsty, moderately ambitious 17-year-old, this post was kind of comforting.

  2. Anonymous11:10 AM

    As W.H.Auden once said - "We are here on earth to help others. What the others are here for, I’ve no idea."

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Adora. I've passed it on to lots of parents of "prodigies," because it's all so great and wonderful and hard and unproven. There isn't a right way, and we're all trying to figure it out, teasing through the complexities that are our children. Your words are real and golden. Many thanks.

  4. Anonymous5:55 PM

    My daughter graduated college cum laude with a double major at 17yo. She could have written a lot of this. I'm sharing it with her so she knows she is not the only one out there who feels this way.

  5. You are equally mentor as student of life, for asking the right questions and answering them from the epicenter of you.

  6. "I like to think instead that we're ships on a vast and endless sea with no land in sight. That's terrifying to some, but it gives me the thought that the sooner we stop searching for the land we'll never reach, the sooner we can turn our gaze away and upwards, to lose ourselves in the twinkling constellations where we will someday find our place." Beautiful. Also me pone feliz que estas usando tu espaƱol. La luz! La luz!

  7. I often find that there are tidbits sprinkled within a person's bio that gives a glimpse into the "grander meaning".

    When I read "advocate for student voice" and "amplify the voice of others", I feel part of what you are looking for has been with you all along.

    As a teacher who lives and breathes youth empowerment, I want to thank you for sharing these words and letting others know that life is process and a journey.

    As a publisher and TEDxYouth Organizer, I hope we get to collaborate on something meaningful someday!

  8. Comforting, familiar and eloquent as always.
    Thanks for your words.