Saturday, 8 February 2014
Advice to the young
To mark the occasion of my 40th birthday I have one piece of advice for younger women – keep getting older.
In my first four decades I was given all sorts of advice for life from all sorts of people. The nature of advice giving is that it tends to pass from the old to the young. Some advice is helpful, but most of the things that old people really want the young to know can only be learned through lived experience. It is also the case that a lot of what people tried to tell me when I was young I already knew or knew to be wrong. If I was ever bold enough to point this out I was condescended to even further. One of the great advantages of getting older is that there are fewer people who are older than you. You don’t have to put up with other people sharing their pearls of wisdom as often, not because you are necessarily wiser, but because there is a bigger pool of targets who are younger than you, and the purveyors of wise pearls prefer youth.
I kept a diary, on and off, through my twenties and early thirties. I had a lot going on. I lived in two cities, three country towns and two countries. I studied, worked and travelled, sometimes simultaneously. I fell in love and had my heart broken several times. I made many good friends, and lost some. Last year I pulled out the box of old diaries and spent an afternoon reading them. The thing that struck me was how ‘wise’ I was for one so ‘young’. The most important things I know now, I already knew back then. This made me feel proud of my younger self, but also a bit angry. I remember really struggling with people who tried to convince me I was wrong, and I remember them pulling the ‘you’ll realise I am right when you get to my age’ trump if ever I tried to talk back. They were being lazy and disrespectful, but they were older and so were able to pretend that I was the one who was foolish.
And now I am that age. I still have basically the same set of beliefs as I did back then, but because of my age fewer people bother trying to convince me that I should think differently. When they do, I know to simply ignore them. Whilst it is tempting to supplement my one piece of advice with ‘ignore all other advice’, the ability to discern who to ignore and who to listen to is one of those things that can only be learned through experience.
The most important things that I have needed to know about how to live my life this far fall into two categories: the things I have always known and the things that I learned by living, not listening. Along the way I have benefited from the insights of science, religion, art, scholarship, family, community, sport and friendship. Maybe engineering even helped. But my ability to synthesise these different teachings and makes sense of them in my own life is something that couldn’t be taught. Today, I am older, and I intend to get older still. I wish you all the same privilege.