A Modern Vision Quest

I had a conversation with a friend last year about the life stages of a human being. Although every person is obviously different, most people, we observed, will go through these stages at approximately these ages:

  • Childhood (0 – 7 or 8 ) In this stage, a person is new to this whole gig, and is just trying to learn about everything that’s going on. They’re overwhelmed by the amount of information out there, and don’t have the time, experience, or spare processing power to do much analysis of what is happening.

    My friend says that in jungle cultures, children are first allowed to wield a machete at age 7 or 8. In the Catholic church, children are considered mature enough to understand and take communion around 7 or 8. In US culture, although we have no formal rituals, 7 or 8 is about the time most kids are assigned chores of their own, and the earliest most parents would consider letting their kids have a pet.

  • Adolescence (7 or 8 – 30 or 33) In this stage, people continue to learn about the world, but their focus is now more on figuring out how they fit into it. Exploration of skills and talents, pushing your limits to see where they are, and trying out new things are the primary activities. Towards the later years, skills and talents should hopefully be clear, and focus is on how best to use those skills and talents to do something useful in the community.

    I realize that my age range here is controversial, because most places define “adult” now at age 18 or 21. But if you look at people who have changed the world, from Jesus & Buddha to Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr, the turning point in their lives, when they began to affect others and to devote themselves to their lives’ work, came closer to age 30 than age 20.

  • Adult (30 or 33 – ?60 or 65?) This is the period when most of your life’s work will be done, whether it’s ending racial injustice or raising great kids.

    Please note that this is unrelated to success in other areas; it is obviously possible for an adolescent to release a hit album, become a basketball start, or start a multi-million-dollar business in their dorm room. And all of those successes are awesome, and worthwhile. But they’re usually not the sort of thing that a person would count as their “life’s work”; most people who achieve all that will start looking for something more.

    What it means to you

    Here’s the main problem with our culture (and if you live in a place that hasn’t fully imported US culture, watch out for this pitfall): we don’t teach people how to be adults.

    The mechanisms of our culture do a very poor job of helping us figure out what our strengths are and how to use them, what our weaknesses are and how to compensate for them, and what unique value we can offer to the world.

    In the industrial age, this wasn’t such a big deal. The world had pre-defined slots, and you were going to be hammered into one whether you liked it or not. So if you never found your unique set of talents, it didn’t matter much.

    But now we’re in the information age, and you’re going to be self-employed one way or another. You need to offer something unique if you’re going to get ahead, and knowing your individual talents, skills, knowledges, and capability is critical for success.

    I don’t have an easy answer for you. But I have struggled with this for the last 10 years, and I have come across some things that can help. So the next few posts will cover ideas on how to find your niche in the world.

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