Welcome to How I Got Radicalized, a series from GEN that tells the story of a cultural moment that made you drastically rethink how society works.
Any overachiever with a LinkedIn knows the most important awards for a certain generation is Forbes’ “30 Under 30” reveal. Every year I brace myself for the Oscars-style gratitude speeches from acquaintances and second-degree connections who feel “so humbled” that they made the list. It’s not that I begrudge their success, I swear. It’s simply a tough pill to swallow as a twentysomething with a harsh tendency to compare myself to others. Every year, our culture puts a new rising star or child prodigy up on a pedestal, a reminder of the aspirations I may never achieve.
Take TIME magazine’s first-ever “Kid of the Year” issue, unveiled last December. Gitanjali Rao, a 15-year-old scientist and inventor, graced the cover wearing a white lab coat and a number of medals draped around her neck. Angelina Jolie performed the interview, and Rao nonchalantly discussed with the movie star her early interest in researching carbon nanotube sensor technology and her work with gene-based therapy solutions. Few adults would ever dream of mastering such concepts, let alone at Rao’s age.
My Mother Risked It All on the Beanie Baby Boom
She was a Mormon homemaker who just wanted to take part in the market economy. Then it all came crashing down.
It’s difficult to resist feelings of inadequacy when reading her story. One of my friends, a brilliant startup founder, told me that many of her close friends from college had made the “30 Under 30” list already. She felt like a loser for not being featured yet. After hearing Rao’s story, my most accomplished friends joked about how their parents’ expectations for them would skyrocket after seeing her accolade.
For most of my 23 years of life, I was forging a path much like Rao’s. I started playing violin at age five, learned Mandarin Chinese in middle school, and had landed my first internship in a U.S. Senator’s office by age 16. I maxed-out the word count in every section of the Common App and sent it to 30 colleges. All of my accolades, the competitions I won, and the scholarships I earned, never felt like enough. No matter what I achieved, the challenge before me always seemed to grow greater, and I watched my peers earn even shinier awards. My achievement-driven mentality stayed with me through my four years at a prestigious college and my perfect-on-paper finance job.
I felt like I needed to constantly work in order to keep up with the competition. After my job went remote and I moved home, I was hardly sleeping or spending time with my family. I would wake up multiple times every night in a panic and check my work phone to make sure I hadn’t gotten any late-night email requests, which were quite commonplace. I told myself it was normal to toil over spreadsheets for 80 hours a week and that the relentless criticism I received from my superiors was my own fault. I put my head down and endured this exploitative work culture for over a year until I found myself on the bathroom floor, crying uncontrollably. Just a few days after Gitanjali Rao was nominated “Kid of the Year,” I hit rock bottom. My mental health was in shambles and I quit my job with no backup plan.
While it may seem irrational for someone coming from relative privilege to tolerate such a toxic work environment for so long, the mindset that led to my burnout was all I had ever known. I had been told my whole young life by every adult in my orbit that if I didn’t participate in extracurricular activities, maximize my academic performance, and position myself for elite opportunities, I would not be able to access the upper echelon of success. I did not grow up a member of the “1%,” but I was in near enough proximity to it that it seemed attainable. As inequality grows in the U.S., that 1% of wealth is becoming further removed from the rest of society. Children fear that if they don’t access the top economic stratum, they might never pay off their student loans or recoup their parents’ investment in their private schooling or make up for the club dues and sports equipment fees their families doled out to ensure their success. As a result, they push themselves harder and spread themselves thinner to make sure they are leaving no stone unturned in their pursuit of financial security.
I put my head down and endured this exploitative work culture until I found myself on the bathroom floor, crying uncontrollably.
The pressure has risen significantly in the past two decades. I have heard countless boomer-aged financial executives talk about how they could never get an entry-level job at the companies they run today because they spent their college summers frolicking with friends. The internet has flattened access to top-tier opportunities, so kids today are competing for the same summer programs, internships, and college acceptances as their (often better-educated) peers all over the world. The proportion of people that actually reach the upper echelon, however, has stagnated. This cutthroat reality created a whole generation of stereotypes around “helicopter parents” and “tiger moms” who sought to equip their children to compete at the youngest possible age to maximize their chance at achieving this fundamentally economic, but also cultural, ideal of success.
The problem is that all this pressure has not actually increased prosperity for young people. Our culture led us to believe that chasing economic success will ultimately make children happier and more fulfilled, so families invest heavily in extracurriculars and summer camps at all costs. But as a “helicopter” kid myself, I know the truth. Constantly chasing these fancy certificates, programs, and awards has just made me and my peers feel even more inadequate. The culture of youthful achievement has fostered anxiety, depression, and burnout. After all, if you normalize the idea of consistently working 80 hours a week at age 15, even if it is just through after-school activities, no wonder it all starts to feel like too much at age 23. Those unrealistic and unfair expectations make it difficult for bright children to maintain their success and continue inspiring others as they grow older.
I hope Gitanjali Rao goes on to change the world, and I can’t say her aspiration to cure opioid addiction did not inspire me. But as the Gitanjali Raos and Greta Thunbergs and Malala Yousafzais of the world continue to achieve success throughout adulthood, I hope they get to do it on their own terms. For us washed-up honors kids who have been striving our whole lives and ended up losing ourselves along the way, maybe all the early effort was not worth it. Most people peak in their careers and in their overall satisfaction with life around middle age. So instead of expecting kids to cure cancer, we should just let them be kids.