Yesterday a 24-year old friend called me concerned that he hadn’t yet done anything meaningful in his life. While this may seem laughable to some, the striking regularity with which I hear this is disturbing.
To give some idea about this young friend, he is incredibly inspiring and likeable. He is creative, compassionate and has a real interest in making a contribution to the world. Yet he like so many people falls into one of the greatest traps of the human condition – comparing oneself to others.
He is concerned that at twenty-four he has not successfully founded a non-profit, started a movement, achieved Young Australian of the Year or been recognised in a Top 100 Most Influential People or 30 under 30 list. The benchmarks by which young people are judging their own success and self-worth are climbing higher and higher each year, to the point that they seem unattainable to many.
Statistics around the poor mental health of young people in Australia has reached epidemic proportions. Young people today are more likely to need mental health care than they are to be admitted to University. Suicide, depression and anxiety seem to be part of the everyday experience of modern Australia.
This is not to say Australia doesn’t care. Australia has numerous innovative and effective mental health organisations, full of competent and committed people who have dedicated their life to supporting others. More recently there has been a recognition that they can’t work alone, and many of these services are joining up to find new ways of tackling these dire social problems.
Yet despite this high level of care and creativity, the big strides in mental health largely elude us. My sense is that this is not just a matter for mental health providers. I look around at some prominent youth organisations that promote what Susan Cain refers to as the ‘Cult of Personality’. We celebrate young people by their ‘extraordinariness’, rather than by their innate value, resilience or passions. We put individuals who do extraordinary things on high pedestals, while failing to remember that most young people are simply trying to get by.
People throw stones at the media and how they portray young people, yet this is a cop out. In today’s world – we are the media. It is through social media that we promote and celebrate views of what it is to be human. We are the new publishers, and young people, youth organisations and more need to be careful of the stories and images they show about what it means to be human.
Our education system promotes colleges of comparison. The value of external measures, trite indicators and comparisons now govern most aspects of teaching and learning. This is despite Australia being recognised has having some of the world’s best educators. To lay blame on dedicated teachers is not right, kind nor useful. There is little room left in a crowded curriculum to give time to personal growth and self-discovery, despite what every great educational philosopher has taught us from Plato to Steiner, Montessori and Rousseau to Kurt Hahn.
In my early twenties I went through Outward Bound, where young people from all backgrounds came to discover and grow their own potential. I discovered myself through my resilience, my ability to push myself when things were tough, to smile when it rained and get up when I fell. I grew in confidence and figured that if I could achieve that, I could achieve anything. I discovered the value of climbing my own personal mountain, rather than the mountain society tells me I should climb.
Don’t get me wrong; my journey wasn’t easy. I still wandered through much of my twenties lost and confused. It wasn’t until my thirties that I really started to discover what it means to be me. Eventually I discovered that my uniqueness was not my Achilles Heel, but my true worth. And while I have done some cool things in my life, I am still discovering what I want to be and contribute when ‘I grow up’. As Paul McCartney said, life is a long and winding road. We need to allow ourselves and all young people to have their twenties – the decade of discovery.
We need to tell young people that it is okay to take your time. We need to help young people discover their self-worth by looking inward rather than outward. We need to help them see their value not in comparison to others, but in relation to their own lived experience. We need to help young people form healthy views of who they want to be in the world.
We need to tell young people that you don’t need to change the world by the time you are thirty. Take your time, live your life; gain experience, trip, stumble and fall. This is all part of your twenties. Life will deliver you the experiences you need; learn from them and the people around you. Go easy on yourself. Be careful of the stories you are told, and especially the stories you tell about yourself.
As I told my young friend – you’re true value is not dependent on what society says you should be. You are valuable because you are valuable – no other reason exists. You are beautiful and wonderful, and we are glad you are here.