Philosophy  •  June 2, 2002

Instruction Manual for Youths

In our late teens to early twenties, we must deal a lot with our own feelings of angst, insecurity, and frustration, and they are often exacerbated by the expectations of the older generations, because the latter often cannot communicate effectively to the former. Many of them feel that their empirical wisdom is inexplicable, so they do not even try. They would say, “You’ll understand once you are my age.” Such expressions feel dismissive to the youths, even if there are no bad intensions. This problem is compounded by the fact that some adults do have negative intensions, and try to make the youths feel naive. This happens because the youths can threaten the adults with their physical and logical superiority.

Unfortunately, it is true that empirical wisdom is difficult to explain. This puts adults in an awkward position; they act authoritatively, yet they are unable to explain where their authority comes from. The youth cannot see why they should listen to the adults. During the Dotcom boom, we saw the youth rise up against this authority projected by the adults. Although it is difficult, I feel that many adults do not try hard enough to explain their own positions. And, that is what I would like to do below.

In our youths, as the expression goes, we are “full of possibilities”, but we should not confuse this “possibility” with talent. Just because you are young, does not necessarily mean that you are endowed with the talent to become the best chess player in the world. You simply do not know if you are or not. It is possible, but not necessarily probable. That is what is meant by the word “possibility”. Here is an analogy using the IQ test. Before you take the test, you are literally “full of possibilities”; you could score high, average, or low. You simply do not know. In this sense, “full of possibilities” does not mean that you are endowed with the intelligence to score high. However, over-confident youths tend to misunderstand this. They feel that they could succeed in anything. This is where the adults feel they need to step in, but of course, the over-confident youths would never listen. Continuing the analogy above, those who have not taken the IQ test yet, can afford to feel superior to those who have scored low. That is, if you feel confident about scoring high, you feel that you do not need to listen to someone who has already taken the test and scored low on it. Thus the youths find it hard to take any advice from the adults who have failed on their ultimate dreams.

Such confidence at an early age is a blessing and a curse. It is like the momentum built in hammer throw; the more momentum you build, the farther you can throw it. But the problem is that if your aim is wrong, the momentum can work against you. The moment you let go of the hammer is equivalent in life to the moment you finish your education and become a productive member of our society. I have known several people in my life whose momentum was so great that they failed spectacularly.

In some cases, over-confidence comes from the blind faith of their parents. Believing in their children and unconditionally supporting them, is generally considered a positive thing. We often hear touching stories of such parental love, but we should keep in mind that we only hear about the ones who succeeded. There are countless others who failed. There is no need to discourage the youths from pursuing anything, but we should not blindly encourage them either. We can inform them of the risks associated with their pursuits without discouraging them.

This does not mean that we should always play safe in our lives. We will attain no true wisdom by playing safe. Making mistakes is the only way to truly learn anything. By playing safe, we would deprive ourselves of these opportunities. However, if we so decide to take risks, we should know what they are. The problem with over-confident youths is that they do not even know that they are taking risks. Even if they do, they are not aware of the extent of their risks. Only by understanding the nature of the risks you are taking, would you truly benefit from succeeding at or failing it. Take the riskiest road, if you like, but don’t jump the gun. Take into consideration what the adults have to say. In this sense, if the object in life is to take the hammer from point A to point B, simply carrying it across may be a better way to go. That is, there is no need to build any momentum or confidence. Slow as it may be at first, in the end, it is the surest way. On the way, you may change your directions several times, but while you are young, you can still afford to.

Don’t rush to feel confident. Don’t rush to free yourself from insecurity. Genuine confidence is earned, but in a similar way to money, you can inherit artificial confidence. Many youths can ooze confidence, but it is rarely real. It is a product of something superficial like their looks or wealth. If they have rarely experienced any failures, humiliations, or hardships, they would assume that life is that easy. This assumption in turn manifests as confidence. In this sense, as a youth, you should not feel bad about your lack of confidence. Even if everyone else seems so much more confident, no one actually is. At least you are seeing yourself for what you truly are. I believe J. Krishnamurti once said, “A confident man is a dead man.” Confidence should not be a self-awareness. It is only for others to perceive in you. You stop making progress when you yourself start to feel confident.

We now move on to another pitfall of youth: the generational shift in standards. When we are young, we often say, “I don’t care what other people think of me,” but we are never aware of how much we actually do as we are saying this. People who frequently express how happy they are, are rarely happy in reality. By the same token, when someone tells us that he does not care what we think of him, we need to question why he feels the need to assert such a thing; because he does care. He does not want us to know that he does. If he truly did not care what we thought of him, he would not need to tell us that he doesn’t.

Thus, as youths, when we make decisions about what we want to do with our lives, we are unaware of how much the opinions of others influence that decision. Say, for instance, you are 21 years old, fresh out of art school, and you want to be a rock singer. At that age, it is virtually impossible to see how much of your desire to be a rock singer is coming from your wish to be respected by others around you. It is surprisingly substantial. Unfortunately, you do not realize this until you reach around 30, when the standard by which you are measured changes for the first time. In your 20’s, you have no way of knowing how it changes, or that it changes at all. So, you assume that the respect for a rock singer lasts a lifetime. Especially for men, being an artistic risk-taker, a fearless daredevil, and a passionate soul can attract a lot of women. I am sorry to break it to you that, for better or worse, these qualities are not particularly respected or sought after once you reach 30. Women, for instance, will, almost by no choice, start seeking men who are more predictable, stable, and dependable.

Chances are you will say, “So what?” That is, you feel that as long as you are respected by the youths, you don’t care. This is a natural feeling because that is the only people you care about now, and because the standards of the older generations in comparison seem lame and jaded. But, think about this carefully. By the time you are 30, a new generation of youths will emerge, who will have a distinctly different taste, beliefs, and energy from you. These new kids will not respect you nor consider you being part of them, which means that you will be respected by no one. The people of your own generation will see you as acting immature or childish. If you try to fit yourself into every new generation of youth, you will appear pathetic and desperate.

Towards the end of your 20’s, you begin to notice that you no longer get along with everyone who is around 20. You feel that some of them have certain values, perspectives, attitudes, and tastes that you can’t relate to. It is not only you who notice the difference; the younger ones do also. You can feel the effect as you go out at night for drinking. You see many groups of young people who have a different vibe from you, and you feel that they feel the difference as well.

These feelings are surprisingly shocking, because, when you are young, you never think about things like this. When it happens, you are almost dumbfounded. You are no longer the generation in charge of what is fashionable. You realize that it is not cultural figures like rock stars, fashion designers, actors, and TV personalities, who shape the current trends, but it is the young audience who judge and define them to be fashionable. Even though these celebrities may be in their 30’s, in terms of their fame and success, they are at the mercy of 20-somethings.

The positive aspect of this realization is that gradually you begin to distinguish substance from fashion. The things you thought were meaningful can suddenly appear superficial, and vice versa. For instance, if you are an artistic type, you might discover which aspects of art are mere trends and which ones are truly meaningful.

How to manage a team of people, as another example, is something that appears to be trivial when you are young. You think, “What’s so hard about telling other people what to do?” When you are young, you think you can run the country better than anyone else. You begin to see that this is not so true as you get older and wiser. Managing people is among the most difficult and valuable skills in our society. It is not an exact science, and books and classes can teach you only so much. Human psychology is an extremely complex subject that cannot be taught logically or in any practical manner. Like learning how to use a tool, as a manager, you learn to use human resource as a tool. It is at the same time the most difficult and the most powerful tool you will ever learn to use. In this fashion, you begin to find these non-exact sciences fascinating. You realize that this is where the real substance of life lies.

As you cross the generation line, you may initially find it difficult to determine when to distinguish yourself from the youths and when not to. When I was around 32, I had a friend who was about 10 years younger. She overdosed on drugs and I felt partially responsible for her death. Part of me wanted to respect her as a mature adult and to trust her to make wise decisions, but another part of me felt that I have certain social responsibilities towards her, and that in certain situations I should act as her senior. At this ambiguous transitional stage, some youths would resist your authority, but at the same time, you would be seen as irresponsible if you let them fall into an obvious trap (such as drug overdose). It is a tricky position.

Youths resist the authority of adults because many adults do lack authority. They abuse authority in order to cover up their own sense of insecurity. Naturally, youths are not stupid; they can see when their authority is phony. In an argument between an adult and a youth, the former would often say, “You are too young and naive to understand this.” I used to hate hearing this too, especially when this line was used to win the argument. For this reason, even now, I do not believe in respecting someone just because he or she is older, as they automatically do in Japan.

My last advice: Don’t alter, disguise, hide, manipulate, or be ashamed of your own passion. Even if your passion is currently out of fashion, disrespected, made fun of, or ignored, stick with it. Be faithful to it. Don’t let your insecurity, loneliness, and fear compromise it. You like Britney Spears? You are subscribed to Martha Stewart Living? You love computer programming? Don’t ever feel ashamed or be embarrassed, no matter how lame, silly, or uncool it may be to others. You don’t need to make any excuses for liking something. You won’t regret it. It may sound to you like I am coming from the position of someone who succeeded at this, but I didn’t. I do not have many regrets in my life, but there are some, most of which are related to this issue. In retrospect, I can see how I ended up compromising my passion because I was feeling lonely, craving for attentions and respects. I actually feel bad for my passion, as if it were something independent within me, like a neglected child for whom I finally have the courage to stand up.