Letters to my 14 y/o self: Humility Feat. tank-tops & Justin Timberlake
by Allan Wang
Note - Sorry for the long delay! Got slammed with work the past week and a half.
This piece is a follow up to the first on bravery and tenacity. Though it’s great to have the courage and determination to start projects, if that’s all you have, you’ll greatly limit both your learning potential and success. Having good character is essential.
For the most part, teenagers lack two essential traits of good character - humility and judgement. This is an effect of growing up in lives of comfort brought forth by industrialization. This wasn’t the case in preindustrial times, where teens were clearly junior to adults and very aware of their shortcomings. They just weren’t as strong, skillful or experienced - if you couldn’t pull the oxen, forget about it. But now the lines are blurred, thanks to modern inventions like protein shakes and size small shirts / tank tops, so we can pretend we’re just as strong.
And for the past century or so, we've grown up in our protected microscopic spheres where we’re treated as royalty, and thus grow up out of touch with the world. We think we can run the world without having experienced the vast majority of it.
Now some teens are, in fact, “running” their own pockets of the world. The recent lowering of barriers to achievement for young people has been lauded (many times by yours truly) and rightfully so. It’s disrupted the traditional education/career model and allowed young people to both make impactful inventions and insert their voices into the national discourse.
This has been a double edged sword; our capabilities have expanded but our maturity hasn’t quite caught up (sometimes I think it might’ve gone in the other direction). We’ve always ignored adult wisdom for murky dubious reasons or none at all, but now we do it under the guise of “innovative thinking” and “fresh ideas.”
And as the saying goes, age is no guarantee of efficiency but nor is youth a guarantee of innovation. Being new doesn’t make us better, and “innovation" without building upon existing wisdom isn’t “innovation,” it’s reinventing the wheel.
I’m not going to let myself off the hook either; I was probably one of the most arrogant people in my age group not so long ago. Like almost anybody with that attitude, I learned the hard way that hubris is poison and humility should be embraced.
The first step to embracing humility is to recognize what you are actually capable of. You’re not good at a lot of things. Being self-aware provides greater clarity for who you actually are and what you’re capable of, which helps create an action plan for self-improvement. An ignorant, untalented overweight kid with an inflated ego with the same initials as Justin Timberlake might think they’re the next great JT, while a self-cognizant person will realize it’s time to put the Twinkies away and start jogging. The next step is embracing those shortcomings - it’s ok to have flaws. Really, perfection doesn’t exist. Who you are at 15 isn’t who you’ll be the rest of your life; it’s expected that you’ll continue to learn and progress for years. Overcome your ego for the sake of self-improvement and ask for help - you’re at a unique position in life where almost all the people around you are eager to help you for free.
So sit down and listen to feedback. You might not like what you hear and not all of it will be useful, but take a moment to just listen. Disconnect your mental data processor and consider the input at a later time. This way you’ll avoid making judgements about the person criticizing you and show that you respect them.
When it comes time to process that feedback, open your mind to the different perspectives as difficult as they may be to accept. People twice your age regularly pay hundreds, if not thousands for others to judge their work. To them, the cost of having their egos hurt by criticism plus the thousands they’re paying is cheaper than the monumental cost of accumulated mistakes down the road. And because you’re at such a critical developmental stage in life, the potential positive impact of learning new lessons or fixing bad habits is huge, but the potential negative impacts of having an inflated ego and ingraining bad habits in adolescence are just as great in magnitude. So even if you don’t wholeheartedly agree (you don’t have to!) with the feedback at face value, consider it. At best you’ll have saved yourself from making a costly mistake or discovered a valuable life-changing lesson; at worse you’ll have some new ideas to consider.
One of the symptoms of having bad judgement is thinking you have good judgement, and, as teens, our judgement is wretched by default. Remember this the next time someone with twice the experience and skill tells you something and you aren’t convinced.
Though being courageous and jumping into projects should be commended, sometimes it’s better to take a step back and let the adult (or a more talented peer) do their thing. They’re better at it than you are, and simply watching or helping is a fantastic learning experience. You’ll get to go through the task while not having to figure things out yourself, enabling you to save time and avoid bad habits.
Most importantly, you’ll be a better person for all of it.
P.S. Please don’t start projects you have no business doing, like starting a “Blockchain for AI” company when you’ve taken one introductory course into HTML & CSS, even though I admit it’d be an excellent lesson on humility, failure, and utter incompetence if you manage to take it that far. You’ll thank me in the future.
P.S. If Adam Abbas is a real man he’ll wear a medium shirt for the entire summer program.