I turned 36 yesterday — a seemingly insignificant number, except that I’ve been reading through a journal I kept when I was 18 and I can’t fathom how I’m now twice that age, or how I arrived to here from there. There are parts of my 18-year-old self that I struggle to relate to, or even understand. There are other aspects that impress me, that make me think I’ve actually retrogressed throughout adulthood.
I recently heard Moby say that aging is the process by which we shed our potential. He didn’t mean for it to sound so morbid. When we’re young, he explained, we have this fantastical, naive faith in our ability to do anything and everything. When we’re 18, adult life is still such an abstraction that we conceptualize it — and plan for it — without any of the limitations that Experience inevitably puts in our path. With little to tell us otherwise, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that we’ll manage to shape the world to our ideals more than we’ll be shaped by its rules. We lose our potential as we age because we become more humble, wise and realistic about our roles on the stage of life. We shed our potential as we shed our ego.
It’s not surprising that most entrepreneurs are in their early 20s. They depend on their egos and lack of experience to reach for a nearly impossible vision against all odds. Just like the absurdity of the TV show Silicon Valley, it’s one part naïveté, one part idealism, and one part ego.
Much better that than what becomes of most of us as we age: a knee-jerk nostalgia for everything from our youth, an assumption that change is almost always in the wrong direction despite all of the obvious evidence to the contrary. Just look at the age breakdown of Brits who voted to leave the EU:
Or look at the average age of “Make America Great Again” Trump supporters. Only 16% of Trump supporters are under 45-years-old. 84% are 45 or older! These are people that have fallen victim to the same dangerous tendency that I feel taking root in me: the assumption that things used to be better.
Every morning I transcribe one entry from an old journal, and at night I’ve been reading the insanely detailed and addictive memoir by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. Why am I so stuck on reading about the past right now — both my own and the past of a total stranger? It’s a desire to remember what it felt like to experience something for the first time. To learn how to ride a bicycle for the first time. To hear ghost stories for the first time. To kiss a girl for the first time while your heart is beating so hard that it feels like a heart attack. To throw a touchdown pass for the first time. To lose yourself dancing in ecstasy at a night club for the first time. To read your favorite novel for the first time. To enter a movie theater for the first time. To touch the supple skin of a girlfriend’s breast for the first time. To smoke pot for the first time, and spend the next three hours giggling uncontrollably. To land in a foreign country sticky with humidity and smell the morning market and burning trash. All for the first time.
Knausgaard describes the difference between how he experienced life as an 8-year-old and how his father experienced life at the same time as a 32-year-old:
While my days were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, the meaning of his days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms. “Family” was one such term, “career” another.
So true! When you reach a certain level of experience in life, you stop experiencing it all together. Instead, you place moments into boxes that somehow make up your identity in a way you struggle to fully understand.
Knausgaard’s memoirs are so detailed that, as a reader, we must ask ourselves why we’re investing so much of our time reading about the minutiae of someone else’s life. There must be a purpose! Surely it adds up to a greater commentary on politics, aesthetics and the nature of society! I dunno. I think I side with Joshua Rothman’s review in the New Yorker:
When I tally up the pleasures and surprises My Struggle has given me, I find that they have little to do with intellectual subjects. My Struggle has pushed me to think more about my own self, and, in particular, my emotions. It’s reacquainted me with the vividness of feelings. It’s a sentimental education.
That’s the appeal of Knausgaard’s writing: to become reacquainted with the vividness of feelings. It’s the promise that we’ll even become reacquainted with the vividness of feelings in our own lives as well.