Why are we so ob­sessed with suc­cess early in life?

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Am­mar Kalia

When 27-year-old nov­el­ist Sally Rooney be­came the youngest-ever win­ner of the Costa Book Prize last week, it was to deaf­en­ing cheers of crit­i­cal ac­claim that have char­ac­terised her brief ca­reer. Rooney has al­ready been her­alded as “the first great mil­len­nial nov­el­ist”, and a “Salinger for the Snapchat gen­er­a­tion”. And these Snapchat­ting mil­len­ni­als have since been over­whelm­ing book­sell­ers in the rush to read their au­thor, prompt­ing shops to ad­ver­tise that they still have copies of her novel, Nor­mal Peo­ple, in stock. Yet, for all her ob­vi­ous tal­ent, the fan­fare around Rooney’s award made this mil­len­nial’s heart sink slightly.

The slightly fren­zied re­ac­tion to Rooney seems to be symp­to­matic of the way we now re­act to achieve­ments by young peo­ple. Last year, an­other 27-year-old au­thor, Daisy John­son, be­came the youngest per­son to be short­listed for the Man Booker prize for her de­but novel, Every­thing Un­der. Like­wise, some of 17-year-old Au­tumn de For­est’s ex­pres­sion­ist paint­ings have been val­ued at $7m (£5.5m), poet Ocean Vuong was only 28 when he won the TS Eliot prize for his de­but col­lec­tion in 2017, and Christo­pher Paolini pub­lished the first of his best­selling In­her­i­tance se­ries when he was in his teens. It seems we in­creas­ingly cel­e­brate youth­ful­ness as a marker of suc­cess in and of it­self; Teen Vogue’s 21 Un­der 21 list be­gan in 2017. This year’s co­hort in­cludes 11-year-old de­signer Kheris Rogers and seven-year-old “ac­tivist” Ha­vana Chap­man-Ed­wards.

Rooney, John­son and their con­tem­po­raries’ ac­claim might be well-de­served, but our ob­ses­sion with pub­li­cis­ing youth­ful achieve­ment has con­se­quences. Anne He­len Petersen’s ar­ti­cle on mil­len­nial burnoutwent vi­ral last week for its cri­tique of how the pre­car­i­ous eco­nomic en­vi­ron­ment has led to what she de­scribes as “er­rand paral­y­sis” in mil­len­ni­als; the pres­sures to suc­ceed at work and in our per­sonal lives – per­haps with sto­ries of 20-some­thing ge­niuses at the backs of our minds – leave us un­able to un­der­take even the sim­plest of tasks.

The fo­cus on prodi­gies also means that older artists don’t al­ways get their due. For in­stance, one of the best al­bums of 2018 came from 68-year-old blues­man Lon­nie Hol­ley. Traded for a bot­tle of whisky as a child and one of 26 sib­lings, he uses his grav­elly bari­tone to sing of the in­jus­tices of his be­wil­der­ing life and pow­er­ful mu­si­cal res­ur­rec­tion. Sim­i­larly, singer Charles Bradley had to make his liv­ing as a James Brown im­per­son­ator for most of his ca­reer, only re­leas­ing his own mu­sic at the age of 63 with 2011’s No Time for Dream­ing. He re­leased two more records be­fore dy­ing in 2017 at the age of 68. In the art world, the painter Rose Wylie only be­gan be­ing given ma­jor solo ex­hi­bi­tions in her 70s.

The moral of these ex­am­ples is out of kil­ter with the times, and hugely in­spir­ing. It’s not “if you’re lucky enough you’ll be born bril­liant”, but “keep plug­ging away and you’ll even­tu­ally find the suc­cess you de­serve”.

The ef­fects of the fetishi­sa­tion of youth aren’t just felt by on­look­ers. For the prodi­gies them­selves, the blaze of pub­lic­ity isn’t al­ways be­nign. The trau­mas of child stars such as Michael Jack­son have been well doc­u­mented, but last year we were re­minded of Lau­ryn Hill, whose crit­i­cally ac­claimed de­but al­bum, The Mise­d­u­ca­tion of Lau­ryn Hill, was re­leased 20 years ear­lier, when she was 23. It was her only solo al­bum. And af­ter the enor­mous suc­cess of his de­but in 1987 at 25 years old, Ter­ence Trent D’Arby claimed re­cently he has been left with PTSD .

I’m not say­ing we should dis­cour­age youth­ful achieve­ment – but per­haps we ought not to cap­i­talise on it so ag­gres­sively when it oc­curs. The “race to suc­cess” is not al­ways worth win­ning. We should lis­ten to Rose Wylie: “It shouldn’t be about age or gen­der or any­thing, it should just be about the qual­ity” – of the work, the life lived, the qui­eter mo­ments.

• Am­mar Kalia is a Guardian jour­nal­ist and holder of a Scott Trust bur­sary

‘The fan­fare around Sally Rooney’s award made this mil­len­nial’s heart sink slightly.’ Pho­to­graph: Pa­trick Bol­ger for The Guardian

‘Poet Ocean Vuong was only 28 when he wonthe TS Eliot prize for his de­but col­lec­tion in2017.’ Pho­to­graph: Adrian Pope

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