The Rule of Age 10

Want to find the key to hap­pi­ness? Think about what ex­cited you most when you were in fifth grade—and do it now.

Reader's Digest - - Contents - By BRUCE gri­er­son from psy­chol­ogy to­day

Ev­ery­one who works at NASA or Google or Spacex got ex­cited about sci­ence be­fore he or she was 10 years old,” TV host Bill “The Sci­ence Guy” Nye said re­cently. “This is well doc­u­mented. If it isn’t 10, it’s 11 or 12. But it ain’t 17, I’ll tell you that much.”

You can plainly see the 10-year-old in­side Nye, who is now 63, just as you can see the 10-year-old in any­one else who works at the junc­tion where their deep hap­pi­ness meets the world’s deep needs.

Wal­ter Murch, the Os­car-win­ning film ed­i­tor who like­wise dis­cov­ered his pas­sion in child­hood, fol­lowed a twistier—and per­haps more typ­i­cal— ca­reer path than the life­long sci­ence geeks. You can’t do kid stuff for a liv­ing, he was told—“kid stuff” in this case mean­ing fool­ing around with a friend’s dad’s tape recorder, sam­pling snip­pets of sound. He was steered to­ward more prac­ti­cal pur­suits, such as engi­neer­ing and oceanog­ra­phy. Forty-odd years later, Murch landed in the movie busi­ness. And one day it dawned on him why this new job, film edit­ing, felt so right: It scratched the same itch that splic­ing au­dio had all those years ago in his pal’s base­ment. “I was do­ing al­most ex­actly what ex­cited me most when I was 10,” he said.

Murch won­dered whether he’d stum­bled on a gen­eral rule: What if what we re­ally loved do­ing be­tween ages 9 and 11 is what most of us ought to be do­ing, some­how, for our ac­tual job as adults? If that’s true, he thought, then our life sat­is­fac­tion de­pends rather heav­ily on re­call­ing pre­cisely what that thing was—on re­mem­ber­ing who we were dur­ing that unique de­vel­op­men­tal stage, where ev­ery­thing that’s in us shows it­self for the first time.

While I was re­search­ing my book U-turn: What If You Woke Up One Morn­ing and Re­al­ized You Were Liv­ing the Wrong Life?, a pat­tern emerged that seemed to con­firm Murch’s in­sight. Among the hun­dreds of sto­ries of midlife ca­reer changes I sifted through, the “Rule of Age 10” came up over and again. Th­ese were lives of aha mo­ments decades de­layed. And of bet­ter-late-than-never course cor­rec­tions, back in the di­rec­tion of those early en­thu­si­asms, fol­low­ing co­or­di­nates es­tab­lished be­fore what we ought to do (ac­cord­ing to par­ents and teach­ers and other well-mean­ing adults) be­gan to smother what we loved and who we were.

The trend was so strik­ing that af­ter I fin­ished writ­ing that book, I started telling ev­ery­one who was floun­der­ing in midlife, “Try to re­mem­ber what you were all about when you were 10. If you kept a di­ary, dig it out. If you’re still in con­tact with friends from that era, call them up. Ask them who you were.” What’s so spe­cial about age 10? A 10-year-old is a tiny su­per­hero, at

the apex of his or her powers in many ways. Phys­i­cal co­or­di­na­tion—as any soc­cer par­ent will tell you—sud­denly gels. “If we could main­tain our body func­tions as they are at age 10,” said Leonid Gavrilov, a re­search sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago, “we could ex­pect to live about 5,000 years on av­er­age.” Growth ac­tu­ally slows for a year or two, but only on the out­side. The real show is hap­pen­ing in the brain.

At age 10, kids grad­u­ate from be­ing bi­ol­o­gists, search­ing for a the­ory of life, to be­ing philoso­phers, grap­pling with the truth that no one es­capes death. The surge in band­width helps 10-year-old kids rec­on­cile what they think with how they feel.

At age 10, a kid may sud­denly be­come the fam­ily’s truth teller. “You guys are bor­ing,” said our el­dest daugh­ter, ca­su­ally evis­cer­at­ing her mom at din­ner af­ter be­ing told not to read her Harry Pot­ter book at the ta­ble. “Dad just talks about sports. And you just talk about prob­lems at work. And Mom, your new glasses are kinda ugly. Just sayin’.” Her voice was chill­ingly with­out af­fect. “And I’m not sure about the hair.”

But then, al­most in the next breath, this girl was as sen­si­tive as a sand­pa­pered fin­ger­tip. Not to our feel­ings, par­tic­u­larly, but to the idea that the world was full of peo­ple who were not her and who felt dif­fer­ently—the be­gin­ning of em­pa­thy.

At around age 10 also comes the birth of taste. (Take a memo, par­ents: Ex­pose your kid to more beauty and less tripe, for what they learn to like right now will reg­is­ter for­ever.) At 10, the lights come on full beam, re­veal­ing the road ahead. Pro­fes­sional ath­letes choose their sport. Life­long root­ing af­fil­i­a­tions so­lid­ify. A world­view—the be­gin­ning of po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion—forms. Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity psy­chol­o­gists found that a com­mit­ment to en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism of­ten traces di­rectly back to the “wild na­ture” that kids

were ex­posed to be­fore the age of 11.

As kids fig­ure out who they are, they start kick­ing around their fu­ture lives—some­times in elab­o­rate de­tail. Graphic de­signer and pod­caster Deb­bie Mill­man dis­cov­ered as an adult a draw­ing she’d made as a young girl. “It pre­dicted my whole life,” she re­called re­cently. There she was, 10-year-old-(ish) Deb­bie, on the streets of Man­hat­tan. “I’m walk­ing with my mother. There are build­ings and buses and taxis and clean­ers. I la­beled ev­ery­thing. In the mid­dle of the street there’s a de­liv­ery truck. The sign on the side of it says ‘Lay’s Potato Chips.’ ” When she found that old draw­ing, Mill­man was, af­ter many ca­reer me­an­der­ings, draw­ing lo­gos for a liv­ing in New York City. One of her clients was Pep­sico. Which owns Frito-lay.

“I still have a jour­nal from fourth grade—so 10 years old,” writer Mary Karr re­vealed. “One of the en­tries says, ‘When I grow up I will write one-half poetry and one-half au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.’ I also say, ‘I am not very suc­cess­ful as a lit­tle girl. When I grow up, I will prob­a­bly be a mess.’ ” Karr, who had an up-and-down life and spent some time in a men­tal in­sti­tu­tion, bloomed into a mem­oirist with three ac­claimed best­sellers.

Gary Vayn­er­chuk, a Belorus­sian­born en­tre­pre­neur and self-de­scribed dig­i­tal-me­dia hus­tler, re­cently dug out his fourth-grade year­book, which was plas­tered with pic­tures of play­ers from his newly adopted foot­ball team, the New York Jets. “This was the first Amer­i­cana for me,” he re­called. “It’s like one of the first mo­ments of car­ing about any­thing in this coun­try.” At 43, Vayn­er­chuk is still ob­sessed with the Jets, but in a dif­fer­ent way. He wants to buy them.

He prob­a­bly will.

The term “in­ner child” got kicked to the curb some­time around the turn of the mil­len­nium, but folks, grab a shovel. It’s time to res­ur­rect that in­ner child. Be­cause the sti­fled voice of the kid in you—specif­i­cally, the 10-yearold kid in you—has never needed to be heard more.

Age 10 is a de­vel­op­men­tal sweet spot. You’re old enough to know what lights you up, yet not so old that adults have ex­tin­guished that fire by dump­ing more prac­ti­cal and “re­al­is­tic” op­tions on it. In other words, age 10 con­tains, in a sense, our source code. In the past, as many as 85 per­cent of North Amer­i­cans said they failed to find much mean­ing in their jobs and would take a pay cut in ex­change for a more ful­fill­ing po­si­tion. The charged fire hose of the In­ter­net makes sure we drink be­fore we’re


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