Old For Your Age

Interesting observation I had today. My oldest kid is 7. She’s amazing; I often hear comments that she’s particularly mature or responsible for her age. She certainly seems that way to me. Important note, she’s the oldest of three.

I know a decent number of other seven-year-old girls. My nieces, my daughter’s friends, kids of acquaintances. Some are very mature, others aren’t; they’re seven, so that’s not a value judgement or anything. You’re definitely allowed to be immature at seven!

But you know what I notice is the common thread? I can tell after about 60 seconds of talking to one of them where they fall in the birth order. Despite identical ages, there’s a world of difference between a 7-year-old who’s the youngest of three versus the oldest of three.

I have this one co-worker who is particularly accomplished and savvy as compared to her age cohort – in fact, she was featured in one of those “25 under 25” lists in a Chicago magazine, so this isn’t just me saying that. In fact, she was the youngest on that list! You know what? Oldest of 6 kids, though.

Maybe there’s a formula you could work out. Maybe someone’s “mental age” is their own age plus some percentage of the ages of their younger siblings. I don’t think being the youngest detracts; I think it’s more that having younger siblings is itself a life experience that gives you more maturity more rapidly.

That made me think of broader applicability of this topic. Having younger siblings as a kid is often a thankless task. You didn’t choose them, for one – depending on the age gap you might not even have been aware they were coming. You don’t get a lot of authority over them but you often end up sharing at least some percentage of the responsibility for them: “Watch your sister!” or “Keep your brother out of the cabinet!” are often heard in our house. (Though, to our credit, we actually do invest our oldest with a fair amount of authority – each new sibling brought with them an explicit “promotion” for our oldest, where we gave her additional perks like later bedtime or more allowance tied specifically to her role as the “Big Sister.”)

As adults, we don’t often seek out new ways to add burdens to ourselves without much benefit. In fact, we usually try to minimize our burdens. But maybe that’s not the best thing to do.

In the same way that a kid’s “mental age” is some combination of the years they’ve been alive and the years they’ve been a big brother or big sister, maybe an adult’s “mental age” is the combination of their years at each major life task. Maybe if the only thing you hold any responsibility towards is your job by age 30, you’re 30 years old in your head. But if you also taught yourself piano for 5 of those years, you’re older than that. If you raised a family, older. Traveled the world, older.

Sure, some of this is me just saying “having experiences makes you experienced,” duh. But it’s more than that. It’s more than just the experience of moments. It’s sustained experiences, that come with duties, compounded over time. That’s what truly adds value to your life.

Consider: You see the typical job ad that says “5 Years’ Experience Required.” If someone has worked a job in that field for five years, then they meet that requirement. But if someone has hustled their butt off and sacrificed nights and weekends to work two full-time jobs in that field simultaneously for the past three years, they’re clearly qualified as well – they actually have more experience than the first person. Even though they’ve only been in the field 3 years (and perhaps even better, since their early skills have had less time to atrophy and become irrelevant)!

How you fill your years is more important than how many years you have. It’s like a person claiming they have more water because they have more buckets, but their buckets are only a quarter full. Someone else with fewer, fuller buckets is probably doing better.

Fill your years. The years themselves will be better for you having lived them as fully as you could, and you’ll be better prepared for those years yet to come.

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