January 26, 2005
Paul Graham on taking charge early

My thanks to Michael Jennings for emailing me the link to this speech to some high school kids (which he never actually gave) by Paul Graham.

I like, in particular, how the speech ends:

… you don't have to wait to start. In fact, you don't have to wait to be an adult. There's no switch inside you that magically flips when you turn a certain age or graduate from some institution. You start being an adult when you decide to take responsibility for your life. You can do that at any age.

This may sound like bullshit. I'm just a minor, you may think, I have no money, I have to live at home, I have to do what adults tell me all day long. Well, most adults labor under restrictions just as cumbersome, and they manage to get things done. If you think it's restrictive being a kid, imagine having kids.

The only real difference between adults and high school kids is that adults realize they need to get things done, and high school kids don't. That realization hits most people around 23. But I'm letting you in on the secret early. So get to work. Maybe you can be the first generation whose greatest regret from high school isn't how much time you wasted.

If I had to sum up my ambitions as a teacher, I would probably do it by saying that my ambition is either to help my pupils to live their lives, or persuade them to start their lives.

I of course regret that I didn't start my life, in Graham's sense, until I too was 23 or thenabouts.

I do have a one particular quibble with this quote, which is that I feel that the phrase "take responsibility" is not quite right. It suggests that the point of this exercise is that you will be able to justify what you have done to a third party, when that actually isn't the point. I prefer simply: take charge. Make decisions. Look at your actual options, and choose good ones. Look at your problems and tackle them rationally instead of just moaning and regarding them as insoluble. And do all this because, if you do, your own life will work better, not because some third party stroke boss will be impressed, which is what "take responsibility" suggests to me.

Which, by the way, explains why politicians are so fond of this phrase. They want people to take "responsibility" for things, and they will then decide if they are impressed. Conservative politicians, with their deeply ambivalent attitude towards freedom, are particularly fond of this phrase. We trust the people to decide for themselves, they say. But the people still remain "responsible" for the result, to them.

But my guess would be that what Graham means by "take responsibility" is what I mean by "take charge", and no more. And, it occurs to me, the word "charge" could give off just the same vibes to others as "responsibility" does for me.

Anyway, getting past words to meaning, the trouble is that management, even self-management, can be hard. And if someone else is managing your life agreeably, why bother to change what is basically a comfortable arrangement? The answer is of course that sooner or later you will have to manage your own life, and why not start learning how to do that good and early, by starting to do it, for the same reason that it helps to learn how to read and arithmetise early?

One of the recurring themes of Successful Person biographies is that the early circumstances of their lives - often involving disastrously incompetent (or simply dead) parents - oblige the future Successful Person to take charge of his own life, at a very young age. And often other lives too, such as younger siblings, or overwhelmed or sick mothers, etc. (Charles Dickens and Aristotle Onassis spring to mind.) Start doing this when you are only ten, and you get a decade's start at Real Life compared to the herd.

Much of current education and (particularly older) child rearing practice seems calculated to postpone this process ever further into the future. And then the adults hit the 23 (or more) year old with the whole shebang, all at once. Not clever.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:37 PM
Category: Learning by doing