Our Early Bloomer Obsession
Pop-neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer was the very definition of an early bloomer. Born and raised in Los Angeles, at fifteen the precocious teenager won a thousand-dollar prize for a NASDAQ-sponsored essay contest. Lehrer attended Columbia University, the Ivy League's New York anchor, where he majored in neuroscience and coauthored a paper that delved into the genetic origins of Down Syndrome. But young Lehrer was no mere science whiz. He also bestrode Columbia's political and literary world, first as a writer for the Columbia Review, then for two years as the esteemed journal's editor.
It surprised no one that Lehrer's next move was to win a Rhodes scholarship. At Oxford University's Wolfson College, he walked in the steps of Wolfson's founder, the legendary Sir Isaiah Berlin, and studied philosophy. It could be rightly said that young Lehrer was a polymath, that rarest of people who, like Thomas Jefferson, are expert across many different disciplines. Lehrer, like Jefferson, could also write cogently. In 2007, at twenty-six, he published his first book, the well-reviewed Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Two other books quickly followed: How We Decide in 2009 and Imagine: How Creativity Works in 2012, which made the New York Times bestseller list.
If Lehrer was a polymath in his grasp of varying intellectual topics, he was also a paragon of multimedia. Not only could he write in different formats--books, essays, columns, and blogs--he proved to be a gifted radio host on National Public Radio's Radiolab. On television he was a witty guest on the Colbert Report and other shows.
Money soon followed. Lehrer was said to have earned a million-dollar book advance for Imagine. He began a lucrative side career as a paid speaker. While he was not in the $80,000-per-speech fee range of his New Yorker colleague and writer Malcolm Gladwell, he was earning up to $40,000 for an hour's talk. With money pouring in, Lehrer, only twenty-nine, bought an architecturally famous home, the Shulman House, in California's Hollywood Hills, for $2.2 million.
Lehrer achieved big and early, and he did it with his own radiant intellect.
Lehrer's astonishing rise in the intertwined worlds of publishing and journalism parallels the rise of what, with a nod to Quiet author Susan Cain, we might call the Wunderkind Ideal. Translated, wunderkind literally means "wonder child." Throughout the early 2000s, Lehrer's flashing rise from talented student to bestselling author to media phenomenon embodied a new cultural hero, the early bloomer, whose emergence reached a tipping point just as we were finding our footing in a new millennium. The archetypical wunderkind, like Lehrer, blooms early, becomes rich and famous--and makes sure we all know it. He or she may be precociously talented or technologically gifted, possessed of an otherworldly attractiveness or the beneficiary of great family connections. Regardless, wunderkinds not only reach the pinnacle of their chosen field faster than anyone else, they likely become wealthy in the process.
The media is a powerful lens through which to observe and track the rise of wunderkinds. Use of the term in various media platforms has skyrocketed in the last several decades. According to Google, the appearance of the word wunderkind in books, articles, newspapers, and other media has increased by more than 1,000 percent since 1960. And it's no wonder--these have been great times for precocious bloomers. Singers like Taylor Swift, Adele, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, and Justin Bieber; rappers like The Weeknd and Chance the Rapper; actors like Jennifer Lawrence, Margot Robbie, Adam Driver, and Donald Glover; and models like Kendall and Kylie Jenner and Gigi and Bella Hadid are cross-platform celebrities who wield culture-defining influence. And at the time of their rise, they were all in their twenties or younger.
Our newest mass media platform, the Internet, is dominated by a slew of young "Web celebs." YouTubers and Instagrammers like Lilly Singh (IISuperwomanII), Jake Paul (jakepaul), Mark Fischbach (Markiplier), Zoe Sugg (Zoella), and Lele Pons (lelepons) have turned their millions--or tens of millions--of followers into media miniempires that include major corporate sponsorship, merchandising deals, and paid public appearances. All the cited Web celebs did this while in their teens and early twenties.
In sports, it's to the athlete's advantage to bloom young. Early achievement on the field or in the gym wins a spot on the best teams, garners the best coaching, and makes available the greatest resources. This has always been the case. What's changed is how much earlier these athletes get picked out for being exceptional. At fourteen, Owen Pappoe already had thirty scholarship offers from collegiate football powerhouses like Florida State, Notre Dame, Louisiana State, Ohio State, and Alabama. Other young football stars considering scholarship offers include Kaden Martin, thirteen; Titan Lacaden, eleven; and Bunchie Young, ten. But they all seem on the mature side compared to Havon Finney, Jr., who was offered a football scholarship to the University of Nevada as a nine-year-old. It's not just in football, though, that young, hopeful superstars are plucked from the masses. Nearly 30 percent of all recruits in lacrosse, soccer, and volleyball are offered scholarships while they're still too young to officially commit to a school.
But these days it's not just athletes who seem to get younger every year. P. J. Fleck of the Minnesota Gophers became the youngest head football coach in Big Ten history at thirty-six. Lincoln Riley became head football coach of the Oklahoma Sooners--a perennial top-twenty team--at thirty-three, with an annual paycheck of $3.1 million. And at thirty, Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams became the youngest head coach in modern NFL history.
What about general managers, those cigar-chomping, backroom dealmakers who control rosters and hire (and fire) coaches? As I write, no fewer than ten Major League Baseball general managers are under forty, with David Stearns, of the Milwaukee Brewers, the youngest at thirty-one. Stearns is downright old, though, compared to twenty-six-year-old John Chayka, the general manager of the National Hockey League's Phoenix Coyotes. Chayka is the youngest general manager in major professional sports history.
It's well known that technology is a young person's game, but it's surprising to see just how young. In 2016 PayScale, an online compensation information company based in Seattle, surveyed the median age of workers at thirty-two of the most successful companies in the technology industry. Just six of the companies had a median employee age greater than thirty-five years old. Eight had a median age of thirty or younger. While these results may affirm a widely held hunch, they're nonetheless striking. Just to put it in context, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall median age of American workers is 42.3 years. Some of the companies with the youngest workers in the PayScale survey included Facebook, with a median age of twenty-eight (and median salary package of $240,000), and Google, with a median age of twenty-nine (and median salary package of $195,000).
What about the owners, executives, and CEOs? Currently, Forbes lists ten billionaires in business under thirty, including Evan Spiegel, the CEO of Snap, and Bobby Murphy, Snap cofounder. The two started Snap when they were both twenty-two.
And what about politics, our country's control center? National political operatives under thirty-five include Lorella Praeli, Jenna Lowenstein, Symone Sanders, and Ben Wessel. In the White House, Stephen Miller became the president's senior adviser for policy at thirty-one, and Hope Hicks became White House communications director at twenty-eight. Hicks subsequently resigned.
Media have latched onto this rise of the Wunderkind Ideal. My own magazine, Forbes, has turned its "30 Under 30" issue into an entire industry, with separate lists broken down by country and multiple conferences worldwide. At this point, nearly every major magazine has a yearly issue based on a list of early achievers. There are "40 Under 40" and "30 Under 30" lists in business, fashion, advertising, entertainment, professional cooking, poetry, and even meatpacking.
But forget these "30 Under 30" lists: When it comes to achievement, thirty is becoming the new fifty. In 2014 Time started an annual list of "Most Influential Teens." That's right, teens. This fetish for youth and early blooming has reached such a fever pitch that fashion commentator Simon Doonan pronounced, "Youth is the new global currency."
Let's pause. We're not wrong to recognize and congratulate early bloomers. Their achievements deserve acknowledgement. But our culture's obsession with early achievement has become detrimental to the majority of the population--to the multitudes of us who develop in different ways and at different paces. It pushes the message that if you haven't become famous, reinvented an industry, or banked seven figures while you're still young enough to get carded, you've somehow made a wrong turn in life.
This message, I believe, is far more dangerous than most people realize.
Around the middle of the twentieth century, meritocracy began to trump aristocracy (see Chapter 2). That trend accelerated throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Today it's widely accepted that meritocracy and aristocracy have become one and the same. The lords of the universe are not sitting on trust funds. Rather, they possess wealth of a more modern kind. Like Jonah Lehrer, most of the new lords achieved perfect or near-perfect scores on their SATs at age sixteen or seventeen, setting them up for admission to a top-ranked university.
In response to the new meritocracy, we have become obsessed with test scores and college rankings. Teenagers take college preparatory tests--either the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) or the ACT (originally an abbreviation for American College Testing) or both--at a higher rate now than ever before. More than 1.6 million students took the SAT in 2017. And for the first time, the number of students who took the ACT surpassed the SAT takers by about two thousand. Many students take both tests, take them multiple times during their junior and senior years, and also take the PSAT, the SAT II subject tests, and Advanced Placement tests. In fact, over 6.7 million test takers completed the SAT or a PSAT-related assessment during the 2016–17 school year.
With all the concern over higher education costs and the growing burden of student debt, it's easy to overlook the significant cost of preparing to apply to college. The expenses start adding up well before students ever apply for college, in the form of commercial test preparation classes and tutoring for the SAT and the ACT. The tests are an industry unto themselves, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on test fees, administration, and preparation. The test prep industry generates nearly $1 billion every year and provides income for more than 115,000 people.
Raising the stakes even higher, some of the most select in-person or one-on-one online tutoring packages, aimed at rich parents, can cost many thousands of dollars. The high cost is in part because of the demand for individual tutoring. The rich can and do pay big bucks. Parents in Silicon Valley casually talk of spending $50,000 on tutors over their child's four years of high school. Group classes, offered by companies like Princeton Review and Kaplan Test Prep, are still popular and relatively affordable. Thirty hours of group preparation with Princeton Review, for example, costs $1,000 to $1,600, depending on the size of the class. Individual tutoring, however, is all the rage, and it usually comes at a steep price. One New York–based tutor, Anthony-James Green, recently gained attention with his $1,000-an-hour fee. The prices clearly indicate that students and families are engaged in a college admissions "arms race," in the words of Robert A. Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, an equity-in-testing advocacy group. But for most people, paying to get an edge on standardized test scores is not only worth it--it's necessary. As long as high-stakes tests remain an important aspect of competitive college admissions, there'll be no shortage of people looking for an advantage.
We see the same pressure cooker for early measurable achievement outside academics. Consider sports. According to a recent Washington Post story, 70 percent of kids quit sports by age thirteen. Why? The kids have a ready explanation: "It's not fun anymore." But why exactly would that be so? Sports have become highly specialized and brutally competitive at earlier and earlier ages, for two distinct reasons.
One reason is an acceleration of the traditional one: Some kids just want to be as good as they can in sports. They want to run in the district track meet, start on the high school basketball team, or win a football letter jacket. The talented and ambitious ones keep going, to see if they can compete at the highest college levels, on full scholarships, then perhaps play in the pros or make the Olympic team. Kids in every era have aspired to be on the Wheaties box. But increased affluence has accelerated this trend, providing young athletes with opportunities to go to summer sports camps at age eight, buy the best equipment at ten, and get excellent coaching and perhaps even a personal trainer at fourteen. In short, the table stakes--time and money--for achieving sports excellence are far higher today.
The second reason driving early sports achievement is subtler and more corrosive. As the Post reported, "Our culture no longer supports older kids playing for the fun of it. The pressure to raise 'successful' kids means that we expect them to be the best. If they are not, they're encouraged to cut their losses and focus on areas where they can excel. We see it in middle school orchestra, where a kid who doesn't make first chair wonders if it's worth continuing to play."
Playing for the simple love of the sport or the music? How twentieth century! Sports for many students is simply a way to prove their merit early. Again, the culprit appears to be the race to get into the right college—and on the right track for early success.
This idea of sports as a résumé enhancer is validated by Judi Robinovitz, a certified educational planner at Score at the Top Learning Center and Schools. Robinovitz earns her living by getting kids into the best colleges possible and has published a guide called The 10 Most Important Factors in College Admissions. She advises her clients to focus on "continually improving grades in a challenging curriculum" and on gaining "solid SAT scores." No surprise there. She also emphasizes extracurricular activities, advising her clients how to frame their participation in them to maximum advantage in the college admissions process. Pay attention to the language in her suggestions four and six:
4. Passionate involvement in a few activities, demonstrating leadership, initiative, impact. Depth, not breadth, of experience is most important. Colleges seek "angled" students with a passion, not "well-rounded" students.
6. Special talents or experiences that will contribute to an interesting, well-rounded student body. A student who goes the extra mile to develop a special talent in sports, research, writing, the arts, or anything else will gain an edge.