February 9, 2023

SOKOL | You’re Old

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I first decided I was old the day I turned 18. Newly endowed with the ability to buy a lottery ticket and adopt a puppy, I bid farewell to the rosy days of my innocent youth. 

In retrospect, that may have been a little melodramatic.

Still, the thought that I’m getting “old” has resurfaced throughout my time in college, echoed by classmates of varying — though all objectively young — ages. It’s always said in jest, but there’s a tinge of nervous honesty between the lines.

With each passing year, Cornell has made me feel like I’m running out of time in a race I didn’t know I signed up for: The four-year dash of trying to figure out my life before I turn 22.

To some extent, the apprehension around growing older is a societal issue. Youth has been idealized for centuries, associated with beauty, energy, romance and bittersweet coming-of-age scenes where teenage characters stumble upon the meaning of life in detention or maybe a very long tunnel

With the rise of social media and the digital age, it has also become alarmingly easy to discover that a 3-year-old is better at chemistry than I will ever be. Apps like TikTok have reduced the barriers to entry for fame, leading to an increase in pint-sized influencers; child prodigies appear to be a dime a dozen. If Mozart were born today, would he have even made it onto Little Big Shots?

Not only is aging rarely glamorized, it also comes with the socioeconomic realities and responsibilities of being an adult — realities that are increasingly difficult in a fragile, post-pandemic world. The idea that the twenties are a time of self-discovery is being eclipsed by the fact that self-discovery just doesn’t pay the rent.

At a school of high-achievers like Cornell, these societal anxieties around growing older are compounded by the fear of being underaccomplished for our age. Many of us may have grown up skipping ahead by a math class or two, being told at age seven that we’re at an 8th-grade reading level or taking college courses in high school. Instead of appreciating all we have already achieved, it’s easy to feel the need to continue standing out. 

Class year thus becomes another variable in the endless field of potential insecurities sown across campus. There’s a sense of urgency to do as much in as little time as possible. It’s tempting to abide by the unspoken rules of careerism: Join clubs early so you can get an e-board position, fill up the lines on your resume, get an internship as soon as you can. I’ve heard freshmen express concern that they don’t have enough experience compared to their peers — clearly, they missed the memo to start a company in the 10th grade.

On top of academic and professional achievements is also the pressure to enjoy ourselves during our fleeting college years. Life will only get harder from here, and who knows when the word “fun” will inevitably be replaced in our vocabulary by something like “taxes” or “Roth IRA.”

I recently realized that I’d unwittingly internalized the belief that the foundation for my life should be set by the time I finished college. These anxieties came to a head as I looked out into the vacuum of time that will confront me after I graduate. The tangible four-year structure of college is giving way to what I once perceived as a 40-year Faustian contract with a future employer. The pervasive notion that my college years were supposed to be some of the best of my life kept resurfacing too, followed by the recognition that they probably were not.

But I’ve decided to quit the rat race I never wanted to be in. 

I don’t want to graduate from Cornell worried that I chose the wrong classes and clubs or didn’t do enough during my time on campus. And I certainly don’t want to groan about my 24th birthday, like a friend of mine did a few months ago, terrified that each year is defined by a step closer to wrinkles rather than to wisdom.

Cornell can make it feel like you should understand yourself and the world by the time you graduate. Maybe, though, you’ll find that the path to understanding isn’t lined with internships and interviews. And maybe, it’s okay to leave Ithaca feeling like you still don’t understand very much at all.

Billy Joel had the right idea when he said to “Slow down, you’re doing fine.” The truth is, you are doing fine — we all are. I’m no child prodigy, but by my calculations, we’re the youngest we’ll ever be. If we’re lucky, our lives have only just begun. 

Lia Sokol is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. My So-Kolled Life runs every other Monday this semester.