Chicago — Recently, I was at the basketball court, where I was met by a 15-year-old and two people around my age who wanted to play a game of two-on-two. The 15-year-old was friendly but also a trash talker, always commenting on how someone shot incorrectly, how much better he was than everyone else, how the other two guys and myself were ‘washed up’ because we’re pushing 30. It was the first time I’d been called old in a way that was meant to be a slur and it got me thinking about my age, his age and all the journeys in between and beyond.
For one, I have to admit: 25 is a weird age. Four years ago you just were able to start drinking and likely spent more time with your parents or family than you did by yourself. Yet, five years from now, you’re expected to have a job, a family of your own and financial stability. You're old enough to be called old by someone who’s nearly half your age but almost too young to have any meaningful savings and substantial career experiences.
In some ways you're old, in some ways you're young.
However, I can’t say that being a 15-year-old feels more normal than being 25. On the contrary. At that age, I remember caring a lot about how people perceived me, whether it was the clothes I had on and how I wore them or even the words I used and how I pronounced them. As a student at a diverse Catholic school, these problems were magnified. I faced a dilemma a lot of Black kids do — feeling too Black for the white kids and too white for the Black kids.
Speaking of Catholicism, not only did I not know what I believed but every waking moment of that uncertainty caused great discomfort; my soul was on the line. At least today, I’m comfortable saying I don’t know life's big questions. On top of those dilemmas, add an ever increasing awareness of sex and the pressures to have it, a constant tendency to compare yourself to others … the list goes on.
Reflecting on those conditions had me feeling for the 15-year-old I played basketball with, even as he disrespected my jumpshot and made a big deal of it when I missed. Also, in those moments, something strange happened that made me feel more connected to people older than both of us. I wanted to give the kid advice. I wanted to tell him “I’ve been where you are!” I wanted to say “Don’t make the mistakes I’ve made! It’s not too late.”
These were the same refrains I’ve heard from an endless line of older people in my life and ones that continue to this day.
So, to carry on the tradition, here’s some advice I’d offer my 15-year-old friend and his peers.
It’s okay if you don’t know what to believe. Be curious
Spend your teens asking a lot of questions about everything. If you start now, you’ll make a habit out of it and as an adult people will notice. It’s okay not to know something. Being honest about that is authentic and gives you more credibility among those in your sphere of influence.
Learn hard work and discipline
In some cases, I don’t think true curiosity is just asking questions and then being done with it. Work to get answers or to find solutions. It might mean periods of trial and error, research or more practice. I might mean talking to people you respect and taking notes. Whatever it means to you, try your best and challenge yourself. This process done over time can build discipline, character, skills, an open mind and even self-esteem.
Try new things
If you aren’t too sure what you're interested in, don’t be afraid to try new things. Play new sports, join clubs, find ways to visit new places, meet new people. Observe the way these things impact you.
Develop a self-reflective practice
Make a habit out of doing something that encourages thought and reflection. Those skills will put you above the curve as you get older, helping you understand more about yourself and the person you want to be. I encourage young people to develop a practice like journaling if they can. It’s a perfect way to untangle what you're feeling and thinking and gives you something to look back on as you age. If writing isn’t for you, maybe the practice is something like jogging, playing sports, making music or cooking that gets your mind going. Whatever it is, find it, nurture it and watch how it can transform you.
Learn respect, humility and ‘sonder’
Besides being a group name tattooed over the eyebrow of artist Brent Faiyaz, sonder is the realization that every person you come across has a life as vivid and complex as yours. I encourage young people to live their lives assuming this is true. I understand that it can be hard considering the importance placed on appearance in high school hierarchies. Whatever you look like is basically what you are. But the truth is everyone is on their own journey and are in different stages of development, including you. That means that there’s more to everyone than you can see and I’d argue that there’s more to ourselves that we can see or even understand, at times. Don’t be discouraged by this. Let this fact humble you - that there’s more for you to learn and a lot to enjoy during the process. With that being said, respect the journeys others are on too and understand that both the differences and similarities in your paths are beautiful. That’s because from those paths, everyone has something unique to bring to the table while sharing a lot in common.
Noah Johnson (he/him/his) is a Chicago-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @noahwritestoo.
Edited by NaTyshca Pickett