I recently finished reading Robb Lowe’s autobiography Stories I Only Tell My Friends. It is a pretty fun read, and as he talked about the movies he made, I started checking out many movies in the 80s which lead to the Brat Pack. The brat pack kids were crazy in the 80s. You kinda wonder what they did everyday except drinking, smoking, drugs and sex. But many of them, after having “been there, done that”, like Robb Lowe and Andrew McCarthy (although many never came back), really got themselves back together and are leading very purposeful lives.
After reading the book, I started discussing with my husbands and other friends about raising kids. This generation of kids, especially those grown up in China, are so busy with their daily school and extra curricular activities, that they have very little time to free play and explore the world at their pace. Needless to say how much homework Chinese elementary, middle and high school students have every day, so they really don’t experience the world. College life could be interesting, but many are starting to think about going abroad or making money. Graduate student life could be monotonous (unless they find excitement in research discoveries), and students seem to have limited interactions with people outside their academic environment. After graduation, many will be busy with work to buy a house and raise a family. It is around the time when they are in their 40s when many people had a stable job, house, and family, when suddenly mid-life crisis hits. They look back and regret not having a wild youth and have worked too hard that their youth is now behind them.
People in mid-life crisis also try these crazy “youthful explorations”, unfortunately the stakes are higher at this age. Recently I have seen / heard some sad stories of my very respected colleagues whose careers suffer significant setbacks due to midlife crisis. It is sad because I know some of these colleagues to be really brilliant and hard working scientists. Society is a lot more tolerant when young people at their teens or twenties try these crazy things or make mistakes, but society expects people in their 40s not be confused about anything (the Chinese saying 四十不惑), so expects the “youthful exploration” days to be over whether or not they have been there or done that before.
So I want to urge young students and postdocs, especially those in China, to treasure your valuable youthful years and fully explore the world. In additional to your study and research life, try something different and have fun, just so that you don’t have to regret not doing it later. Young people should try wild and healthy experiences like traveling, sports and dancing, building a robot or a car, picking up a new hobby, making a movie / book, learning to sell or negotiate, reading many different types of books, starting a new social group, news paper/blog, or a business startup. I learned a lot from Kaifu Li and Tony Hsieh‘s books, which are good examples. Also try out the 101 things to do at MIT. Many of these are wild, crazy, and fun :). These not only make life a lot more interesting, but also give us valuable experiences that could benefit us in later life. In summary, experience the youthful life to the fullest.
I know some young people also try things that might be considered bad. I am not advocating decadent living, instead just want to say, I am not going to make a big fuss about it if my kids or students occasionally did something wild and crazy. E.g. drinking (my family is quite against the US 21 drinking age, and we tell our kids they can drink a bit at home if they feel like it), smoking (trying a bit is not going to kill you, I heard every BBQ we eat is like smoking 12 cigarettes), drugs (every US president in the last 30 years probably tried weed), sex (be respectful and don’t hurt people, live-in as a tryout for marriage is not a bad idea), video games (I have heard advice on giving our kids enough video games to play now, so they can get over it in high school when they are busier at school), gambling (we turn green if we loose a few hundred dollars during school years; people in their 40s could gamble away millions). Just two things to be careful: try in moderation and don’t get addicted (esp drugs); and don’t leave long term damages (e.g. drug overdose, car accident from DUI, pregnancy or AIDS from unprotected sex, etc).
For me, there seem to be 2 things I could do, now that I have passed the youthful exploration age. The first is that, looking at the 80 movie stars turning 50, I found that those staying thin at least maintained some youthful charm, while those growing fat totally lost it. So we need to maintain our weight. The second is that kids are our saviors. As my kids grow older, I have to work hard to keep up with them (in sports, travel, music, etc; my older son has soundly beaten me in 100 meter IM after the last season), and I hope to enjoy some (if not all) fun explorations with them later. Hope my sons won’t mind having a crazy old mom sticking around sometimes :).