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Sep 3, 2021

“What am I gonna be when I grow up?” asks a song I listened to a lot in my middle school years. “And how am I gonna make my mark on history? What are they gonna write about me when I’m gone? These are the questions that shape the way I think about what matters.”

Maybe you know the song. The chorus is a prayer that God would teach us the “power of a moment.” And it’s a good way to phrase the question I explored this week on the podcast with Nathan Rittenhouse.

Nathan is just a few years older than I am, but he has realized something that it takes many young people, especially in our youth-centric culture, a very long time to grasp: that making a difference in the world is like a marathon, not like a hundred-yard dash.

It’s rarely the meteoric hotshot, the child prodigy, or the flash-in-a-pan sensation who has a long-term positive impact on the lives of others, much less all of society. Young people are often good at generating fifteen minutes of fame. The child actor, the singer with her first hit, or the high school activist touring the country demanding reform easily make the evening news. The cameras love them. There’s a reason the term is “poster child,” not “poster person.”

But give it a year or two, and what happens? Where are the young newsmakers of 2018 now, and what remains of their legacies? What contribution did teenage celebrities from even a few years ago make that didn’t fade with their looks, their record deals, or a bad return at the box office? And how difficult is it to think of young activists who faded into irrelevance as their cause faded from the headlines? If you’re like me, it’s not hard to recall a few names.

Sure, there the Josiahs, the Mozarts, and the Alexander Hamiltons, all of whom amassed impressive resumes before turning thirty. But these figures stand out precisely because they were exceptions to the rule. Maybe it’s a coincidence that all three died before reaching old age. And maybe not.

The point is that meaningful and lasting contributions to the world are usually the fruit of a life spent in study, practice, growth, and accumulating experience. With the exception of athletes, most people’s careers will peak in middle age, not in their twenties. And as a young parent, I’m also comfortable saying that the most worthwhile advice for raising kids comes from those at the end of the road, not the beginning.

But here we run into a paradox that all those who’ve ever dreamed big dreams know: taking the long view of life, and thinking on a scale of decades rather than years, requires living in the here and now, embracing small and humble vocations—in short, learning “the power of a moment.”

Whether it’s Dale Carnegie, Jordan Peterson, or David Allen, all of the worthwhile self-help authors I’ve read in the last year have one thing in common: They instruct their readers to break big goals down into easily attainable steps. They say things like, “Stop worrying about the future and start living in the here and now,” and “Set your own house in perfect order before you criticize the world,” and “You don’t actually do a project. You do action steps related to the project.” Good advice. As Nathan explained, strictly speaking, no one runs a cross-country race. They run individual miles, carefully rationing their stamina and pacing themselves—often willingly letting competitors pass them for a time—in order to reach the finish line.

What this means is that ironically, those who expect to change the world in their twenties are often precisely the people who aren’t focusing on the best way to spend their twenties. Meanwhile, those who answer, “I don’t know,” when asked, “what will you be when I grow up?” and instead work heartily at the responsibilities already entrusted to them are the most likely to succeed in the future. Jesus’ parable of the talents is paradigmatic, here: “The one who is faithful in a very little thing is also faithful in much.” The lesson we can take from this is that a person’s twenties are a uniquely important time in life—just not for the reasons our culture seems to believe.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a headmaster at a Christian school about the nature of education. Whether in presidential debates or parent-child talks, Americans often speak as if the purpose of sending our children to school is to help them get a good job someday. A few days earlier, I had seen an Internet meme suggesting that schools stop teaching algebra and world history and start teaching kids how to balance a checkbook, how to pay their taxes, and how to buy a house. The implication was that any subject without obvious economic payoff is useless. By contrast, my friend and I concluded that while getting a good job may be one result of education, it’s not really the purpose.

Understood rightly, education—including the college, training, and other life experiences gained in our twenties—is not about learning marketable skills. It’s about becoming wise and virtuous people who understand the world and are ready for responsibility. That means young adulthood is a uniquely important chance not so much to do meaningful things but to become a meaningful person. The most important question those finishing high school can ask is not, “What am I going to be?” but “Who am I going to be?”

No one should feel the pressure to change the world in the first decade of their adult lives because that’s not what those years are for. Rather, they’re a unique opportunity to show faithfulness in the little things and to become the kind of person who can answer the most meaningful calls to responsibility later in life. All of the reading, experiences, character formation, and friendships with which a wise young person fills these years can shape him or her into the kind of leader who will make a lasting mark on the world.

But here we come to the final paradox, and a realization that Nathan says caused him to make a career choice some would describe as a waste of potential: “Making a lasting mark on the world” doesn’t always involve headlines, Nobel prizes, or bestselling books. It can look more like what the Apostle Paul called a “quiet life, working with your hands.” It can involve raising godly children, loving your neighbors, and contributing meaningfully to the community and time in which God has placed you. It can look more like George Bailey’s “wonderful life,” than like his brother’s more glamourous one.

In the end, perhaps our very concept of what it means to “change the world” needs to change. That’s a reflection for another time. But we might start with someone who spent His twenties in faithful obscurity only to shoulder His biggest responsibilities later. If memory serves, He had some helpful advice about which treasures we should pursue, and where we should keep them.