I remember one day when my son Ben signed a piece of his art with a big number 5, informing me it was “so you’ll know how old I was.”
I chuckled at the time, imagining myself adding a “40” next to my signature on each of my paintings. But I actually think it’s a good idea.
Maybe if we saw a drawing from a five-year-old Leonardo da Vinci, we’d be surprised to see that it wasn’t very good. But it wouldn’t surprise us that a drawing from when he was nine showed considerable improvement, and perhaps even contain a spark of his genius.
And maybe if we lined up all of his paintings by age, we’d more clearly see the journey he took in his career and clearly observe the process of one thing leading to another, with new discoveries opening up new areas to explore.
And maybe in the work he made as an old man, we’d see ghosts of his five-year-old self, reminding us that we really are all the ages we’ve ever been.
I spend too much time focusing on how I don’t measure up, rather than appreciate how far I’ve come. Can you relate? Too often we measure our current self against some idealized future self, when we have already mastered the task we are about to try. Or we compare ourselves to some other person who has already spent years perfecting this skill we are only now beginning.
The worst-case scenario is that sometimes, the fear of being bad at something keeps us from even trying. Which, of course, only ensures that we will always be bad.
I recently spoke at a big conference for early childhood professionals. I asked them how they respond to their young pupils who struggle with simple math. “Do you yell at them and tell them how stupid they are? Do you say, ‘It’s ONE plus ONE, idiot…how can you not understand this, it’s soooo easy!’”
A week later, to a group of rehabilitation nurses, I asked, “What about the people who are beginning their rehab with you and struggle to perform the initial therapy exercises you prescribe? Do you belittle them, saying, “Are you kidding me? You can’t even take three steps?! What a loser; you should quit right now!”
It’s humorous to consider, and yet tragic to think about how often we say similarly hurtful things to ourselves when we start something new. Why don’t we afford ourselves the same kindness and understanding?
I think the idea of appending our age to everything we make and do would serve as a good reminder that this thing called life is a process. It’s a never-ending slow road of growth, and sometimes that road includes wrong turns and setbacks.
You will not be as good at something today as you will be next year. But the only way to be that good is to start today. It will be hard, and tedious, and frustrating. And that is ok. It’s to be expected, in fact. It’s not a sign that you’re doing it wrong, it’s proof you’re doing it right.
And someday, sooner that it feels like right now, you will look back on this day and be amazed at how far you’ve come.
Jason, age 43