My words to some sixteen-year-olds

I was recently asked to speak with a group of sixteen-year-olds on mental wellbeing.

Here is my inadequate summing up after our question and answer session:

‘You will feel you have to grow up, and you’ll want to grow up. Probably some here have had to grow up already, in ways they don’t wish to.

But in the race to be adult, stop sometimes and give yourselves a break. Where you are is fine.

I don’t actually believe anyone can become an adult until around the age of thirty, which gives you some space. It doesn’t surprise me that neither the Buddha nor Jesus got going in public until then.

It takes time to get there; it can’t be hurried.

To become an adult, you need to put distance between yourselves and your childhood; you’ll need clear blue water between the two, so you can assess truly.

This is impossible for you now – you are immersed in it, you can’t see it, though it has shaped you significantly.

Some years will need to pass before you can understand the transactions around you; and begin to be free.

You’ll need also to experience the world of work, the struggle and delights. I often see people in their mid-twenties who are experiencing difficulties – I call it the quarter-life crisis.

They have everything they thought they wanted when at school – a job, some money, a flat, a partner, holidays in Bali – but they’re not happy.

By the age of thirty, you can understand the internal legacy of your childhood; and you’ll have seen for yourself the world and its ways.

And from this fire of experience, you can forge your own sense of self – rather than the self that others might have given you.

And that is true adulthood. Being adult is not about age – for many never get there. It’s about self-awareness. It’s about understanding your journey.

But for now, there’s no rush to get there. You will be rushing, of course – for the benefits and allure of adult life, like some mythical City of Gold, can appear endless.

When I was sixteen, I wanted only to get there. You know much more than I ever did, really you do – mental health was not on my school agenda; it is on yours.

But still you may want the same – to be adult!

But there is no rush. And, in a way, the more you rush, the slower you travel. Adult life can’t be grasped; only arrived at.

Better for now to live the life before you, noticing what you enjoy, who makes you feel good and who shackles your spirit. You’re allowed to be young.

Push yourself hard, of course; be as successful as you can be in whatever you do. Make the most of your lovely talents. Work on those, be your best!

But, more important still, be kind to yourself because you will be overwhelmed along the way. Strong emotions can smash us as hard as any crashing wave.

Schools can sometimes press the ‘success’ and ‘failure’ buttons. It’s understandable. They inhabit an impoverished educational system, in which they are judged largely on exam data.

But in the real world, there’s no such thing as failure; only exploration; while success, it turns out, is mostly luck – not something often mentioned.

So, in the race to grow up, do remember to stop sometimes and enjoy being your wonderful self here and now.

And trust the unfolding – rather than insisting on it speeding up. Believe me, when you get to my age – a long way off, I know – you’re wishing it would all just slow down a little.

You’re going to be more than fine…’

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