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I’m N and I Did XYZ

We’ve seen these posts before: “I’m 13 and I’m learning Rust”, “I’m 15 and I built a website”, “I’m 20 and I’m the king of Macedon”. They’re kind of nice! It’s great seeing someone so young doing such interesting work. I certainly didn’t have the knowledge or ambition to accomplish what some of these developers have done.

And I should really leave this on that positive note, but every time I see one of those posts, I get this…itch, this…discomfort. We should give these developers all the praise they deserve, but I’m not sure we should celebrate the phenomenon that causes them to flaunt their age. Underneath the innocuous display of one’s work is this undertone, this message; behold my precociousness. Behold my youth.

What’s wrong with celebrating precociousness? Let’s start with me. As many programmers, I was always a little advanced academically. I took honors classes and accelerated programs. In honors classes, there’s this universal phenomenon where each level claims to be teaching the next level. Precocious middle schoolers learn high school math. Precocious high schoolers learn college math. Sometimes that very well may be true. I learned a solid amount of linear algebra in high school.

But when I stepped back and thought about the whole system, it seemed kind of weird. Why do we need to keep this weird charade where high school students learn College Math™1? What even is College Math™? Why do we encourage by assigning arbitrary levels and then claiming you’re above that level? What do we encourage?

We encourage level-ism. We encourage this idea that you always need to be at the next level, ahead of the pack.

But this breaks down. Now that I’m in college and almost out, what’s my level? I’m not learning graduate level programming—frankly that’s not a thing. I’m certainly learning interesting, challenging topics. But it’s no longer a level. I’m no longer special or precocious.

This obsession with levels can also be prohibitive. If you’ve been conditioned to always be ahead, starting a new area where you’re at par or gasp behind will seem like a daunting task. Which is a shame. I took a drawing class the other semester and it was delightful being behind. There’s a joy in knowing that you are not required to be at anybody’s level.

The extreme example of this is a gap year. I took not one, but two gap years, putting me at gasp, two years behind my high school classmates. Is that a big deal? Not at all. I still accomplished a lot in those two years. I just happen to be graduating two years later. I’ve also gotten to do stuff that many could not, such as work on my mental health, travel, and do more internships. Through the lense of levelism, my gap years have put me behind, have made me less accomplished. I don’t think that’s a healthy or accurate view.

Levels can also lead to jealousy. Any instance of someone younger doing something better is a sign that you’re not doing enough, that you’re behind. Which is absurd. I should be celebrating people who are doing cool stuff while also appreciating my own cool stuff.

I don’t want to discourage anybody who is 13 and ambitious. Keep on going! But don’t focus too much on your age. There will come a time where you don’t have your precociousness, where there will be people who are younger building more impressive stuff, where you will be adrift with just your skills and your ambition. I hope you do well.

As for the rest of us, we should keep on encouraging the young, but why not the old? I’d love to see a “I’m 73 and I wrote a website”

  1. Aka APs ↩︎