The concept of a mentor is a very “adult” thing to have. The closest concept you have to a mentor when you are a child is something along the lines of a teacher, but teacher aren’t anything close to mentors because teachers don’t particularly care about your personal development. To them, you are still a student in a sea of other students. There’s no reason for them to pay particularly close attention to you. Eventually, you move up a grade, and that’s the last you will ever hear from them. But, before you have mentors, you have role models, which is something you feel out yourself.
Personally, my role models when I was a child were other children who were slightly older than me, maybe a grade or two. It didn’t really make sense to me to idolize adults who accomplished much in history because it seemed all so far off. It’s cool that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and stuff… but what do we actually know about Neil Armstrong? Since reading biographies were far outside of the things I wanted (or could) do at the time, I figured I would just learn from the people around me. The closest otherworldly figures that still had some sense of semblance to me were students who were slightly older than me, and those were my role models at the time.
The thing about being a child is that it’s quite a inferior level of awareness. Social cues don’t come as easily. Feelings are less specific; everything more-or-less seemed like an angsty blobule snipping away at your last strand of self-confidence. When we gravitated towards other people, we do so for reasons we don’t quite understand. There’s a superficial limerence to it all. For traits beyond our understanding at the time, we devote more of our attention to some people more than others. And, as life dictates, the things we devote our attention to eventually become solidified in our identity.
Role models as a child is quite a one-way relationship. Most of them time, at least for me, it was someone around my age. We were friends, but it was more of a hang-out-a-few-times-a-year friendship as opposed to a hang-out-every-day friendship. In adult standards, hanging out a few times is already considered more than most of my friends, but things were different when you were a child. You grow more slowly as an adult, so time apart felt less significant. But when you’re a child, every day is a day of growth, so even mere months apart seemed like worlds apart.
My role models usually have a certain set of traits that I find admirable, that I might not be able to articulate at the time, and then I would try to become as close I could to them. It’s quite unlike the modern phenomena of simping in the sense that I don’t ever attempt to live for the other person. It’s not about what I could contribute to their life as much as it is what they could contribute to my life. Quite selfish, if you asked me.
But, as we age, our childhood idealization no longer takes hold, and we have more accurate pictures of people. When we are children, the traits we have projected onto others do not seem as otherworldly as they do now. By the time we reach our 20s, we have been through enough friendships and relationships to understand when we are falling into limerence. But, when we are children, we are still unable to recognize the lack of reality that identified our conception of others. We grow up, but the world doesn’t grow up alongside us. The world is more-or-less the same, and everyone in the world is more-or-less the same.
I’ve come to realize that when we are children, there is very little that we value. We low-key steal the values of others because we either aren’t bothered or do not have the capacity to formulate values for ourselves. I was thinking about how I ended up picking my college majors, wondering if it was an aesthetic decision after all this time. I don’t think there was ever a time in college when I had this profound realization that I enjoyed what I studied.
For English, I never really understood the appeal of the books found in the English canon. I don’t think Shakespeare was particularly a good writer, much less the greatest British writer of all time, at least compared to his contemporaries. Guilliver’s Travels is like an 18th century meme more than anything. There was this book I read about traveling the Scottish Highlands in 19th century, and I swear I could not finish more than 10 pages in one sitting. Clarissa is one of those books I would like to read for the clout but I refuse to dedicate at least 100 hours of reading 1,500+ pages of letters between a drama queen and a sociopath.
Economics is cool, I guess. It’s cool only in retrospect. Actually learning econ was painful. I liked stat, but I was also pretty bad at stat. There was also a lot of calculus that I neither liked to do nor did well. Thankfully, I will never need to take another Lagrange multiplier ever again in my life.
There were moments throughout my undergraduate career when I thought to myself, maybe this isn’t so bad. For a long time, In convinced myself that I enjoyed what I was studying, but that’s more Learned Optimism-esque Pascal’s wager more than anything else. I think, after all this time, it was just me thinking it was a cool thing to do. It was the aesthetic of studying what I studied as opposed to what I actually studied.
It’s a lot like studying in a coffee shop. It’s a cool aesthetic — studying in a coffee shop. You are, after all, studying in a coffee shop. I did it a lot my sophomore year. In fact, I spent every Saturday and Sunday at Green Line Cafe from 11 AM to 6 PM, when it closed. Realistically, the aesthetic of studying in a coffee shop composes of turning on your volume too loud to drown out the chatter of voices around you, waiting around for a table near an outlet, realizing the only working outlet in the entire room is taken by some wannabe hipster with a pierced nose and an iced chocolate latte, and exiting after two cups of coffee realizing that you actually got jack shit done the entire day. Yeah, it’s like that.
So why did I study what I studied? Because cool people around me studied what I did.
Specifically, some childhood role models that ingrained this image of what I want to be that I never grew out of, even as I descended into adulthood with the alleged validation to determine my own destiny. One of them became a writer. The other, a hedge fund analyst. The imagine never left me, so I studied what they studied and did what they did, even though they are so far from being directly relevant to my life right now. I haven’t forgotten that the image I had for myself entering college was to become a doctor.
It’s really interesting watching your childhood role models growing up. They don’t change much. They fall perfectly within what you imagined them to be. At the end of the day, you don’t become them, but they aren’t what you want to become anymore. One way or another, you end up discovering what you want for yourself, and you no longer need these idealized images of others to guide you for what you want to be. The unfortunate thing about growing up is that you don’t see yourself too far from them anymore. You more-or-less understand how they became the way they became. If you ever had the misfortune of talking to them again, you would realize that they weren’t that special all along. It was all in your head, a technique constructed so you could acquire the character traits you wanted as a child. Once you no longer need this sheltered existence where everyone existed as their idealized self, it turns out people aren’t that glamorous.
When we were in elementary school, the difference between second grade and third grade was immense. Age seemed like such a big part of our lives back then — it was; a year difference when we were ten was literally a tenth of our lives. If your role models are slightly older then you, they seemed like they were so much older than you. They were always ahead of you. When you were in fifth grade, they were in middle school. When you were a senior in high school, they were already in college. Your experience was vastly differentiated from them, and they always carried this image of what you imagined the next phase in your life to be. And when your life doesn’t turn out the way that you wanted it to, how could you compared against the idealized existence you created for someone else?
Out of all the schooling I have received, I do think college was the biggest differentiator in experience. More or less, when you are raised with similar parents, you have roughly the same childhood and adolescence. Outside of the influence of your parents however, that’s where personality truly becomes individual. That’s were values are created — through experience, particularly experience where you don’t have a particular idea of what you want to latch onto. it is also a space with enough failure and rejection to lead to the realization that there’s not much to the world except cultivating what you value for yourself. You have a lot of first experiences that were previously portrayed in media but now exist in reality because it actually happened to you. Turn out, it’s not as great as it was in the movies. It’s what I would truly quantify as the loss of innocence.
The thing about watching your childhood role models grow up is that it’s a bit like a death. Gone are the days of simplistic idealization when values can be picked from a tree like peaches. I’ve come to realize after graduating college that the world is pretty barren. There aren’t many peach trees around to feed you peaches. You have to cultivate your own land, plow your own fields, which unfortunately means growing boring shit like wheat.