Why I Hate "Under 30" Lists

You know what drives me insane? "Under 30" lists. "Young movers and shakers" awards. "Rub It In Your Face That These People Got Their Acts Together Faster Than You" roll calls. Under 30 lists are everywhere. Forbes has one, Inc. has one, GQ has one. Even hot seller Realtor magazine has one. And how many people are on each list? You guessed it:  30. The lack of originality astounds.


These lists make it seem like doing things younger means doing them better. Like there's no point in trying when you pass the ripe ol' 30 mark. Like we might as well throw our diplomas in the shredder and join Dancing With the Losers if we're not markedly successful one-third of the way into our lifetimes.

Every time I convince a student that they don't have to conquer the world by 25 (or 30, or even - gasp - 35) - hell, every time I convince myself that I don't have to - one of these damn lists comes out and messes with our heads.

Why else would 86% of twentysomethings say they feel the need to be successful before age 30? It's the ridiculous lists. And, I suppose, the youth-obsessed culture that eagerly produces and consumes them. But that's not as much fun to blame.

For my sanity and yours, let's get some things straight:

The People on "Young and Successful" Lists are Freaks

The 20somethings lionized on "wow, look at 'em doing so much so young!" lists are on there precisely because they're non-normative. If they were like average people - or even like typical above-average people - the lists would be bloated and pointless.

These people are the 0.001% of the population who have managed to do something remarkable early in life. Trying to be like them is like trying to look like Gisele Bundchen or Tom Brady (or, most likely, their offspring...can we say genetics?).

We've accepted that we can't all be gorgeous, or pro athletes, or live a life of luxury. Yet we somehow feel that we all should be making our mark by 25 or 30. How unrealistic is that?

"Earlier" Doesn't Mean "Better"

Malcolm Gladwell did a pretty convincing job of striking down the "earlier = better" notion in his article Late Bloomers and book Outliers.

"Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth." - Malcolm Gladwell

He goes on to assert that someone can be a prodigy - an individual who demonstrates remarkable abilities at a young age - and yet do little with those abilities in the long run. Prodigies simply develop earlier than their peers, that's what makes them stand out. Once their peers catch up, many prodigies blend into the background.

So those people on the "I'm Young and Awesome" Lists? They better watch out because we're coming for 'em.

Age of Success Varies by Field

Another reason Under 30 lists are ridiculous is because what's remarkable in one field is ho-hum in another.

Physicists, poets and chess masters tend to create their best work early in life. I think I'm safe in saying that most of us are not those things. That means that the fields we're in have mid-life or later peaks. In fact, the more "ambiguous and unclear" the field's concepts are, Max Fisher writes in The Atlantic Wire, the later important work is produced.

So figure out what's the norm for your field, not what's the remarkable exception for some other field (which is what's usually portrayed on the youth-centric lists). To focus on the latter is to pile meaninglessness on top of meaninglessness.

Time Pressure Paralyzes

Here's the true bottomline to the entire "young is amazing!" issue:  the more time pressure a person perceives, the worse their performance is. In other words, our obsession with succeeding young may be the very thing standing in the way of our success.

Granted, time pressure findings are usually found in laboratory psychology studies in which there's short-term pressure on a concrete task. But I'd argue that these findings are applicable to long-term time pressure, too. As one researcher on the topic, Michael DeDonno, said, "If you feel you don't have enough time to do something, it's going to affect you."

Notably, it's our perception of not having enough time - not the actual amount of time we have - that makes us perform poorly. To combat this, DeDonno told Science Daily, "Keep your emotions in check. Have confidence in the amount of time you do have to do things. Try to focus on the task and not the time. We don't control time, but we can control our perception. It's amazing what you can do with a limited amount of time."

Stop aiming to be a success by 30 and you just might become one. Or, at the very least, you'll be freed from a life spent obsessively tracking birthdays, leaving you mental space to instead focus on your life's work itself. But, hey, what do I know? I already went over the youth hill. Which is a relief. Life’s much better over here on the “I’ll Never Make a 30 Under 30 List” List.

A little bitter, perhaps. But better.

Simonton, D.K. (1988). Age and outstanding achievement: What do we know after a century of research? Psychological Bulletin, 104, 251–267.

Why are we obsessed with a number? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)