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How to encourage risk-taking and idealism without falling prey to cynical attitudes born from experience

by Tom Johnson on Mar 12, 2019
categories: technical-writing

When we see risk-taking and idealism in younger people, it's hard to avoid adopting a more cynical attitude born from our own learned experience. And yet, encouraging youth to avoid risk-taking and follow a safer route also diminishes the chances of their success.

Survey responses indicate engagement with growing older topic

The most popular post I’ve written recently is Confronting the fear of growing older when you’re surrounded by young programmers. One way I assess popularity of a topic isn’t just by the number of clicks from clicks on Twitter or Linkedin, or even from Google Analytics. It’s the responses to the survey at the bottom. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but recently I have become a total survey convert. Surveys, I’ve found, are a much better way to gather feedback from readers, in part because you narrow down exactly the kind of responses you want readers to provide. The growing older post already has about 85 responses.

Looking at the responses, it’s interesting that roughly 67% of people have fears about ageism even though only about 37% have seen or experienced ageism in the workplace. It’s also interesting that the dominant age bracket for people completing the survey is the 45-54 age range. About a quarter of the people experiment with new ideas or techniques as a way to stay young.

Applying Nietzsche’s three stages

I’ve been thinking about this growing older topic quite a bit, actually. I was listening to a lecture series on Nietzsche this morning and happened to stumble into a highly relevant discussion. Zarathrustra, Nietzshe’s prophet character, describes the three stages of life that individuals interact with:

  • Stage one — the camel. In the camel stage, you carry the burdens of tradition. You learn to bear the weight of society, like a camel saddled down with a heavy load.
  • Stage two — the lion. In the lion stage, you rebel against the burdens of tradition. You begin to question and challenge some of the ideas that have been presented as truths. You’re no longer serving tradition but are rather rejecting it.
  • Stage three — the child. In the child stage, you start creating truths of your own. You experiment in playful but serious ways, with a willingness and vitality to take risks, even if it means putting your life and limb at stake. You have a spontaneity to start over and negotiate with the world in your own way. You have a new creative energy that almost drives itself.

Stage three (the child) is the ideal. Nietzsche loves the idea of experimentation, and favored science because of its open-minded emphasis on trying out experiments and ideas. Listening to some of these ideas from Nietzsche, I realized that my post about growing older taps into a larger discussion that has been going on for centuries.

The paradox of youth and education

After listening to Nietzsche (while commuting on my bike), I ventured over to my kid’s evening soccer practice and started chatting with another soccer dad who happens to teach writing at Stanford. I know he’s a deep thinker, so I asked him how he sees the following paradox. Youth arrive at Stanford with big ideas and aspirations; they are idealists, with boundless energy to try new things, experiment with new approaches and styles and philosophies. But the educational institution immediately starts going to work against this idealism, shaping student minds to think a certain way, to embrace common academic conventions and standards and routines. The institution enforces an internalization of its own social assumptions and values, using the chisel of grades to ensure conformity. How do you nourish and encourage idealism and youthful vitality without also forcing students to internalize social norms and customs?

For example, consider the basic writing format. What happens if a student veers outside the prescribed format of an introduction that leads up to a thesis followed by paragraphs with evidence and support? The teacher bends students to his or her will with the red pen and gradebook. As a teacher, how do you encourage new experimentation, risk-taking, and play while also following grades and rubrics and standard curriculums?

My friend said I’m idealizing youth too much. He said sure, some arrive with big ideas and ambitions, but most of them aren’t this way. Most students have imposter syndrome (everyone will find out I’m a fraud), duck syndrome (everything comes so easy for everyone else). They suffer from bouts of anxiety and worry. If smartphones didn’t make Swiss Cheese of their attention spans, anxiety about a downward-spiraling climate and economy and dystopian future sends them down tortuous rabbit holes of worry.

He said many youth are obsessed with identity, with figuring out who they are and the containers they fit in, the groups where they belong. The idea of a Steve Jobs who drops out of class because he’s too bored and wants to invent his own company is a myth. Students long to be accepted; they constantly worry about their inexperience and inadequacy and how they will fit into the workplace.

From dreaming big to reality check

So I might be exaggerating the traits of youth in unsupported ways, but when I think back to my own younger days, I could see more evidence of risk-taking and ambition. I started out dreaming big. I majored in English, then decided to get an MFA. I went to New York City, took out a loan to attend Columbia. I wanted to be a magazine writer. I had boundless confidence in my writing ability — I’d make it work. Location and opportunity mattered more than money and safety.

In college I spent my days both writing and reading essays. I had a work study job as a security monitor for an obscure off-campus department, and I sunk my mind into books spanning all topics. I wrote playful essays and narratives that spun ideas and meaning from seemingly nothing. Then I graduated, and found an opportunity to teach writing to Egyptian students at the American University in Cairo, where I roamed around Cairo and floated down the Nile for a couple of years.

But eventually I realized that my job teaching composition was going nowhere, and that I needed to start thinking about my future. I left teaching and became a marketing copywriter, earning $32k a year. My savings quickly dwindled. I took a second job — teaching writing classes at ITT-Tech. Most of the students were cynical military dropouts who told me that the military didn’t teach them any marketable skills (painting ships, detonating bombs, etc.), and none of them wanted to be in my writing class.

One week, as I was driving from one job to another on a Friday evening, moving slowly in congested traffic across the Tampa bridge, I grew frustrated at myself for the choices I had made. In fact, I had a kind of emotional breakdown. Here I was, straddling two jobs, barely making enough to keep afloat, one kid at home and another on the way. Why didn’t I become an accountant or choose some other job that provided more security and financial stability? Why did I pursue this writing path that led me to where I currently found myself — with two poor-paying jobs and no time to rest? Is this what the remainder of my life looked like? Why was I so stupid?

That was my turning point. That’s where the vitality of my youth, the risk-taking and the dreaming big with limitless ambitions, started to hit a reality check. I started to grow more cautious and prudent about my choices and where I should pour my energy. I stopped reading Whitman and instead spent my time learning WordPress. I became a technical writer. Eventually I steered into the most marketable and stable area of technical writing — API documentation. Each move reduced the risk even more.

I have a friend who teaches writing at BYU-Idaho, and when I lived in Utah, he would regularly invite me up to their campus during their professional writing week. I would try my best to persuade the dreamy students that their futures as book editors in New York or as poets and creative writers were probably going to run their course and, like me, they would need a more financially sustainable career. Few ever listened to me about technical writing. When you’re young, you dream, and these dreams rarely entail writing documentation.

There’s a short, philosophical narration by Alan Watts about the acceptance of death. In it, he describes our natural progression from youth to old age. A new individual approaches life with new ways of seeing and experiencing the world. When you’re young, everything is new, and you’re free from the internalized social conventions and learnings around you. But as you get older, you start to think of everything in terms of “survival and profit.” The world around you ceases to have magic. Eventually society shapes you into another cog in the survival-and-profit machine. And when this happens, you’re no longer fulfilling nature’s game, so it’s time to hand off the baton to the next generation, who still has the passion and vitality to create new ways of seeing.

Steering youth away from a cliff?

My oldest daughter is on her way to college next year. She wants to study history. I have cautioned her many times that there might not be much of a future with a degree (or eventual PhD) in history. The job market is slim. You might spend years in an endeavor that ultimately doesn’t prepare you for any marketable job. I think to myself, she will earn a PhD in history, accrue a sizable debt, and then the irony will set in — she’ll likely become a technical writer.

Where did I learn this fear? When did I decide the safe route was the better one? It’s clear to me, now conscious of my advice, that I have grown old.

Another perspective might be to encourage her risk-taking. She has an open mind and says she isn’t quite sure what she’ll do. Maybe teaching, or government, or something else. The future is changing so quickly — half the careers that will exist in the future haven’t even been invented yet. Thinking about her youthful ambition, I want to encourage her toward her big ideas. Follow your passions, bury yourself in the library, pour through philosophy and psychology and the events of the world. Synthesize it all in your mind. Have faith that you’ll pull it all together toward some great end. You’ll write a book, or become a history professor, or teach at a prestigious private high school, or become a museum curator in some fascinating urban center, or lead the United Nations, or simply find a fulfilling and enjoyable life of one who studies the narratives of the world. Who knows.

I want to encourage this perspective and direction, but I know that one day she might have a reality-check moment like me. I want to protect her from that. The irony is that by protecting her from this risk-taking trajectory, I also prepare her to fail because it is precisely this risk-taking mindset that fuels her potential success. If I had squelched my creative ambition long ago to pursue a safer route (perhaps as an accountant), would this blog, and my career success in the field, have come about?

Topics for future essays and presentations

Over the coming months, I want to pursue this topic of growing older a bit more. I feel there’s a lot to process and apply within our field. For example:

  • What does it mean to take risks? How do you take risks as a technical writer? What are some examples of risks gone wrong/right?
  • How do you conduct experiments to try out ideas? What kind of data do you need to collect to make informed decisions?
  • What are some ways that we’re reinventing documentation? How can we find and conceive of new approaches to a genre that has been so constant for so many years?
  • How do you keep an open mind despite accruing many experiences that incline you to adopt a conclusion ahead of time? How can you tell if you have a closed mind? How do you become innovative?
  • How do you reinvent yourself, especially after becoming so comfortable in one path? Why should you reinvent yourself? If you wanted to reinvent yourself, how would you do it?

Each year I tend to pick a topic that I’ll present on for that year. Last year, I chose trends and presented numerous times on this topic. I’ve found that for keynotes, general topics with higher-level, engaging applications tend to work best. I think this focus on growing older (more specifically, exploring risk taking, innovation, reinvention, and experimentation) might just be one worth diving into for a while.

Your reactions and input

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on some of the ideas in this post. Please answer the survey questions below. You can see the ongoing results here.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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