When our children were younger, my husband and I used to joke about our great fear that they might “rebel” against the creative, financially precarious example we have set by becoming stockbrokers or bankers. Didn’t happen! And so far, it doesn’t like it’s going to. This is good news, regarding all of us having a lot in common and plenty to talk about around the dinner table. Not so good, re our collective financial futures. But once you make the decision—or, more accurately, once you realize you’ve made the decision without noticing you made it—to value your time on the planet more than your money, it’s hard to go back. Three years ago, I wrote a Restless Nest about this called, “Oops, I forgot to get rich.” It cheered me up to write it in the midst of the recession, as we and our nonprofit clients struggled to stay afloat while the big bankers got their big bailout. But the central tenet of that piece—that time is worth so much more than money—holds up.
Back to the kids, who aren’t kids anymore: they’re 22 and 25, and as I reported last week, they’re currently in Eastern Europe and Colorado, doing their own restless adventuring. Neither of them is sure what will come next. My own experience and my instincts about them tell me they’re doing exactly what they should be doing. But it’s also in my job description, as a mom, to worry. Just a tiny bit.
Imagine my relief when I came across psychology professor Laurence Steinberg’s recent essay called “The Case for Delayed Adulthood.” Steinberg argues that the longer we can prolong what he calls “adolescent brain plasticity,” the more resilient and flexible our brains will be over our life span. He says it’s, quote, “important to be exposed to novelty and challenge when the brain is plastic not only because this is how we acquire and strengthen skills, but also because this is how the brain enhances its ability to profit from future enriching experiences.”
Translation: seek new and novel experiences when you’re young and you’ll enjoy your mid-life or late-life adventures all the more.
Our generation might be the first to demonstrate this principle on a populist scale. We were at just the right age when travel became affordable and widespread. We soaked up “Let’s Go Europe” and the early Lonely Planet guidebooks. We shouldered our backpacks and embraced youth hostels and cheap pensions. I was the first person in my family to get a passport, when I went to England on a scholarship at 19, during my junior year of college. Neither of my parents traveled outside North America until they were in their forties.
Decades later, I love new adventures as much as I ever did. Judging from what I see on Facebook, it looks like everyone else I know does too. We travel when we can afford to; we backpack and hike and bike. We go back to school. We try to learn languages (cursing the inevitable slowdown of plasticity in that part of our brains) or we find new creative outlets: writing, drawing, new musical instruments. God willing, we’ll keep it up into old age.
And so will our children. Our daughter is making plans to go back to South America. Our son will keep traveling as long as he can, through countries that only recently threw their doors open to Americans. According to Professor Steinberg, as long as they’re “engaged in new, demanding and cognitively stimulating activity,” their future brains—their future selves—will thank them. What great news.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. http://kbcs.fm/listen/podcasts/