On Being in Charge and Being Alone
By Daniel Tippens
If I had to capture the way I viewed my life as a kid it would be with the question, “Who’s in charge, here?” My first thought was always that I couldn’t be the one who’s in charge of my life right now, it had to be someone else. For me, my parents were in charge of my life. They ultimately either told me what I should do or confirmed that the choices I was considering making were good ones. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t think this was mistreatment on their part.
Rather, I think this was a case of justified paternalism, assuming there are such cases. When we are young we don’t have enough experience, common sense, or book-smarts to make many decisions for ourselves about the course of our lives. We need somebody with more wisdom to tell us what to do, or to confirm that the choice we are inclined to make is a good one. Of course I didn’t think that I would never be in charge of my life, but I thought that I would fit the traditional mold for taking charge; sometime between ages 25-35 I would have enough wisdom to take charge of my life.
In this essay I want to reflect on this idea of “being in charge” by telling you a little bit about my own life. This essay isn’t intended to look like a technical or even pseudo-technical essay. I won’t be making any premise-conclusion arguments. Instead, think of it as more of a stream of consciousness. I suppose my secret — that my daily thoughts are not structured but rather quite chaotic — will remain a secret no longer.
I want to start my ruminations by asking myself what I take “being in charge” to mean. Not necessarily what it means to be in charge of your life, but just “being in charge.” Let’s first start with what young, 15 year-old Dan Tippens thought “being in charge” meant. At that time, my concept of “being in charge” was the product of exemplars, and for me, this meant my parents, predominantly my dad (to be clear, I’m not saying my mom played an insignificant role in developing my concept of “being in charge.” Her influence has its place in my life). My mom is a very bright, intuitive woman and was a stay-at-home mom. She was in charge of things such as disciplinary, dietary, and general decisions throughout the day about how to care for us while our dad was at work (in which she did an excellent job). But for many other things, my dad was in charge. This was likely due to the fact that my dad had a list of achievements, whose length is at least equally as surprising as the length of one’s intestines. My dad never had financial support when he was growing up, and his father, my grandfather, struggled with alcohol. Dad received a full scholarship to attend a local university, where he studied physics. He went on to get his PhD in nuclear physics at Texas A&M University, and executed numerous experiments, including some at Los Alamos and then Brookhaven National Laboratories. But he didn’t stop there. He was a religious man and got his seminary degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. He could have been a pastor. But I won’t continue on with my Dad’s CV, the point is simply that he clearly was an accomplished man, which plausibly placed him in charge of our family in many significant ways.
So how was he “in charge” in the mind of 15 year old Dan? Well, let me first mention what he did for the family, and then talk about his own traits that seemed to constitute what it meant for him to be in charge. He made all of the decisions about finances, home-improvement, careers, where to settle down, and so on (of course this isn’t to say my mom had no role in these decisions, she certainly did, as he consulted her on many of them). My brothers and I would go to him for advice about what to do in many situations, and also to have him to validate the decisions we were inclined to make. He would not only confirm that the pendulum of our inclinations was swinging in the right direction, he would also set the pendulum in motion, by giving us ideas about what to do.
We can refer to validating another’s choices as “confirming advice” and providing another with an idea “Providing advice.” Both of these fall under what we might call “conclusive advice,” because in both cases the one being given advice winds up with a conclusive idea about what to do, thanks to the advice-giver. While the direction of our choice pendulums was modulated by our dad, his pendulum seemed to swing on its own. He never consulted anyone else for conclusive advice. He would at best ask people to weigh in on issues, but it always seemed clear that my dad would make the decision. More often than not, his decision was made before others even gave him advice. Given all of this, he always assumed full responsibility for his actions.
Noting all of these things, I came up with a general picture of what it means to be in charge. Being in charge meant not consulting others for conclusive advice, being certain about what to do in the absence of conclusive advice, and fully accepting the consequences of one’s actions. What did it mean to not be in charge? It meant to be fifteen year-old Dan: consulting others for conclusive advice, being uncertain about what to do in the absence of conclusive advice, and never fully accepting the consequences of one’s actions. I would always ask my dad for conclusive advice, which made me feel more certain and confident about what I should do. This would psychologically distribute the responsibility for my actions to my dad. After all, he always in some sense, told me to do whatever it is I’d done. I generally thought that the picture of one’s life went something like this: you’re not in charge until sometime around age 25-35. Gradually during those years, you start taking charge.
My understanding of what it meant to be in charge changed when my dad developed brain cancer. I had just finished my first semester at a small university called University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). I also completed my first Philosophy class and really enjoyed it. Since I wasn’t the best student in high school, I was also surprised when I did decently in it. I remember that I would always be eager to call my dad after class to bend his ear about God, religion, physics, or whatever else was shoved into my mind that day.
I found out about my dad’s illness over winter break, after my first semester at UMBC. I remember that I was working as a pizza delivery boy at the time, and one evening my phone died and I was without a charger. I drove home to remedy this problem, and noticed that the house was deafeningly empty when I arrived. Not that this particularly alarmed me at the time, I just remember thinking it was odd. I charged my phone and saw all the missed calls and messages from my family. “Dan, call us now” -Mom. “Danny, dad is in the hospital, call us as soon as you get this.” -Jon (my brother). When my dad had gone into work that day, one side of his face began drooping while he was talking with his boss. His boss thought it might be a stroke, and so they immediately rushed him to the hospital where they found a massive tumor in his brain. When I got to the hospital, I found out about his diagnosis. I really had no idea how my life was about to change.
Friends sometimes ask me how things are different now that I don’t have a dad. One of the first things I think of is how I went from not being in charge — and thinking I couldn’t be in charge given my lack of experience, book-smarts, and common sense — to being in charge (at least, partially).
I remember the first time I started to realize this. Several months after my dad’s diagnosis, I started wondering whether I should transfer, in order to better pursue an education in philosophy. After pillaging the internet for information on philosophy programs, NYU popped up on my radar. So now I had a question, should I transfer to NYU? I was leaning toward applying.
My first inclination was to call my dad and have a long discussion with him about this. I wanted him to give me some form of conclusive advice. But he was now sick with brain cancer. His ability to think and even his value judgments weren’t reliable anymore. His illness had taken away his authority status, in my mind, and so I could no longer consult him as such. My mother, though very intuitive and bright, didn’t have experience in academia, and so I couldn’t consult her for conclusive advice either.
While I was uncertain about whether to apply to NYU, I was pretty sure that I was not a person capable of being in charge. This, as mentioned earlier, meant I should ask others for conclusive advice, feel uncertain about what to do in the absence of this advice, and refrain from taking full responsibility for my actions. But I couldn’t do any of these things anymore. So it seemed that I had two choices: either I wouldn’t act at all, or I would act, but without conclusive advice, all the while feeling uncertain, and taking full responsibility for whatever it was I did.
When I realized this dilemma, I remember thinking a flurry of questions and entertaining a deluge of doubts. What do I need to do, logistically, in order to apply? Will I be able to work out the financial aid, if I get in? This is a waste of money, because I won’t get in. I can’t even get a damn application completed successfully on my own. There are countless more qualified applicants out there. I just started trying hard in my studies this year, and other students have been working tirelessly for this goal since the beginning of high school. I’ve never even been to New York, so how do I expect to be able to set up my life there, without the guidance of someone like my dad?
My uncertainty was coupled with fear and anxiety. What if I applied and didn’t get in? My friends and family would find out, and I wouldn’t have anyone to blame but myself. None of this “I knew I shouldn’t have applied but he told me to…” If I failed, it would be my failure, and everybody would know that.
After about a week of this kind of uncertainty and fear, I decided for the first time to just say, “fuck it” and apply. I looked over the application I had filled out, and clicked the button on my computer screen. Just like that, the decision was made. To my surprise, all of my worries and fears went away very quickly. The decision was done, there was no turning back, and my brain must have realized this, releasing the pressure valve that had been trapping in all of my emotions.
After this “fuck it” experience I realized I was beginning to take charge. I was starting to make my own decisions. I was making choices about which classes I should take, whether I should take time off from school to help my dad around the house, how to comfort my mom and dad, what to say to my dad when he asked me if I thought he was going to make it through his illness (a memory which, honestly, still disturbs me today), and how to take care of the estate (something I was fortunate to have, and continue to have, significant help with from my brothers).
Since I realized that I was starting to take charge and yet, I was not certain in the way my dad seemed always to be, I deduced that being in charge didn’t necessarily mean feeling certain and confident in what you decide to do. Being in charge frequently — probably most of the time and for most people — involves taking full responsibility for one’s actions, in the absence of conclusive advice under persistent uncertainty about what to do. There is no age or window of time when I will start to feel certain about my decisions, without the validation of others. The reasoning for me was clear: I am an average human being who is in charge. I feel uncertain about what to do without conclusive advice. Since most other people who are in charge are average, most other people probably feel uncertain about what to do in the absence of conclusive advice.
This last realization changed the way I perceived and interacted with people older than myself (people between thirty and ancient). I think I used to categorize older people as being in a different kind of class. They were wise and had justified confidence in themselves, and I was not and did not. It’s almost like I viewed elders as being a different natural kind from myself. Just as butterflies appear to be different natural kinds from caterpillars, despite the former arising out of the latter, so too older people appeared to belong to a different natural kind than I did, despite that fact that older people were once adolescents, just like me.
After the change, I began to view myself in relation to an elder as two people on the same spectrum. They certainly had much more experience and wisdom, but they weren’t different in kind from me. They, too, had their hang-ups, their idiosyncrasies, and their uncertainties. I came, I think, to feel a little bit psychologically closer to my elders at that point, and this was reflected in my interactions with them.
I learned several things about myself from this experience. I came to appreciate how I am more likely to learn from my mistakes when I make such mistakes while taking charge; I view them as my mistakes. In the past, it was all too easy for me to claim that I hadn’t made a mistake, because someone else had told me I should do whatever I’d done. As a result, I never felt there was even a mistake to learn from. But now I make decisions on my own, and sometimes, they result in failure. I’ve had papers rejected, applications denied, and other attempts to advance myself shut down. But I view these mistakes as mine, and I think I’ve learned from them, as a result.
My confidence rose, when I took charge. Accepting full responsibility for my decisions included responsibility for those that turned out to be good, as well as bad. So when I thought I made a good decision, my confidence soared. Acquiring this confidence, I think, facilitates one’s ambition to strive in whatever they find important.
I began to understand that I won’t always have someone or something to rely on to provide me with an answer. I won’t always have the luxury of conclusive advice. As such, I ought to try to figure things out for myself as much as possible, preparing for the times when I will have no reliable sage to lean on.
People have sometimes told me that I was thrust into taking charge too early. I’ll ultimately want to end the essay with one question: should eighteen be “too early” to take charge? People probably think eighteen is too early because ‘early’ is a relative term. Eighteen may be too early relative to the United States in 2015, but probably not too early simpliciter. If this is right, was there a time when eighteen was not too early to take charge? I think so. My impression is that, on average, people used to take charge earlier in life than we do now.
Though this is probably too controversial for some to stomach, let’s assume that on average people take charge later in their lives than past generations. Imagine, for instance, that forty years ago people would take charge between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, rather than between twenty-five and thirty, as they do today. What could explain such a difference?
Taking charge is typically a gradual process. There is no precise moment when somebody leaves the category of being told what to do and enters that of acting for him- or herself; this shift happens over a notable span of time. But what figures into this gradual process? I speculate that there are at least three important variables. These are things that young adults faced in the past and continue to face today, the only difference being the conditions under which they are currently faced, and when or how often young people face them. These differences, I think, have led to a generation of late bloomers.
All of these things – situations really — contribute to an individual’s taking charge, by placing him in circumstances, where he must make decisions, without conclusive advice (and in the face of uncertainty), while taking full responsibility for his actions, and in which those actions have relatively mild consequences.
(1) Caring for a sick family member, relative, or friend. Not necessarily in a similar capacity to the situation I endured, but some kind of care-taker situation nonetheless. Somebody has broken a bone, and mom and dad can’t be around all the time to manage this person’s needs. So you may have to step in every once in a while. Grandma needs some help walking around the house, and she wants to walk for a few minutes longer than you were instructed to allow her to. The consequences of your decisions are likely — or at least seem likely — to be relatively small in their potential impact, but nonetheless these are things for which you are responsible about which you are probably a bit uncertain. Being in these situations gradually helps to develop your capacity to be in charge.
(2) Career-related situations. We wonder not only about what we want to study, but also about how to secure a career in a field. So we will have questions about which classes we ought to take, which internships we ought to pursue, and how to budget our time. For somebody who is looking to avoid higher-education, the questions may be different. Most of these decisions will seem to have relatively minor consequences. After all, what’s one class in a four-year education? Or what’s the big deal about getting one temporary job right out of high-school, until I move onto a better job?
(3) Dealing with broken equipment. All of us break things or have problems with the objects we use or with which we play. When this happens, we either fix the thing ourselves, get someone to advise us on how to fix it, or have someone else fix it entirely. I’m sure you see the theme here; the decisions we make in this situation, like the others, will have a relatively small impact, but will sometimes force us to make a decision, without deference to conclusive advice.
We live in different times now. Consider the first situation — caring for a sick family member, relative, or friend. I think young people do this kind of thing much less than they used to, for two primary reasons. First, medical advancements simply prevent the number of illnesses that people will have to deal with. Second, medical advancements have not only decreased the number of illnesses we face, but have also increased our chances of being autonomous while we’re sick. Even when we get sick, there are all sorts of things out there to ensure that we won’t need to rely on anyone else while we recover from our illness. While in the past losing one’s hands meant one would never grasp again, and thus, require help from others, we now have prosthetic limbs which render this unnecessary. We not only get sick less, but we need less help, when we get sick. Young adults simply don’t have to care for family members, relatives, or friends as often as they used to.
Let’s turn, now, to career situations. Today, undergraduate education is basically a requirement. Everyone knows that the chances of having a good career significantly drop if you don’t get a Bachelor’s degree. As a result, the time at which one needs to decide what they want to do with their life has been pushed back until well into their undergraduate career or even after it. “Well I have to go to college, I can figure out what I want to do two years into the game…”
Once we get into college, our decisions become complicated. Areas of pursuit and career options are becoming increasingly competitive. Every student is trying to optimize their CV to the best of their ability. Which classes should I take? Which internships ought I to pursue? But the question arises as to what makes a CV the best? This is something that students simply don’t feel they can answer on their own. There are just too many variables to consider when deciding what will make their CV optimal.
One might think that this would increase the frequency of decisions one would make on his or her own, but I think that, paradoxically, the opposite occurs. Consider analysis-paralysis, which is when one becomes unable to make a decision, because there are too many perceived variables to consider at hand. The opportunity cost for acting out the decision outweighs the benefit of performing the action. Given how difficult it is to figure out how to optimize one’s CV — how to do college (as it is understood now today) — students undergo analysis-paralysis. Like people who are physically paralyzed, the best way to move forward is with the help of others, and so we seek conclusive advice from parents, professors, or counselors.
The last situation has to do with our earlier childhood: fixing broken objects that we use. This may seem insignificant but I think navigating these situations gets the ball rolling toward taking charge early. I also think this happens much less. Here is an adult version of the problem. Many people used to work on their cars. In doing so this would allow them to figure things out for themselves, and take responsibility if they made a mistake. But this happens much less often now. Why? Because cars are becoming increasingly computational. There are no longer simply keys and locks, there are voice-recognized lock openers and thumbprint readers. We are indeed on the path to self-driving cars. It is dubious that anyone without a computer science background could work on such cars. As a result, like in analysis-paralysis, the opportunity cost of learning how our cars work in order to fix them ourselves is higher than simply having somebody else repair it.
The same thing is starting to happen with younger teens. In the past, teens might have taken on challenges of repairing things they use or play with, such as televisions, radios, or toys. But good luck fixing a digital TV, Ipod, or computerized toys (most action figures are now at least slightly computerized). Better to have somebody else fix it for you. Why do you think Apple’s “Genius Bar” is so well-known? It is the default place to go, when you’re experiencing a problem with the tool you use the most in your daily life. The complexity not only of our education, but of our mundane tools, is stifling our opportunities to make decisions for ourselves.
To me it seems like we need to care for people less, decide what to do about our education and career later (and with a greater need for conclusive advice), and defer to the expertise of others to fix our possessions more. While none of these, individually, is necessary or sufficient to stifle our ability to take charge, taken together they are significant contributors.
I wonder what my life would have looked like had my dad never become sick. I tend to think I would still be asking who’s in charge, even at age 24, which strikes me as being too old for such thoughts. I said I was going to end this essay with a question, but instead, let’s end with three.
Should eighteen be considered too early to take charge?
When should people begin to take charge?
What would my dad say?
I will always wish I could consult him about that last question.
I would like to thank Dan Kaufman and Ashwin Mallya for helping me work through these issues in conversation.
Daniel Tippens is a research technician in the S. Arthur Localio Laboratory at New York University School of Medicine and co-founder of The Electric Agora.