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This is a chapter from the book The Teenager's Guide to the Real World by Marshall Brain, ISBN 1-9657430-3-9. For more information on the book please click here.

Chapter 2: Teenagers Lack Experience

You may have noticed that quite a bit of the information in the last chapter is new to you. For example, did you know that it will cost you about $5,000 (1997) to get your first apartment? Did you know that the power and phone companies require first-time customers to pay a security deposit? Did you know that taxes are so high? What about car insurance? Did you understand your parentsí cash flow situation? Probably not. The reason you did not is simple: teenagers lack experience. Teenagers have not been out in the real world and experienced life as independent people. Teenagers dwell in a funny, intermediate state between child and adult. You might have heard the phrase, "Teenagers are naÔve." It means about the same thing.

You may find it hard to believe that teenagers are naÔve. In fact, you may think I am an idiot for saying it. So why do I say it, and why is it one of the key facts of life? Here is something to ponder that will help you to understand: No one can teach himself or herself to read. Think about that for a minute. If you were stranded on a desert island and if you didnít know how to read, could you teach yourself to read if a whole box of books washed up on shore? No. Once you understand what that says, apply it to your lack of experience. It is only in recognizing your naÔve nature and understanding what "lack of experience" means that you can go about fixing the problem. You cannot start to become "worldly" and "informed" until you understand your naÔvetť. Then you can start to learn your way out of it by asking questions, reading books and carefully observing the world around you. It is the act of recognizing that you lack experience that lets you correct the problem and become an adult. The sooner you come to that realization, the more successful you can be.

Why might you find it hard to believe that you might be naÔve? It is because there is a component inside your head right now that I am going to call the "Teenage Illusion Module" (TIM). I am making the TIM up for the sake of this discussion, but if you think about your brain in this way it will help you to understand something about where you are right now. The Teenage Illusion Module is designed to send signals into your head telling you that you are the smartest person in the world, that you know everything and that all of the adults around you are idiots. This module forms during puberty, grows to some maximum size and then collapses in most people by the age of 23. When I was a teenager my TIM consumed approximately half of my head.

Mark Twain had an interesting saying about the Teenage Illusion Module: "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." Of course Twainís father had not changed at allóit was Twain himself who changed. Twainís father became smart about the time Twainís TIM collapsed. Twain simply could not see how smart his parent was until then. That problem afflicts all teenagers. As soon as you realize, for whatever reason, that you donít have all of the answers but that many of the adults standing all around you actually do, you begin to become an adult. The sooner that transformation occurs, the better (see Chapter 3).

My mother had a good friend when I was a teenager who, each time she visited, would ask me, "Are you still in the tunnel?" That question always seemed really stupid to me, and as a teenager I had no idea what she meant. The "tunnel," it turns out, is a condition caused by the TIM, and I could not see it until my TIM collapsed. Now I know exactly what she was talking about. She was talking about the tunnel vision that afflicts all teenagers because of their TIMs. As a teenager it would have been a really good idea to have asked her, "What do you mean when you say that?" rather than thinking she was an idiot.

Why does the Teenage Illusion Module form? It has to do with the evolution of our species. Think about a young bird. It lives in a nice nest. It is warm. It plays with its brothers and sisters all day without a care or concern. Its parents bring it food constantly. Why in the world would a young bird ever want to leave this pleasant place? There is no reason. In fact, it would be silly to leave a cushy situation like this. But say, about the time in life when it is physically able to leave the nest, this thing forms in a young birdís brain that generates messages like, "Your parents are idiots! You can find better food than this! You could build a much better nest than this one! And their feathers are so boring! You have much cooler feathers! Itís time to get out of here!" The teenager bird hears these messages inside its head all day long, day after day. Eventually it gets so disgusted with its parents that it flies away and creates its own nest.

That is approximately what is happening inside your own head and in your own life. Evolution has wired in this Teenage Illusion Module to encourage you to leave the nest. It is a release mechanism. The problem is, we live in modern technological society and you are not a bird. In human society you cannot simply go out and pluck worms from the lawn. People succeed in this society because they are smart and because they know other smart people. That is a fact of life (see Chapter 28). Your TIM actually is doing you a tremendous disservice in this day and age because it turns out that adults hold a gigantic amount of knowledge that would be extremely useful to you. They will give you this knowledge gladly. All you have to do is ask. Your TIM, unfortunately, is telling you to ignore this wealth of information.

The size of the Teenage Illusion Module varies from teenager to teenager. I know a number of teenagers who are blessed with a properly-sized TIM. "Properly-sized" means that the TIM is large enough to encourage independence but small enough to discourage rebellion. Teenagers with a properly-sized TIM can become very successful very quickly. Things are much easier for them. It is possible to have too small a TIM. In that case the teenager never gets up enough energy and courage to leave home. Others have very large TIMs. As I said, mine was huge. Some unfortunate people have TIMs that persist through old age, never collapsing and never allowing them to see the world around them clearly.

Letís say that you are convinced that your parents, your brothers and sisters, your teachers and most of the people around you are idiots. Letís say that you believe that you are the smartest person in the universe and have all of the answers to all of the worldís problems if anyone would take the time to listen. Or letís say that you are less opinionated than that and simply find it difficult to imagine that you might be naÔve. That is your TIM talking. Let me try 10 questions to see if I can get you to look at yourself in a slightly different way:

  • Do you have a job? Maybe.
  • Do you have a job that would allow you to support yourself independently if your family disappeared tomorrow? Something on the order of perhaps $20,000 per year (in 1997)? Almost certainly not.
  • If you answered the previous question with, "You donít need $20,000 a year to support yourself," then do you know what it actually costs to live a normal life in American society? Probably not. See Chapter 1.
  • Do you have a car? Maybe.
  • Did you pay for it? Is it registered in your name? Probably not.
  • If your car blew its engine tomorrow and you had to spend $1,500 repairing it, could you afford to buy the new engine yourself with money you have in the bank? Doubtful. What if the next day your car blew its transmission as well?
  • Do you own a house? No.
  • Could you buy a house? No, unless you happen to have $100,000 or more in your name in a bank account somewhere.
  • Could you get a loan to buy a house? No. Absolutely not. It will probably be 5 to 10 years before you can even consider it. See Chapter 32.
  • Do you know how much medical insurance costs per year? Could you afford to pay it? Do you even see a reason to have it? Probably not. See Chapter 1.
Right now your answer to most of these questions is "No." When you answer "Yes" to all 10 of them you are well on your way to knowing something about how the world works. Prior to that you are naÔve. Here is a funny observation: Your parents can answer "Yes" to all of these questions, yet you think they are idiots. Here is another observation: The fact that you can answer "No" to seven or eight of these questions and still feel like you have all the answers tells you that your Teenage Illusion Module is functioning properly. If you can hear yourself saying, "Those Questions Donít Matter!", then your TIM is exceptionally well developed.

Letís try another approach. Find someone who has an infant. Sit and watch the infant for five minutes. Notice an important fact about that infant: the infant is totally helpless. You can see that. Everyone can see that. An infant knows how to do perhaps four things: suckle, sleep, smile and cry. You and I can agree that infants are helpless. An infant is also as ignorant as a person gets. Infants have no knowledge but that which is built in.

Now letís say that every person learns things continuously, all through life, at the same rate. So if you are 6 years old you are learning a certain number of things per day, and if you are 60 you are learning at that same rate. You simply change the things you learn as you mature. Now take a look at the following graph:

Figure 1 - This graph shows that adults have more knowledge than teenagers because adults have had more time to gather their knowledge. Adults have more experience with the world. A 64-year old knows 4 times as much as a 16-year old.

What this graph shows you is that, in the grand scheme of things, you know very little. On this graph an infant knows nothing. As a teenager you know not a whole lot more. If you are 16, you know half of what a 32-year-old person knows. You know one third of what a 48-year old knows. And so on. As you go through life your intelligence and knowledge grow continuously as you experience the world. You are on the low end of the curve at the moment.

Here is another way to think about it. When you are 16 and you talk to an 8-year old, you can see quite obviously that the 8-year old is naÔve. An 8-year-old kid knows nothing about love, about life, about algebra, about money. Eight-year-old kids know about cookies and candy and toys. They know nothing. It is obvious. When people who are 32 look at you at 16, they are thinking exactly the same thing. A 16-year old knows nothing about careers, the job market, housing, credit ratings, child rearing, long-term relationships and so on. In the grand scheme of things, a 16-year old knows nothing. Thatís a fact of life.

Go back and look at your infant again. Another thing you will notice is that infants are outrageously self-centered. There is not a single cell in their brains wired for empathy, generosity or compassion. When an infant is hungry, it screams. When it is sleepy, it screams. When it is uncomfortable, it screams. If it doesnít like the person who is holding it, it screams. Very self-centered. As you go through life your self-centeredness decreases, but teenagers are still remarkably self-centered. The graph below shows a typical curve:

Figure 2 - This graph shows how the self-centeredness of a typical person changes throughout life. The graph will be different for each person, but this graph is typical.

The self-centeredness curve varies from person to person and also between males and females, so this curve is hypothetical. The steep drop in the middle of the graph shows the point at which a person has his or her first child. Most people become far less self-centered at that point because the act of becoming a parent changes a number of priorities in your life. In general most people become more giving, more generous, more concerned about others and more empathetic throughout their lives as they fall in love with their spouses, have and love their children, work with other people closely and so on. Look at all of the sacrifices parents make for their children and you can understand this phenomena (see Chapter 1 for details). From this graph you can see that as a teenager you are still very high on the self-centeredness curve.

Letís look at one last graph having to do with interest in sex. Many teenagers have a raging interest in sex, people of the opposite sex, dating, kissing and so on. I am sure you would agree. The spike occurs right around puberty. Prior to puberty you had absolutely no interest in sex. You can probably remember, as a child, watching any couple kissing and thinking, "YUCK! I will NEVER do that!" And yet here you are as a teenager and you probably find you can think of nothing else. The reason for that transformation is that, at puberty, your body began producing sex hormones. Hormones is a good word to go look up in the encyclopedia. You will be amazedóperhaps startledóat how the whole endocrine system works. These hormones cause fundamental changes in your mind and body. As you go through life the concentration and the effects of those hormones decrease. Adults understand this curve, have been through it themselves and know exactly what you have on your mind.

Figure 3 - This graph shows how sexual interest changes throughout life. The graph will be different for different people and also changes between men and women, but this one gives you the idea.

The point of these graphs is not to make you feel bad or to put you down. The point is to show you that people change throughout their lives. You are at one point in your life now. You are a teenager. You are just getting started. You have this unfortunate TIM in your brain. Fifteen years from now you will be at another point. You will be twice as smart, half as self-centered and half as interested in sex. A lot of other things will change as well. These changes cause adults to see the world in a much different way, and it causes them to act differently.

You may wonder why adults tend to treat you like you are naÔve. You may wonder why no one listens to you. You may wonder why when you say something that you think is crystal clear to everyone, an adult will often say, "You donít know anything. You are just a kid. One day you will understand." There are two reasons for this phenomena, both derived from the previous examples:

  • First, it is generally the case that teenagers do not know a lot about the real world. Teenagers lack experience. The knowledge curve shows that.
  • Second, all adults have at one time been teenagers and they understand what that means. They know what you are thinking, what you are feeling, what is important to you and why it is important. They have seen their own TIMs collapse. All adults look at you and know pretty well where you stand.

So, there it is. I am telling you that you are naÔve right now. You are going to do one of two things at this point. You will either cast this book aside because it is obviously written by an idiot. If you do that, please do me a favor: Come back and read it in about 10 years. You will be amazed.

The other alternative is to read this book and see what you can discover about your situation. Hopefully, the above examples helped you to understand a little bit about your current position. Maybe you can learn something by reading this book. Maybe, by learning about the immutable facts of life, you can work with the system instead of always butting your head up against it. You might be much happier and more successful as a result.

The goal of this book is to show you how the world works so that you can begin to take advantage of it. This book shows you the facts of life. You will learn these facts of life one way or another. Itís just that the earlier you learn them, the faster you can take advantage of them and the more successful you will be as a result. If you can shut your TIM off while you are reading this book and let a few of these ideas seep in, you might be amazed by what you will learn.

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This is a chapter from the book The Teenager's Guide to the Real World, ISBN 1-9657430-3-9, published by BYG Publishing, Inc. For more information on ordering a copy of the book, click here.

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Keywords: teenagers, teenager, teen age, teenage, teens, teen, adolescents, adolescent, parents, parent