“Odyssey” is a new phase of human development: did you take yours?

human development sign

Well here we are. In the exact middle of winter. Bleh. Or yay, if you take advantage of this moment to snuggle in, rest, and repair, as Katherine May prescribes in her book Wintering.

Many of us hit a bluesy patch right about now, and this year we’re enjoying a double whammy of seasonal affective disorder on top of a year of pandemic restrictions, fear, and anxiety. I’m trying to cozy up and take time to read and dig into thinking that goes with it. I’ve recently finished listening to Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Cal Newport’s Deep Work, and Daphne Millers’ Farmacology is on my nightstand. I recommend them all (and Obama was a great listen).

In David Brooks’ The Social Animal, I found a passage about human developmental phases that resonated with me and has been reverberating with clients as well. It acknowledges that the four developmental phases we’ve come to know, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age have shifted. As humans have begun living longer, “easier” lives (for more facts about how life has improved, read my December newsletter), two new phases have entered our continuum. They are odyssey and active retirement.

Odyssey, I thought as soon as I read it, of course.

According to Brooks, “Odyssey is the decade of wandering that occurs between adolescence and adulthood.” It is the space between the adolescence / coming of age, and adulthood which Brooks defines as including four accomplishments: moving away from home, getting married, starting a family, and becoming financially independent. Now those are some seriously traditional values, so let’s modify — I’m happy to consider adulthood as including two of the four, as long as you’re taking responsibility for your own needs, and possibly the needs of another as well.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Odyssey as a developmental phase became a ‘thing’? What if we weren’t pushing teenagers to pick a major and go to college but to explore different options? Many millennials have done just that, and I’m not sure that Gen Xers like me have supported it (perhaps due to our own jealousy?).

If you Odyssey properly in your 20s, you’re exploring. Another perspective on the subject comes from the social critic Michael Barone who is credited with saying “the United States makes moderately impressive twenty-year-olds but very impressive thirty-year-olds”. Barone continues, “the hard pressures and choices that hit people during their wide-open, unsupervised twenties forge a new and much better kind of person.”

Now that gap years are becoming more acceptable, perhaps we’ll start rethinking the confines of a year and treat this Odyssey period as a necessary part of modern growth and development. Perhaps applying to college won’t be a thing in high school, but will come after some productive engagement in the late teens and 20s.

A proper Odyssey isn’t sitting on the couch playing video games. It is about being out and about, alive in the world, engaging. Witnessing other cultures, finding a way to contribute, developing a skill and pursuing interests you didn’t even know you had.

My step daughter has been working on farms for the better part of the pandemic, as part of her modified gap year vision. She has a whole new level of appreciation for a home cooked meal, or even a home, after spending months waking up at 4am to milk goats while living in farmhand quarters. She has gained skills, and has a greater understanding of life, food systems and the work that goes into what is on your plate, and the value of what you put in your body.

These are things she will carry with her for the rest of her life.

I also believe in the idea of a 40-something or 50-something gap year, if you can swing it with all those “adult” responsibilities you’ve taken on :-). Why is the odyssey for the young and the “active retirement” for those who’ve stopped working? We could all use a sabbatical to rest, repair and refresh our thinking. Whether this is generously granted by our employer, or a gift we give ourself; Odysseys can be taken periodically, as needed.

As always, I’m here to serve and support you. Reach out if you’d like to set up a session.

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