Here’s Why Living Out Your Dreams from When You Were 10 Is the Key to Happiness

Want to find the key to happiness? Think about what excited you most when you were in fifth grade—and do it now.

“Everyone who works at NASA or Google or SpaceX got excited about science before he or she was 10 years old,” TV host Bill “The Science Guy” Nye said recently. “This is well documented. If it isn’t 10, it’s 11 or 12. But it ain’t 17, I’ll tell you that much.”

You can plainly see the 10-year-old inside Nye, who is now 63, just as you can see the 10-year-old in anyone else who works at the junction where their deep happiness meets the world’s deep needs.

Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning film editor who likewise discovered his passion in childhood, followed a ­twistier—and perhaps more ­typical—career path than the lifelong science geeks. You can’t do kid stuff for a living, he was told—“kid stuff” in this case meaning fooling around with a friend’s dad’s tape recorder, sampling snippets of sound. He was steered toward more practical pursuits, such as engineering and oceanography. Forty-odd years later, Murch landed in the movie business. And one day it dawned on him why this new job, film editing, felt so right: It scratched the same itch that splicing audio had all those years ago in his pal’s basement. “I was doing almost exactly what excited me most when I was 10,” he said.

Murch wondered whether he’d stumbled on a general rule: What if what we really loved doing between ages 9 and 11 is what most of us ought to be doing, somehow, for our actual job as adults? If that’s true, he thought, then our life satisfaction depends rather heavily on recalling precisely what that thing was—on remembering who we were during that unique developmental stage, where everything that’s in us shows itself for the first time.

While I was researching my book U‑Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life?, a pattern emerged that seemed to confirm Murch’s insight. Among the hundreds of stories of midlife career changes I sifted through, the “Rule of Age 10” came up over and again. These were lives of aha moments decades delayed. And of better-late-than-never course corrections, back in the direction of those early enthusiasms, following coordinates established before what we ought to do (according to parents and teachers and other well-meaning adults) began to smother what we loved and who we were.

The trend was so striking that after I finished writing that book, I started telling everyone who was floundering in midlife, “Try to remember what you were all about when you were 10. If you kept a diary, dig it out. If you’re still in contact with friends from that era, call them up. Ask them who you were.”

What’s so special about age 10?

rule of 10

A 10-year-old is a tiny superhero, at the apex of his or her powers in many ways. Physical coordination—as any soccer parent will tell you—suddenly gels. “If we could maintain our body functions as they are at age 10,” said Leonid Gavrilov, a research scientist at the University of Chicago, “we could expect to live about 5,000 years on average.” Growth actually slows for a year or two, but only on the outside. The real show is happening in the brain.

At age 10, kids graduate from being biologists, searching for a theory of life, to being philosophers, grappling with the truth that no one escapes death. The surge in bandwidth helps 10-year-old kids reconcile what they think with how they feel.

At age 10, a kid may suddenly become the family’s truth teller. “You guys are boring,” said our eldest daughter, casually eviscerating her mom at dinner after being told not to read her Harry Potter book at the table. “Dad just talks about sports. And you just talk about problems at work. And Mom, your new glasses are kinda ugly. Just sayin’.” Her voice was chillingly without affect. “And I’m not sure about the hair.”

But then, almost in the next breath, this girl was as sensitive as a sand­papered fingertip. Not to our feelings, particularly, but to the idea that the world was full of people who were not her and who felt differently—the beginning of empathy.

At around age 10 also comes the birth of taste. (Take a memo, parents: Expose your kid to more beauty and less tripe, for what they learn to like right now will register forever.) At 10, the lights come on full beam, revealing the road ahead. Professional athletes choose their sport. Lifelong rooting affiliations solidify. A ­worldview—the beginning of political affiliation—forms. Cornell University psychologists found that a commitment to environmentalism often traces directly back to the “wild nature” that kids were exposed to before the age of 11.

As kids figure out who they are, they start kicking around their future lives—sometimes in elaborate detail. Graphic designer and podcaster Debbie Millman discovered as an adult a drawing she’d made as a young girl. “It predicted my whole life,” she recalled recently. There she was, 10-year-old-(ish) Debbie, on the streets of Manhattan. “I’m walking with my mother. There are buildings and buses and taxis and cleaners. I labeled everything. In the middle of the street there’s a delivery truck. The sign on the side of it says ‘Lay’s Potato Chips.’ ” When she found that old drawing, Millman was, after many career meanderings, drawing logos for a living in New York City. One of her clients was PepsiCo. Which owns Frito-Lay.

“I still have a journal from fourth grade—so 10 years old,” writer Mary Karr revealed. “One of the entries says, ‘When I grow up I will write one-half poetry and one-half autobiography.’ I also say, ‘I am not very successful as a little girl. When I grow up, I will probably be a mess.’ ” Karr, who had an up-and-down life and spent some time in a mental institution, bloomed into a memoirist with three acclaimed bestsellers.

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Gary Vaynerchuk, a Belorussian-born entrepreneur and self-described digital-media hustler, recently dug out his fourth-grade yearbook, which was plastered with pictures of players from his newly adopted football team, the New York Jets. “This was the first Americana for me,” he recalled. “It’s like one of the first moments of caring about anything in this country.” At 43, Vaynerchuk is still obsessed with the Jets, but in a different way. He wants to buy them.

He probably will.

The term “inner child” got kicked to the curb sometime around the turn of the millennium, but folks, grab a shovel. It’s time to resurrect that inner child. Because the stifled voice of the kid in you—specifically, the 10-year-old kid in you—has never needed to be heard more.

Age 10 is a developmental sweet spot. You’re old enough to know what lights you up, yet not so old that adults have extinguished that fire by dumping more practical and “realistic” options on it. In other words, age 10 contains, in a sense, our source code. In the past, as many as 85 percent of North Americans said they failed to find much meaning in their jobs and would take a pay cut in exchange for a more fulfilling position. The charged fire hose of the Internet makes sure we drink before we’re thirsty (or maybe more accurately, before we’ve decided what we’re thirsty for). The most reliable signal of what might actually fulfill us is getting lost in the noise. If you really listen, though, you can hear it.

Ten-year-olds are about to experience the biggest surge of intellectual horsepower in their lifetimes, as measured by gains in executive function. But with those gains will come some losses, as the divergent thinking of childhood starts to give way to practicality and logic. Ten-year-olds are transitioning, in other words, from dreamers to lawyers.

“I was a real artist until I turned 11,” cartoonist Liana Finck recalled in a recent interview. At 11, she started trying to be a “professional.” That changed everything. The personality trait of openness, related to a childlike state of receptive curiosity, dampens as we grow older, studies show. So your life’s work, if you’re an artist, is a project of undoing. Of lifting your foot off the brake you’ve so painstakingly learned to feather.

But here’s the thing: This whole project of recovering the inner kid is complicated. Not just because most of us haven’t seen that kid in a long time. And even if we were to perfectly remember what lit us up at 10, there’s still the matter of how to scale that feeling to the adult world of today. How to age our childhood gifts, as the writer and podcaster James Altucher recently put it, to give them value in our lives right now.

Even if you ripped the page out of your age-10 diary that explicitly stated your deepest desire, it’d be hard to take that to the bank today. When I was 10, I wanted to be in advertising. My wife might have preferred if I’d stuck to those marching orders; we might be living in a house with an actual yard. Then again, I’d be hawking wrinkle cream. So I guess the recipe is, you take that 10-year-old voice, run it through the filter of what you can live with, and make peace with the result.

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