May 24, 2021

Young People (and Everyone?) and Agency

The best laid schemes... of Sue planning a trip with her niece.

Oh golly, I screwed something up recently.

I have been speaking to my nearly 16-year-old niece for a year about coming to Boulder and spending time together. I had ideas of things she might like here. I liked the idea of creating something special with and for her. She was game.

Now that such things are possible, we had been working on dates, and one idea was to have her fly here and then do a road trip together to her home in Portland to hang with that family for the first time in two years.

Then my mom called. And my energetic, social, more is merrier persona took over. “Mom, how about if you drive from Vegas to Boulder, see my house for the first time, and then you, aforementioned niece, and I will drive together to Portland.” She said yes, and I was off to the races. Booking cool hotels and adventures on the path, some for the three of us, some for just the younger two of us.

And then. Ugh. What did I skip?

Tell this story to any teenager, and they’ll get it right away. I didn’t ask my niece first. I completely, radically skipped over her agency and got caught up in the ease and excitement of this plan. And it IS a good plan. But it is not a plan I made collaboratively with my first adventure partner in the broader scheme of things.

You know the difference between a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old? Buckets of well-considered opinions, preferences, and agency.

You know the difference between a 53-year-old pre-pandemic me and me? A couple wrinkles and slightly more low-back pain. Nada.

I just missed it, and this is a mistake that is so familiar for me that I feel a little nauseated thinking that it’s still something I can do so unconsciously.

What exactly did I miss?

  • Other humans have opinions that might diverge from mine.
  • One other human might be excited at the opportunity to be with me 1-1, and dynamics with more people are different. Not everyone on earth thinks more is inherently better. If I’m honest and paying attention, even I don’t think it’s always better. But the draw to “more” is still nearly automatic.
  • I acted quickly because, haven’t you heard, faster is ALSO better! There’s “so much going on.”
  • Most poignantly for me, I missed the possibility that I could create a wonderful experience with my niece that would be “good enough.” I think, honestly, I was scared to fail. This three-way plan makes failure seem like less of a possibility.

I engage in quick changes of plans, routine, well-intentioned disregard of others’ views (they’ll LOVE this idea!), and lusty, passionate pivots often.

This was a wake-up call for me. I am better about this, but not perfect.

I called my niece and owned the entire issue with her. She said she’s happy with the plan, but understood that her feelings about it are separate from the lack of regard I exhibited through my actions.

Before we hung up, I said “I look forward to spending time with the near-adult version of you that I don’t know that well yet.” And the truth is this kid has always had opinions and preferences; she just hasn’t had as much authority or influence as she’s growing into now. I want to foster that in her and in anyone near me.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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