In this graduation season, I thought I’d share the best advice I ever received: You can’t make a mistake before you’re 30. Granted, there are a few things wrong with this advice.

First, it’s ambiguous. The intended meaning is not zero tolerance for youthful error — quite the opposite. The point is that youth and early adulthood is the time for some — since I have teenage daughters, emphasis on the some — risk-taking and experimentation.Second, as the previous sentence suggests, of course it’s possible to make a mistake before you’re 30, a serious one. Because one of my daughters is about to graduate from high school and head to Beach Week, there has been a lot of talk in our house about exactly the kind of mistakes you want to avoid.

But the larger point of this advice remains true, important and, in an age of Tiger Moms and Helicopter Parents, under-emphasized.

Yes, our children need to study hard and do well. They need to develop habits of personal responsibility and good citizenship. They need to find interests and passions, and learn to stick to them.

There also needs to be — as adults, we should make clear that there is — space for experimentation, perhaps even failure.
(Okay, if you are reading this and you know me, you are probably laughing right now, because there is a certain practice-what-you-preach irony here. Failure is not a Ruth option. Unless you are reading this and are my parents, in which case you are wondering: What on earth has gotten into her and what is she telling our granddaughters?)

What I mean is that we need to back off, as parents and as a society, and stop expecting our children to become teenage specialists, directed and driven toward particular goals before they have had a chance to sample the menu of possibilities.

If you know that you want to be a doctor, buckle down and go for it. But if you are heading off to college uncertain about where your studies and interests are going to take you, that’s all right.

In fact, better than all right; you ought to be open to the glorious possibilities of accident and happenstance. How can you know if you might be interested in linguistics or neuroscience or Chinese or ancient Greek history before you have had a chance to try them?

With our well-intentioned questions and understandable emphasis on a defined career path, we encourage the premature closing of the teenage mind.

I had no clue, in heading off to college, that I was interested in journalism or that it would become my career. I had not, gasp, been on my high school newspaper.
Yet I wandered into the college newspaper, was assigned my first story (where to buy firewood for your dorm room) and (despite the fact that the ensuing byline read Roseanne Marcus; I was too shy to put my own name at the top) fell in love with the enterprise.

The can’t-make-a-mistake-before-you’re-30 advice came after college graduation, when I was weighing my first newspaper job. It came from a Capitol Hill staffer, grizzled, or so I thought — I’m older now than he was then. I had been offered a job at a new legal newspaper and was, characteristically, agonizing. Take that position and stay in Washington? Or follow the traditional route, a reporting job at a regional paper?

At which point my friend Mike delivered his wisdom on life before 30. I took the job in Washington. It led to a valuable detour to law school and connections at The Post, where my paper’s editor had worked.

It wasn’t a mistake, but it could have been. Mike’s admonition provided the psychic freedom to risk it.

We need more of that. At a Bloomberg News lunch with Stanford President John Hennessy recently, I asked what worried him most about students. “Stress is an issue,” he said. “We have kids, most of whom have never seen a grade on their report card that had a rounded curve. . . . Everybody’s expectation is they’re going to the moon.” Then they encounter chemistry or another challenge, and “they’re shellacked.”

Which offers the opportunity for a reminder: You can’t make a mistake before you’re 30. Still, please, please, stay safe at Beach Week. And text your mom when you get in for the night.

By Ruth Marcus – 2013, June 5