What Separates the Peter Pans from the Pros


Recently my friend Tina (aka SwissMiss) tweeted: “Never felt more grown-up than now in 2015. Have I peaked? What is the most grown-up experience one can have?”

It got me thinking: What are the qualities that distinguish us, specifically, as adults? And are those qualities necessarily positive? It took me about a week to figure it out, but I concluded that what ultimately separates grown-ups from children is the notion of commitment.

A passage in Sheila Heti’s book How Should A Person Be? gave me the answer. I’ve returned to this “fable” numerous times since I read it years ago. The setup is that the main character, who’s coincidentally named Sheila, wants to give up on a creative project that she’s been struggling with. In a panic, she coordinates an emergency call with her analyst, who explains that because Sheila is so obsessed with choosing the perfect project to complete—the one that’s a guaranteed home run—that she never chooses anything. Basically, she can’t commit.

This is how her analyst describes her Peter Pan syndrome (bolding is mine):

You remember the puer aeternus—the eternal child—Peter Pan—the boy who never grows up, who never becomes a man? Or it’s like in ‘The Little Prince’—when the prince asks the narrator to draw him a sheep. The narrator tries and tries again, but each time he fails to do it as well as he wishes. He believes himself to be a great artist and cannot understand why it’s not working. In a fit of frustration, he instead draws a box—something he can do well. When the prince asks how it’s a picture of a sheep, the narrator replies that it’s a picture of a sheep in a box. He is arrogantly proud of his solution and satisfied with his efforts. This response is typical of all puers. Such people will suddenly tell you they have another plan, and they always do it the moment things start getting difficult. But it’s their everlasting switching that’s the dangerous thing, not what they choose.

Because people who live their lives this way can look forward to a single destiny, shared with others of this type—though such people do not believe they represent a type, but feel themselves distinguished from the common run of man, who they see as held down by the banal anchors of the world. But while others actually build a life in which things gain in meaning and significance, this is not true of the puer. Such a person inevitably looks back on life as it nears its end with a feeling of emptiness and sadness, aware of what they have built: nothing. In their quest for a life without failure, suffering, or doubt, that is what they achieve: a life empty of all those things that make a human life meaningful. And yet they started off believing themselves too special for this world!

But—and here is the hope—there is a solution for people of this type, and it’s perhaps not the solution that could have been predicted. The answer for them is to build on what they have begun and not abandon their plans as soon as things start getting difficult. They must work—without escaping into fantasies about being the person who worked. And I don’t mean work for it’s own sake, but they must choose work that is gnawing at their guts, which is not to be avoided but must be realized and lived through the hard work and suffering that inevitably comes with the process.

They must reinforce and build on what is in their life already rather than always starting anew, hoping to find a situation without danger. Puers don’t need to check themselves into analysis. If they can just remember this: It is their everlasting switching that is the dangerous thing, not what they choose.

They might discover themselves saved. The problem is the puer ever anticipates loss, disappointment, and suffering—which they foresee at the end of every experience, so they cut themselves off at the beginning, retreating almost at once in order to protect themselves. In this way, they never give themselves to life—living in constant dread of the end. Reason, in this case, has taken too much from life.”

When the going gets rough in any creative or entrepreneurial project, what we require isn’t reason or rationality, it’s sheer tenacity—commitment to our abilities, commitment to our process, commitment to finishing even in the face of the inevitable setbacks. This is what separates children from the adults, and the Peter Pans from the Pros.

If being grown up means being committed—to a business, a project, a person—then it’s impossible to peak. And the deeper the commitment, the deeper the meaning that can emerge.

Get more tips on how to activate your creativity and do the work that matters:

Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.

I created the online course RESET, a cosmic tune-up for your workday, and I host Hurry Slowly, a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient by slowing down. Occasionally, I write books and give talks too.
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