What the young and successful look forward to


Whatever else the Clinton presidency does, it has already shaped the precocious spirit of the '90s. This is no longer a country governed by old men, but one where the brightest kids in the class seem to have taken over while the teacher was out of the room.

Ever since Bill and Hillary and their entourage of 24-year-olds moved into the White House, Americans have been wondering about success and youth, and how well they go together in such different fields as politics, art, business and journalism.

Is it fun to get where you're going so fast? What does it mean for your future? Is life just a letdown after a stunning success at age 32? What are people like George Stephanopoulos going to do when they grow up?

The conventional cliche -- as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed when he wrote that there are no second acts in American lives -- is that youthful success can be a burden as well as a blessing.

Consider the story of Denny Hansen, the subject of a recent biography by his Yale classmate, author Calvin Trillin. Hansen, a Rhodes Scholar, made the cover of Life in the '50s as a symbol of the youthful promise of being in the top of the class at Yale.

Mr. Trillin and his college circle expected Hansen to be president one day, but his life didn't work out that way. Instead, in "Remembering Denny," Mr. Trillin wonders what led Hansen, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, to end his life at 55 by suicide.

But early success stories do not always end in tragedy. Consider Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence at 33 and had a pretty good career after that. Or Einstein, who had published his theory of relativity by age 25.

Plenty of precocious people fill the halls of the Clinton administration, since the president is known to favor people who remind him of himself when he was a little younger. Besides Mr. Stephanopoulos, senior adviser to President Clinton, they include Bruce Reed, who advises the president on domestic policy, and Kathleen deLaski, the first woman to serve as Pentagon press secretary.

On the question of whether their everyday work is fun, Mr. Reed and Ms. deLaski, both 34, left no doubt about it.

"It's a thrill just walking into the White House," says Mr. Reed, who keeps a list of Mr. Clinton's campaign promises taped to the wall. Ms. deLaski describes one whirlwind week of "zipping around the former Soviet Union, meeting heads of state." She sees her work as "the most interesting job I'll ever have."

34 is too old

In music, 34 would be much too late to bloom.

"In the fiddle business, if you don't have some kind of career going by 25, it's hard to start," says Cho-Liang Lin, 34, the Chinese-American violinist believed by many to be the best in the world under 40. When he made his American debut at 18, he thought it was "not a minute too early."

Looking back at the thrill of playing at Carnegie Hall and with four of the Big Five American orchestras by 21, Mr. Lin calls them "the most exciting events anyone can hope for." So, clearly, his brilliant career has been fun for him, too.

In the world of commerce, on the other hand, young entrepreneurs may sweat and struggle for a long time before they smell any roses. Alan Hirsch founded the Baltimore City Paper in 1978, when he was fresh out of Johns Hopkins Class of '77.

"Precociously stupid" is the way Mr. Hirsch sees himself in retrospect. If he and his partner, Russ Smith, "had the knowledge we acquired over eight years, we never would have tried it. We didn't know how hard and torturous it would be."

The point when things turned around, Mr. Hirsch says, was a Best of Baltimore party at the Hyatt Hotel in 1985. After that, he says, "we were no longer the City Paper who?"

Two years later, Mr. Hirsch and Mr. Smith sold the Baltimore and Washington City Papers to the tune of $4 million, when Mr. Hirsch was 31. "Before that, I was a schlepper," he says. "Then it was, Wow, you're a genius."

Pulitzer at 28

Most journalists just dream about winning a Pulitzer Prize. Sydney Freedberg won her first Pulitzer when she was 28, for a Detroit News series on suspicious shipboard deaths in the Navy. After the accolade, though, anxiety set in.

"I wish I would have been 55," Ms. Freedberg says. "Then I could have rested on my laurels. It was very hard, being so young. I wondered, will I ever echo this achievement?"

For Ms. Freedberg, there was a time when she thought the future could never equal her past. Then, as she tells the story, "I decided that this was just ridiculous. I started to have fun, go on my little crusades."

When she started to relax, she says, "I got lucky and won a Pulitzer." Again. At 37, she won her second prize for reporting in the Miami Herald on the criminal deeds of religious leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh, in 1991.

Some precocious people who love their lives in the present tense are bound to experience the same fear of the future that Ms. Freedberg did. When asked if this was the best and brightest chapter of her life, Ms. deLaski says, "I fear that it is. I hope that it is not. You hate to think you've peaked at 34."

"Washington is full of people who are former somethings," says Mr. Reed. When asked what his future holds besides that, he says, "It won't bother me to lead a more peaceful existence, where fortunes don't rise and fall with the daily newspaper, to spend time with my daughter."

However, Mr. Reed adds, "I can't promise I won't bore her with stories of the good old days in the Clinton administration."

Mr. Reed and Ms. deLaski might draw some comfort from the words of a bright young man in another precocious administration in American history. Richard Goodwin was a 29-year-old Wunderkind when he went to work as an adviser to President Kennedy. He also worked for President Johnson, writing the "Great Society" speech, and was campaigning with Robert Kennedy on the day he died.

Mr. Goodwin, now 61, left Washington for New England and began his writing career. His seasoned perspective is that youthful success is a very good thing indeed. "Having it happen when you're young is an enormous advantage," he says. "You don't need it anymore, you've already had it. It frees you mentally for other things."

Asked if he misses that time of his life, Mr. Goodwin says, "Not at all. It was over and I moved along. It was almost a relief, actually, to be away form the whole Washington scene."

Those experiences turned out to be rich mines for his memoir, "Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties."

Nor would Mr. Lin, the violin virtuoso, say that there was nothing left to look toward to as an artist. Though he will never play Carnegie Hall for the first time again, he tries "not to live eternally on those memories."

"I force myself to learn new works every year, to play chamber music, to read about the music I'm playing," says Mr. Lin. When a musician is 20, instinct can carry him through a performance, but at his age, "intellectual curiosity" must inform his interpretations.

Similarly, across other fields, people who achieved serious success when they were young say they had to strive to set new goals for themselves.

Several years after selling the City Paper, Mr. Hirsch now co-owns Donna's, a Mount Vernon cafe that was another successful start-up venture. "Once you've achieved something, there's no fun in being there again," he says.

Just a plateau

Another Baltimore native, Larry E. Jennings Jr., who rose to managing director of Legg Mason at 30, voiced the view that his current station is "not an end point, just a plateau on a long journey. I see myself as in the second or third grade of life."

So what will these precocious people do next?

zTC Ms. deLaski is unsure what "life after this job" will look like. Mr. Reed might write political commentary. "Perhaps the best part of our job is they don't leave us a lot of time to worry about what we're going to do next," he says.

Chances are, whatever they do, they will do just fine. According to Professor Julian Stanley, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins who studies math prodigies, precocious people generally fulfill their early promise over the course of their life and work.

Professor Stanley also points out that talents in math and music flower in the 20s, while verbal abilities tend to improve with age. That is good news for people who trade in words, in areas such as politics, journalism and business.

Contrary to popular myth, then, early success seems to be much more a blessing than a curse, at least in the '90s. As Mr. Jennings observes, because of this rapid rise, he knows a range of people "from yo to CEO."

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