Wednesday, January 14, 2009

To My Generation

Devin and I recently had the rare privilege to have a conversation, in person, regarding the things you just read about in his last post. The conversation was far too short, but if you were paying attention to what he wrote, you know we made the most of the time we had.

Talking about making the most of all of the gifts and time you have been given is fun and easy enough, the tricky part is figuring out what exactly it is you will be doing when you busy yourself not wasting a minute. Yes, I am talking about discerning one's vocation. A daunting task for anybody, and one that can surely consume a thoughtful person at any age, but I imagine there is a uniquely terrifying character about it when you are seriously addressing it for the first time in your early twenties.

You see, at this age we are naive, and we fear that we have only a matter of months to make the plans that will determine whether we will be happy or depressed for the rest of our lives. This misconception aside, we youngsters have another problem: we are extremely reluctant to take a stance on what really excites us. After all, how are we supposed to know, of all people? We only recently recovered from a debilitating condition known as "childhood."

Childhood is characterized by years upon years of praise and encouragement flowing over you at all times. Children, the most common sufferers of this ailment, are often told things like "you can do anything you want to" and then given minor obstacles to easily overcome, affirming the idea that they really can do anything. It is normal for children in this situation to start holding the concept of conquering small obstacles in very high regard – even as an end unto itself. For in the world of children, there is no end to the parade of obstacles coming before you, each only a little more difficult than the last. At the same time there is no end to the support you receive along the way, nor the applause when you daily find yourself capable of a little bit more than you were the day before.

Then one day, you and your buddy are going for a car ride through the snowy potholes of Chicago and you realize the river of childhood obstacles ran dry a short while back without you noticing. You feel a little lost, and you question your own ability to make decisions. It occurs to you that your inclination to apply to grad school may be just the latest manifestation of your addiction to sequential obstacle conquering; the easiest and most logical way to prove yourself once again. Even worse - what if that was the only reason you marched off to college so boldly? You suddenly can't remember the last time you did something because it was your own original idea, leaving you feeling rather weak and disappointingly...childish.

But you have decision to make. How are you supposed to do it now?

Remember the first mistake I mentioned young people making: assuming they have a short amount of time secure a future of happiness for themselves by choosing the right career. Just because you don't yet know exactly what sort of work carries you away and makes the hours fly by with a thrilling and fulfilling rush, it doesn't mean you can't start trying things out. In the roughly quoted words of Benjamin Button, "I hope that when you find yourself in circumstances that don't suit you, that you have the strength to start over and change them."

One reason the pressure to choose correctly is so intense is because of the generally false correlation in our society between success in your career and happiness. Even more disturbing is the common belief that success if defined by money. Now, I don't need to be the next person in line to act like I am special for knowing that money is not what is important in life. That is really old news, even if it is still generally ignored. But these societal forces are acting on your troubled mind at all times. Should you follow your childhood passions to a life in the lower middle class or use your talents to achieve the sorts of things that will be rewarded with large amounts of money?

While discussing this question with friends recently, the intriguing words of an accomplished doctor were relayed to me fourth hand. He said "I can afford anything, except my own time." This doctor may very well have been following his passions when he applied to medical school, but now he has a problem. Too much of his time is demanded from him and the compensation he receives for it is money. It is a sad situation to find yourself in, but certainly one that we are all encouraged to pursue, at least implicitly. There almost seems to be shame associated with not being willing to put in the incredible amounts of time required to prove how important your career is to you. But I think that is backwards. Perhaps we should be ashamed of how much of our lives we are willing to sacrifice for such worthless rewards as riches or fame.

Even if you feel unfazed by the allure of money and acclaim, the pressure to succeed is not gone. You still want to do your best and make a real difference in the world. The illusion that time is slipping away from you may even be greater for you as you watch society's problems worsen faster than you can address them. So regardless of your motivations, the ability to resist the pressure to succeed ASAP requires obnoxious amounts of patience. In the real world, the chance to make your mark is not simply a matter of finding the right organization and signing up. No matter how impressive your list of previously conquered obstacles may be, you must start at the bottom to work your way to the forefront of the issues that concern you. Making a difference happens in small pieces that add up over a lifetime. You can’t call something successful until it is finished, and you are only just getting started.

On the positive side of being young, a lifetime of childhood and a successful college career can have you feeling extremely valuable and capable. Two important things for a young person to feel as they try to make their way in the world, but you need more than abilities and pride to make it in the end. You sit at home, mental and social tools in hand, waiting for the phone to ring. Somebody out there must have an important job that needs to be done and you know you are up to the task. But the phone just isn't ringing... What childhood and college often do not equip you with is a sense of direction and ambition. You are the perfect candidate for any job that you are told to do. The one thing you need to practice a little more is deciding what you should do.

An older and wiser man, upon hearing the plight of the talented college graduates sitting and waiting to be told what to do next remarked that it is a trend he has noticed in my generation. A sad trend, because he thought the desire to succeed is not compatible with the desire to be told what to do. I thought about this myself and realized that I would put it this way: the desire to lead is not compatible with the need to follow.

I said to Devin during our conversation about these things, "I would gladly be a leader, and a damn good one too, if someone would just tell me that's what I should do." Slightly paradoxical, but that is the struggle we face right now. We have time, talent and confidence; we just don't know what to do with them yet. Let's not allow that to bother us, or make us feel like we are lagging behind. Let's not search for the easy answers in the wrong places and pay for it later, or sit around waiting for opportunity to come knocking, let itself in and make itself at home. We will enjoy every moment we have, using them to boldly move forward with a slowly developing sense of purpose. We will remember that no matter what happens, we have the power to change things, and that happiness is always close at hand.

Or we'll try to at least.


  1. I always believed that sooner or later you would lead, so go do it already, so I can follow you.

  2. You guys should watch an old movie called The Candidate, with Robert Redford. I don't want to spoil it, but there's a very pithy two-word question that Redford's character asks at the end that encapsulates some of what you and Devin have been talking about. (Yes, it's in color; I know your gen can't stand B&W movies.)

    As I've said to Devin, at this point in your life, it's pretty hard for a few (reasonable!) choices to screw up the rest of your life. Other than waking up one day in your 50s and discovering you should have gone to medical school, you shouldn't stress that your path will be permanently fixed by your next choice. It's rarely that way, and as an example, we boomers held an average of 10.8 jobs from ages 18 to 42 (

    The only way to be prepared for something like that is to be prepared for anything. So if you think you should go to school, go to school. If you think you should wait until you're sure what to study, go ahead and wait. It will all turn out. I'll dig up another oldie but moldie quote from an ancient movie, Roadie, in which the immortal bard, Meatloaf, utters: "Everything works if you let it."

    Success is what YOU decide it is, not what somebody tells you it is, or tells you to do. You're going to have a dozen or so jobs in your life, and they don't have to all be doing the same thing. So get after it.

    P.S. OK, one more movie you must see, if only to be truly culturally literate, is The Graduate. There's another great moment at the end of that one, too, that is pertinent. I know even Blockbuster has that one. ;=}

  3. 1) Orthodontic Lab Tech.
    2) Bellman and Front Desk Attendant.
    3) Target HQ Recruiter.
    4) Zamboni Driver.
    5) TV Studio Tech and Teaching Assistant
    6) Barback then Bartender.
    7) Church Youth Ministry Director.

    All between the ages of 18 and 22, often overlapping 2 or 3 at a time... I could tell you a hundred stories of joy and pain from each. Perhaps someday that could happen over some coffee.

    All I know is that I have learned so much from each of these positions. They have all steered me in a new direction and allowed me to discover where my passions are.

    Great post, Alex. I love this stuff.