“Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.”
These aren’t my words. They were written by Anne Helen Petersen in her recent BuzzFeed article “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.”
No surprise, the article has garnered quite a bit of attention. In it, Petersen draws on compelling stories that recount the daily frustrations that, for some millennials, highlight the discontent and feelings of deep disappointment at trying to make it in today’s world.
Petersen humbly acknowledges a core reality that many millennials have had to confront.
“I never thought the system was equitable. I knew it was winnable for only a small few. I just believed I could continue to optimize myself to become one of them. And it’s taken me years to understand the true ramifications of that mindset.”
Petersen poses a revealing question.
“So what happens when millennials start the actual search for that holy grail career — and start ‘adulting’ — but it doesn’t feel at all like the dream that had been promised?”
By the end of the long article Petersen answers her own question.
“[F]or the first time, I’m seeing myself, the parameters of my labor, and the causes of my burnout clearly. And it doesn’t feel like the abyss. It doesn’t feel hopeless. It’s not a problem I can solve, but it’s a reality I can acknowledge, a paradigm through which I can understand my actions….I don’t have a plan of action, other than to be more honest with myself about what I am and am not doing and why, and to try to disentangle myself from the idea that everything good is bad and everything bad is good. This isn’t a task to complete or a line on a to-do list, or even a New Year’s resolution. It’s a way of thinking about life, and what joy and meaning we can derive not just from optimizing it, but living it. Which is another way of saying: It’s life’s actual work.”
I have a message for those millennials who are struggling to find their way.
Think of your life’s story as an outer layer of skin—a mask you present to the world. I’ve learned from experience that getting lost and losing sight of one’s destination are part of a defining journey that shapes the texture of your life story.
The texture of your story can appear as tough and callous, thin and transparent, flexible and resilient, or worn and tattered. These are just a few of the myriad ways in which we can reflect our experience with the world to the world.
How we “show up” to others starts with how we “show up” to ourselves.
The texture of your story is influenced by how you interpret what (and who) you experience along the journey. While the journey may not entirely be in your control, how you interpret the adversity that surfaces along the way is, entirely, in your control.
Yes, life is hard. The system is not fair or balanced. But you have discovered this already.
Langston Hughes, one of the most prolific writers of the Harlem Renaissance, offers all of us a caution about putting our dreams aside if we’re willing to listen.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Hughes calls on each of us to answer the question.
Don’t be angry because you have to answer it. Be thankful for the opportunity to answer it.
As you do so, here are a few things to think about.
Instead of giving up on your dream, find the courage to continue to pursue it, despite the obstacles ahead of you. Just appreciate that you may need to adjust your arrival time. Arriving late is still better than not arriving at all.
Accept the fact that some of the road maps prescribed to you by others may no longer be suitable for the journey you are on. Your parent’s road map does not have to be your road map. Stop looking for THE road map and design your OWN road map.
Embrace the truth that the destinations you’ve been sold may, in fact, be illusions. Security may not come from that advanced degree or that career promotion. Happiness and balance are not permanent end states. They are moments in time—hopefully moments that endure—but moments nonetheless.
You may think that the fuel you need for power will come from your education or from the titles and positions of responsibility you collect at work. Unfortunately, none of these are lasting sources of power. The fuel you’ll need comes in the form of resilience, perseverance, and a sense of purpose. And, I forgot to add, the true source of power comes from humility. The world doesn’t revolve around our expectations.
Finally, consider that the dream may not lie in the destination at all. Perhaps the dream is in the pursuit itself. Or, better yet, maybe the dream rests in how we pursue the things we value.
And that’s a pursuit that lasts a lifetime.