I’m a Millennial and I Don’t Understand My Peers—Not Even a Little Bit

November 11, 2015

I’ve always had trouble relating to kids in my generation.

Other than my wife and a few exceptions, most of my friends are much older and always seem to have been. As I’ve achieved some semblance of success, my peers have tended to be older too.

The result is that I feel old all the time. When I watch a show like Girls it’s usually with a mix of horror and confusion—probably like an ill-humored liberal watching the Colbert Report. What is going on here? Do monstrous people like this really exist? I honestly am not sure if the show is satire or criticism or portraiture.

The first time I met the writer Liana Maeby these feelings were very much in play. It was at a barbeque on the front yard of a house in Culver City. Drew Grant from the Observer was there. So was Daniel O’Brien, a senior editor at Cracked. I remember walking through the house—whoever’s it was—and thinking: I have nothing in common with most of these people.

As we all stood outside and talk, Liana told me she was a writer and working on a novel. I’m sure my reaction was feigned interest. I can’t imagine I ever expected to hear about it again. Because millennials are always talking about stuff they never actually end up doing, especially when it comes to art.

At first, I felt some relation to Liana’s character—someone I assume is at least partially autobiographical since she basically has the same name (Leila Massey) and from what I know of her, the same backstory. Leila is a young screenwriter who everyone sees as the next big thing. She has heat, she has momentum, big jobs come her way. I’ve been there. I’ve felt that.

This relation was short-lived. Because the writer throws it away. Drugs. Alcohol. Work aversion. Pointless travel. The momentum is frittered away. The career torpedoed.

Why? Angst. That perpetual ruiner of promising young talent.

Perhaps that’s what I have trouble relating to and what makes me feel apart. The only angst I’ve ever felt is over not working enough. I don’t fear missing out, I worry constantly that I’m being irresponsible. Like, am I investing enough for retirement? Am I turning things down out of youthful ego or entitlement? When I dropped out of college, it wasn’t because the traditional path scared me—it’s that I wasn’t moving along it as quickly as I desired. I wanted it all now: job, relationship, house. I wanted freedom, but only to skip the dicking around that seemed baked into the process.

At most parties, I’m the only one not drinking. I never really have and don’t quite see the point. Liana joined me in abstaining at that party, for reasons that were much clearer after reading the book. This desire to obliterate oneself—endemic to the binge culture of my young friends and peers—is another one I’ve always had trouble understanding. It’s part and parcel with the angst. It’s a cycle—unhappy and unfulfilled, we make poor choices, which lead us to the escapes that make reality more tolerable. God forbid you were born with the wrong biochemistry and the cycle can be nearly impossible to break.

It fascinates me to see others struggle and rebel against themselves, as the character in her book seems to. Why the self-destruction? Why the idleness? Where does the inability to make decisions come from? Why can’t they commit? What if early on they had lost themselves in something different—work, purpose, relationships?

It’s said that millennials—graduating into the Great Recession—are the Lost Generation. This has always felt like an excuse to me. The directions are the same as they’ve always been. Nobody wants to look them up and follow them. Because it’s somehow inauthentic.

There is a theme in Liana’s book that may hint at what lies at the root of it all. It’s a trait particularly potent to writers, but in a world where everyone publishes, everyone suffers from it. It’s as if the young writer sees her life as a work to be produced instead of to live. Leila, like Arturo Bandini in John Fante’s famous novels about LA, sees life happening “across a page in a typewriter.” Where Bandini saw every moment as a potential poem, a play, a story, a news article with him as its main character, Leila’s book actually lapses into script—literally, in a clever use of meta-fiction.

It turns out she was more than complicit in her own downfall. In fact, she was writing the film of her life. Justifying her addiction as part of a plan to hit “rock fucking bottom.” She brags to her agent that one day, they can “can make a movie about it” and the “town will lose its fucking mind.” The last words of the novel appear in script typeface: “WE FADE TO BLACK.”

It’s this obsession with performance—this performing for an imaginary audience—that makes the ordinary so difficult for most people. It’s something I’ve come to ascribe to a concept from Nassim Taleb—the narrative fallacy. This idea that your life is some unfolding story and it must be constantly exciting and compelling. It’s why young people have always been drawn to Los Angeles and New York, the places certified in the movies and television and books of their formative youth.

Work is hard to capture in an Instagram photo. A boring life centered around your craft doesn’t make for good blog posts. Living up to commitments and obligations and a sense of right and wrong—this violates the image we have of what a glamorous artist gets to do.

Maybe that’s Liana’s point. Maybe that’s the truth she’s trying to get at, having been to the other side and back.

Or maybe I’m just wired like a premature old man and I don’t get it at all.

But I’m glad she wrote it. I’m glad she shipped the book.

This post appeared originally on the New York Observer



Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

18 responses to I’m a Millennial and I Don’t Understand My Peers—Not Even a Little Bit

  1. Completely agree. After the military, I saw most millennial relationships (my own included) as fearful pacts of mutually assured destruction. All parties must seek to be equally mediocre or destructive. The second one party hints at ambition, values, or purpose they’re either ostracized or scapegoated.

  2. I am 48 and have mixed feelings about the Millenial stereotype. Sometimes I think it’s all a bunch of over-hyped nonsense. I have plenty of hardworking Millenials in the business unit I run. People are people, after all.

    Having said that, there are plenty of negatives about this generation. You highlighted some of them, and I add to that the short attention spans and poor social skills that result from technology – including the perils of multi-tasking and the inability to be alone with one’s thoughts.

    Funny that you should mention Taleb, because I just finished “Antifragile” and have been thinking a lot about what is truly “antifragile” in culture and society, the benefits of adhering to “old school” ways and the value of wisdom and knowledge that comes with age. Yet the younger generation always at best discounts this, and at worst discards it. Perhaps I am coming around to this perspective only because of my own advancing age. On the other hand, maybe it is the natural process of realizing what is truly lasting (antifragile) after the haze of my 20s and 30s have passed.

    The “neo-mania” that Taleb writes about in his book can be truly deleterious. Yet I think this is always a characteristic of the younger generation; only the manifestations are unique to the Millenials. In other words, different symptoms, same disease?

  3. Hey Ryan,

    I originally read this piece back when it was in The Observer. It’s one of my favorites of yours.

    I feel the exact same way. Everyone around me is simultaneously lost, ambitious, and not willing to be a craftsman.

    Your difference to these people is your willingness to sit down, shut up, do the work, and be a craftsman. My difference is is an inherent belief that I’m absolutely insignificant, and as long as I’m healthy and living up to my values, nothing else matters. (I think both of these approaches are different sides of the same coin.)

    Ironically, I’ve received more success than those obsessed with the narrative fallacy (and have developed a story that some people thirst to hear along the way). Clearly, you have, too.

    I feel like the conclusions we’ve both come to are the types of conclusions most people come to ~40. Maybe we’re just too ahead of the game for our own good.

  4. I see the “I’m going to graduate school” reasons among some of my friends as well. Not sure what to say to some of them except I always recommend The Obstacle Is The Way to them.

  5. Glad to see some posts finding their way here again.

    One of the quotes I have on my desk (thanks to you) is one I read from Mark Twain, via Tim Ferriss: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

  6. Glad to see some sane comments about the Millenial work ethic. Still, you can try to criticize your generational cohorts without becoming a Gen X bootlicker next time.

  7. Hey Ryan,

    Really great post. I myself dropped out of school at 20 and haven’t looked back.

    I experienced some serious existential crises as I tried to rationalize why I hated parties, why I felt so impatient with the novelty of college and why I couldn’t read a dang thing I was handed in my college courses but could get lost in any book of my own choosing.

    I’m 21 now, and haven’t felt an ounce of regret for the decision I made. I’ve been able to do some traveling to South America, Asia and have turned toward the apprenticeship model, working in a scaling digital marketing company where I have fantastically entrepreneurial responsibilities.

    Your works and words have been a large influence for this 60 year old in a millennial’s body!

  8. Young Gen X was like this too, more or less. We grew out of it, so will you … although we didn’t have the Internet so young. That may be the major difference that amplifies the angst in all directions.

  9. I started Robert Greene’s Mastery today and just read the following except, immediately thinking of your article. I thought it might be worth pointing out the unsurprising mind meld of you two:

    “We live in a world that seems increasingly beyond our control. Our livelihoods are at the whim of globalized forces. The problems that we face – economic, environmental, and so on- cannot be solved by our individual actions. Our politicians are distant and unresponsive to our desires. A natural response when people feel overwhelmed is to retreat into various forms of passivity. If we don’t try too much in life, if we limit our circle of action, we can give ourselves the illusion of control. The less we attempt, the less chances of failure. If we can make it look like we are not really responsible for our fate, for what happens to us in life, then our apparent powerlessness is more palatable. For this reason we become attracted to certain narratives: it is genetics that determine much of what we do; we are just products of our times; the individual is just a myth; human behavior can be reduced to statistical trends.

    Many take this change in value a step further, giving their passivity a positive veneer. They romanticize the destructive artist who loses control of him – herself. Anything that smacks of discipline or effort seems fussy and passe: what matters is the feeling behind the artwork, and any hint of craftsmanship or work violates this principle. They come to accept things that are made cheaply and quickly. The idea that they might have to expend much effort to get what they want has been eroded by the proliferation of devices that do so much of the work for them, fostering the idea that they deserve all of this – that it is their inherent right to have and to consume what they want. “Why bother working for years to attain mastery when we can have so much power for very little effort? Technology will solve everything.” This passivity has even assumed a moral stance: “mastery and power are evil; they are the domain of the patriarchal elites who oppress us; power is inherently bad; better to opt our of the system altogether,” or at least make it look that way.

  10. Everyone’s life is a performance. We are all performing because life is how the universe amuses itself. The problem is we think we must perform for other people, and not for ourselves.

    Not sure if you’re familiar with Alan Watts’ work Ryan, but you might like to give it a read. He breaks down Eastern wisdom from Hinduism to Buddhism to Taoism in ways that scientific Western minds can easily grasp.

  11. You know Ryan, you just put my thoughts into words in this post. It’s a shame that there is so much of that “dicking around” in the process of college and it really feels like some filler years. Thankfully there are some alternative paths for who don’t want to go through all of that. I’ll certainly be referring some people back to this article when this topic inevitably comes up again in conversation.

  12. I feel like INFINITE JEST could really sort all this shit out for you.

  13. I’m reminded by this of that Victor Hugo quote, “Adversity makes men; prosperity makes monsters.” Or to put it another way (and the way I usually think of it), humans seem to handle scarcity with far more grace than they do abundance. (I guess “The obstacle is the way” might be a third way 😉

    If you haven’t already, I’d recommend you pick up a copy of Strauss and Howe’s The Fourth Turning. It’s a fascinating book, based on the idea that, like everything else in nature, human civilizational development moves not in a straight line, but in cycles–more particularly, four-part, roughly 80-year cycles—and where one is born in any particular cycle determines to a great degree one’s outlook on life, among many other things.

    According to the book, we in the western world now find ourselves at the end of one of those cycles—the fourth turning, to be exact—and are now experiencing everything that goes with such a time in history.

    In some ways, it’s an almost too-neat premise, and the authors have to do a little shoehorning sometimes to make it fit with their historical data. But overall, I found it a really interesting book, and looking at history and current trends through their lens to be very instructive.

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