(Photo: BK/Flickr)

The media narrative about millennials is well worn right now. You’ll read they’re lazy, narcissistic, soft, and entitled. It’s a great way to get pageviews—it either gratifies the older reader, or it pisses of the younger one. The result is a lot of comments and angry Facebook shares.

Of course, this doesn’t accomplish anything. The reality is that the economic situation for millennials is not a good one. Thirty-six percent of our generation still lives with their parents. Unemployment for millennials is twice the national average. Half of all Millennials have taken a job they didn’t want just to pay the bills and only 30 percent consider their current job a career. According to one 2011 study by the University of Michigan, many graduates aren’t even bothering to learn how to drive. The road is blocked, they are saying, so why get a license I won’t be able to use? Despite student loan debt rising above $1 trillion, surpassing credit card debt, we go back to school.

And a lot of young people are stuck because of it. We are paralyzed by the obstacles which lay before us. Fear. Frustration. Confusion. Helplessness. Anger. Depression. These are understandable emotions in the face of what seems like insurmountable obstacles everywhere we look.

Of course, this has always been the case for young people. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1841:

“If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life.”

If that was printed in The New Yorker tomorrow under a different name, no one would bat an eye. That’s because our situation is not unique. We’re all, at varying points in our lives, subject to random and often incomprehensible events. It just so happens that when we are young we don’t have the framework to deal with these problems. We have no idea how to turn them around.

But we are in great luck, because we can find examples in the icons of history who used this formula to persevere and turn their obstacles into advantage. They took what should have held them back—paralyzed with the same emotions we are feeling—and used it to achieve great success. Just like them we have the ability to see our obstacles for what they are and attack them to achieve what we want in life. Like them, we can use the following framework to stand out amongst those who remain mired in this rut.

Control Your Perceptions
John D. Rockefeller took his first job in 1855 at the age of 16 making 50 cents a day. Less than two years later the Panic of 1857 struck. It was at the time the greatest market depression in US history and it had hit him just as he was starting his career. Instead of getting angry or growing despondent, he looked at the panic as an opportunity to learn, a baptism in the market. Within 20 years of that first crisis, Rockefeller would alone control 90 percent of the oil market. We can try to see disaster rationally. Or rather, like Rockefeller, we can see opportunity in every disaster, and transform that negative situation into an education, a skill set, or a fortune.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the classic series Little House, faced some of the toughest and unwelcoming elements on the planet: harsh and unyielding soil, Indian territory, and the humid backwoods of Florida. But Wilder wasn’t afraid or jaded, she saw all these unforgiving environments as adventures. As she put it: “There is good in everything, if only we look for it.”

For us, we face things that are not nearly as intimidating, and then promptly decide we’re screwed. Just because other people say that something is hopeless or crazy or broken to pieces doesn’t mean it is. We decide what story to tell ourselves. Or whether we will tell one at all. That is the power of perception.

Direct Your Actions
When former President James Garfield couldn’t afford his tuition at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in 1851, he paid his way through by persuading the school to let him be the janitor in exchange for tuition. Within just one year of starting at the school he was a professor—teaching a full course load in addition to his studies. By his 26th birthday he was the dean.

In the 1920s Amelia Earhart couldn’t make a living as a female pilot, so she took a job as a social worker. Then one day the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a pretty offensive offer: She could be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but she wouldn’t actually fly the plane and she wouldn’t get paid anything. Guess what she said to the offer? She said yes. Less than five years later she was the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic and became, rightly, one of the most famous and respected people in the world.

Sometimes, on the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. Often when we are just starting out, our first jobs “introduce us to the broom,” as Andrew Carnegie famously put it. There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another opportunity to excel—and to learn.

Strengthen Your Will
Theodore Roosevelt spent almost everyday during the first 12 years of his life struggling with horrible asthma. The attacks were an almost nightly near-death experience. But as a fragile child born into great wealth and status, he could have remained weak and would have been taken care of throughout his life.

Instead, he one day looked at his father and said with determination: “I’ll make my body.” He proceeded to work out feverishly every day for the next five years. By his early twenties his battle against asthma was essentially over. Roosevelt had worked it out of his body. Like Roosevelt, we can choose to not accept the hand we’re dealt with, a hand we don’t control. Instead of sitting back and enjoying the modern cushy life, we can prepare for the adversity that is all but guaranteed to come our way and react accordingly.

Abraham Lincoln’s life was defined by enduring and transcending great difficulty. He grew up in poverty, lost his mother while he was still a child, and suffered through intense bouts of depression. Because of the difficulties he endured in both his personal life and as President, he was able to embody the Stoic maxim: sustine et abstine. Bear and forbear. Acknowledge the pain but trod onward in your task. With all our modern technology has come the conceited delusion that we control the world around us, which is of course not true. We can follow Lincoln’s example andadjust to a world that is inherently unpredictable by remaining confident, calm, and ready to work regardless of the conditions.

Our generation needs to always remember that over a hundred years before us, people stood right where we were and felt very similar things, struggling with the same issues. People have always had to dig themselves out of messes they had nothing to do with creating.

This is a recession, not the Great Depression. Those that came before us dealt with much worse problems and had fewer safety nets and tools at their disposal. They dealt with the same obstacles we have today, plus those that they worked so hard and sacrificed their lives to eliminate for us.

We’d be so much better following the lead of Emerson’s counterexample, as someone who “tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet.”

This is perseverance. And with it, Emerson said, “with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear.”

The post appeared originally on the New York Observer


There is an old Zen story about a king whose people had grown soft and entitled. Dissatisfied with this state of affairs, he hoped to teach them a lesson. His plan was simple: He would place a large boulder in the middle of the main road, completely blocking entry into the city. He would then hide nearby and observe their reactions.

How would they respond? Would they band together to remove it? Or would they get discouraged, quit, and return home?

 With growing disappointment, the king watched as subject after subject came to this impediment and turned away. Or, at best, tried halfheartedly before giving up. Many openly complained or cursed the king or fortune or bemoaned the in- convenience, but none managed to do anything about it.

After several days, a lone peasant came along on his way into town. He did not turn away. Instead he strained and strained, trying to push it out of the way. Then an idea came to him: He scrambled into the nearby woods to find some- thing he could use for leverage. Finally, he returned with a large branch he had crafted into a lever and deployed it to dislodge the massive rock from the road.

Beneath the rock were a purse of gold coins and a note from the king, which said:

The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.

What if you had the ability to flip your obstacles and turn them into opportunities?

Here are 10 historical strategies for doing just that—practiced by great men and women throughout the centuries.

Strategy 1: Alter Your Perspective

Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. — Viktor Frankl

We chose how we look at things. How we approach an obstacle determines how daunting it will be to overcome.

By controlling our irrational emotions, we are able to see thing as they are, not as we perceive them to be.

Think of it as selective editing—not to deceive others, but to properly orient ourselves.

Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.

Strategy 2: Flip The Obstacle On Its Head

There is good in everything, if only we look for it.— Laura Ingalls Wilder

The events that we initially perceive as negative all contain a positive, exposed benefit that we can recognize and act on.

A computer glitch that destroys your work is now a means to make it twice as good because you’re better prepared.

Having a terrible boss is now an opportunity to learn from his faults while you fill up your resume and look for better jobs elsewhere.

Notice this is a complete mental flip: Seeing through the negative, past its underside and through to the positive.

Strategy 3: Stay Moving, Always.

We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out. — Theodore Roosevelt

Those who attack problems and life with most initiative and energy usually win.

Courage is really just taking action. Start by saying yes to create momentum and you’ll be on your way.

Obstacles seem more intimidating when we stop to look up at them.

Strategy 4: Fail Cheaply and Quickly

What is defeat? Nothing but education; nothing but the first steps to something better. —Wendell Phillips

Engineers now like to quip: Failure is a Feature.

There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. Each time it happens, new options open up to us and problems can be flipped into opportunities.

When failure does come ask: Why did this happen? This helps birth alternative ways of doing what needs to be done. Failure puts you in corners you have to think your way out of and is a source of breakthroughs.

Strategy 5: Follow The Process

Under the comb the tangle and the straight path are the same. — Heraclitus

In the chaos of life, process provides us a way.

For whatever obstacles you come across, take a breath, do the immediate, composite part in front of you—and follow its thread into the next action.

The process is about doing the little things, right now. Not worrying about what might happen later, or the results, or the whole picture.

Strategy 6: What’s Right Is What Works

I don’t care if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice. — Deng Xiaoping

We spend a lot of time thinking about how things are supposed to be.

As they say in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it doesn’t matter how you get our opponent to the ground, only that you take them down.

Start thinking like a radical pragmatist: not on changing the world right at this moment,but ambitious enough to get everything you need.

Think progress, not perfection.

Strategy 7: Use The Flank Attack

Where little danger is apprehended, the more the enemy will be unprepared and consequently there is the fairest prospect of success. — George Washington

Think about this: In a study of more than 280 military campaigns, only two percent were decided on a direct attack on the enemy’s main army.

Being overmatched don’t have to be a disadvantage. It forces us to find workarounds, instead of challenging our enemy head on.

Remember, sometimes the longest way around is the shortest way home.

Strategy 8: Use The Obstacle Against Itself

Wise men are able to make a fitting use even of their enemies. — Plutarch

Action has many definitions. Sometimes you overcome obstacles not by attacking them but by withdrawing and letting them attack you.

A castle can be an intimidating, impenetrable fortress, or it can be turned into a prison when surrounded. The difference is simply a shift in action and approach.

So instead of fighting obstacles, find a means of making them defeat themselves.

Strategy 9: Seize The Offensive

The best men are not those who have waited for chances but who have taken them; besieged chance, conquered the change, and made chance the servitor. — E.H. Chapin

Ordinary people shy away from negative situations and avoid trouble. What great people do is the opposite.

They never waste an opportunity to flip a personal tragedy or crisis to their advantage.

At certain moments in our brief existences we are faced with great trials. We must see that this “problem” presents an opportunity for a solution that we have long been waiting for.

It is in these moments that we must seize the offensive, because it is when people least expect it that we can pull off our biggest victories.

Strategy 10: Focus On Something Bigger Than Yourself

A man’s job is to make the world a better place to live in, so far as he is able—always remembering the results will be infinitesimal—and to attend to his own soul. — Leroy Percy

Sometimes when we are personally stuck with some impossible problem, one of the best ways to create opportunities or new avenues for movement is to think:

If I can’t solve this for myself, how can I at least make this better for other people?

You’ll be shocked by how much of the hopelessness lifts when we reach that conclusion—the strength that comes by thinking of people other than yourself.

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. — Marcus Aurelius

So when you’re frustrated in pursuit of your own goals, don’t sit there and complain that you don’t have what you want or that this obstacle won’t budge. If you haven’t even tried yet, then of course you will still be in the exact same place. You haven’t actually pursued anything.

All the greats we admire started by saying, Yes, let’s go. And they usually did it in less desirable circumstances than we’ll ever suffer.

Just because the conditions aren’t exactly to your liking, or you don’t feel ready yet, doesn’t mean you get a pass. If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself, right now, by getting up and getting started.

The post appeared originally on the New York Observer.


The economist Tyler Cowen observed that few people when asked to describe their lives would answer ‘a mess.’ Instead they say their life was ‘a journey.’ They tended to use the metaphor of a novel. They see their life as a story.

Life feels like a story because when we look back on our pasts, we have a beginning and an end and we can put it all in order. We can filter out the events that don’t fit, we can forget the stuff that’s not worth remembering.

In a world of social media, this is a hard idea to shake. Not only does every platform and medium urge you to tell your story but it weaves it all into a narrative for you (Snapchat stories, Facebook’s Year in Review, etc). And because you have an audience—your followers, friends, fans and subscribers—there is always someone to perform it for.

Think about what you put on Instagram, on Twitter, on a blog, on Facebook. These are great media but it’s clear they select for a very specific type of content. It’s got to be bite sized. It’s got to look good. It has to be spreadable. It has to compete with all the other content out there from professionals, from pretty girls, from snarky assholes. Oh, and it has to generate a certain number of public responses or you look like a loser.

In a sense, these tools that were intended to help us share our realities ironically has turned into a sort of unpaid performance art.

I know that you sense this too. That moment of hesitation before you post something. Is this good enough? That flash of guilty giddiness when you see something that you know other people would be impressed by when they see it. Yes! when you capture it perfectly.

It might seem like we’re all connected with each other today but in fact, we’re as isolated as we’ve ever been. We don’t even experience our own experiences except through some artificial lens, let alone the experiences of others.

It’s related to an important concept in science known as the “Publication Bias.” Discovered bafflingly recently (1960s), the Publication Bias refers to an interesting fact: people rarely publish papers about experiments that didn’t work. Who is going to put the time into writing it, and what journal is going to give space to something that doesn’t prove anything?

This doesn’t seem like a big deal but it is. It means that almost every piece of scientific literature you’ll ever read is “positive.” When in reality, most experiments fail. Most of them don’t mean anything.

So it paints a false picture, an unrepresentative one. It makes us think we know more than we do.

You’ve seen this—friends who are going through a rough patch in a relationship but post loving photos of themselves with their partner, almost as if they’re willing it to be better. People going through financial difficulties apparently living it up on Instagram. Even in your own life, do you ever post when things aren’t going well?

It’s the Publication Bias. It’s the Performance Bias.

I think about this a lot because as a writer the job makes you start to view your life as material. It’s a real easy and tempting way to escape what another writer, Walker Percy, called the “everydayness” of your life.” Or what Nassim Taleb calls the “narrative fallacy.”

Nobody sees the article ideas that I couldn’t quite figure out. Nobody sees me when I am uncertain or unsure. I don’t write about the parts of my life I don’t feel qualified to talk about or I’m too embarrassed to reveal. And as a result, I leave a lot out.

This is true for every public facing creative in the world.

Casey Neistat’s daily vlog gives a pretty undeniable sense that his life is awesome. I’m sure it is—but you’re watching six to seven edited minutes out of 1440. My friend Tucker, who has sold a couple million books about his life, will tell you that his stories—as crazy and funny as they are—are only from one side of his life, and really just a fraction of that one side. The other moments are much more boring. Considering the three books span little more than a decade and contain about 150+ stories, it should give you a sense of how unrepresentative they really are. I read a lot. You know how many books I’ve ever found written by someone who failed? Two. (email me if you want recommendations)

That’s just the filtering that comes from the selection process. It’s even deeper than that of course. I like to show people the source photo that eventually became the cover of my first book. It makes me look a lot cooler than I actually am or ever will be (in real life it was a pen in my mouth and I was wearing a hoodie from Wal-Mart). The TV show they’re producing on the book will warp things further still.

Increasingly, the real world is left on the cutting room floor. What is left is artifice and even deceit.

Your Instagram filters can make an overcast day seem bright. A tweet can strip out nuance and claims certainty it doesn’t deserve. A Facebook post shares an article that no one actually bothered to read.

These forces are acting on us. Separating us from our own actual experiences and separating us from the other people who consume them creates envy, inferiority and conflict. For one young, deeply depressed athlete, it meant misled parents and the loss of a great promising talent. It creates that eternal fear of missing out. It’s not lying. It’s that tools and media exploit our fantasies and what we wish to be true.

Where does it end? Not in happiness, that’s for sure.

One of the things I really like about Beme (where I’ve done some advising) is that the app makes so much of this impossible. It’s fun and real precisely because it subtly eliminates all the features that encourage us to fool others and ourselves.

If you decide you want to film something, it’s posted automatically—you can’t stop the process once the recording has begun. You can’t edit your clips. You can’t even see what you’re filming as you’re filming it. In other words, it demotes you from your role as the cinematographer of your own life. It’s just a facilitator. It helps you share what you experience—cutting clips together based on time and place, not your perceived narrative of events or the script you’d like to follow. It keeps the performance to a minimum.

The name Beme—is a portmanteau of Be Me. Even the metrics in the app emphasize this (seen here). There is no follower count, just the number of people and the amount of time they have spent seeing things from your perspective. You actually get to be yourself and be other people and other people get to be you. Isn’t that what art is fundamentally about?

Some critics have said that this doesn’t work. Because no one likes authenticity.

Of course that’s ridiculous. The videos are riveting and the app is addicting. Like actual life.

So in this sense, life is not like a novel. It’s not a movie. It’s a mess.

Unfiltered by social media, life is real. It is what it is.

It is also awesome.

We’ve just forgotten.

This post appeared originally on the New York Observer