We’ve breached the era of the twenty-something.

That’s what I keep hearing, at least. It’s a hot topic among sociologists and the media, not to mention parents who watch, bewildered, as their children move back home after college.

Having spent my entire adult life in New York City, my own notion of what it means to be a twenty-something differs somewhat from the standard fare: this is the city of careers and nightlife, ambition and the exploration of options; where the few who do settle down with their life partner before the big three-oh get odd looks from new acquaintances and “are-you-sure”s from old friends.

While many of us roll our eyes at the label and all the accompanying connotations, anecdotal and anthropological evidence does suggest a new adolescence is upon us.

As a member of this inaugural generation, I’ll take it upon myself to point out that we aren’t exactly stepping up to own the title. Some of the phrases oft tossed around by our elders to describe us include “unreliable,” “unwilling to commit,” and “don’t recognize the necessity of hard work.” Not exactly a winning combination, and unfortunately those who tout these thoughts generally do seem to be pulling from at least some direct experience (though it’s hard to completely avoid the almost-inevitable whiff of a ‘rock’n’roll-is-ruining-kids-these-days’ attitude…).

Just to be clear, I’ll put it out there that I fundamentally disagree with the negative outlook.

Ours is a generation fortunate to have grown up in an era with previously-unimaginable levels of resources and information almost instantaneously accessible. The vast majority of us have never been in want of having our basic needs fulfilled (though whether this is a good thing or simply puts us in therapy is currently up for debate). We have also come of age in a more globalized world than any prior, which I like to think has allowed us to be a generation more open to and accommodating of outsiders and their ideas than our predecessors – and less susceptible to “other-izing” the unfamiliar.

We almost undoubtedly are reaching maturity in the midst of a significant paradigm shift. With continuing, accelerating developments in automation and computing technologies, our perception of the possible has been hugely altered from that of generations before us (my two-year-old iPhone is more powerful than the computers that helped guide man to the moon, and I can send a document from my computer through the air to the printer, 30 feet and two rooms away, where it then magically appears in physical form — that’s pretty dang close to teleportation if you ask me). On the less-optimistic side, the world today exists in a state of both economic and environmental uncertainty, and the global population continues to continues to explode (from both ends).

This is not the same environment our forefathers, grandfathers, and fathers grew up in, so it isn’t exactly surprising that it calls for a shift in our pace of acclimation and perhaps a delay of when we’re ready for the whole mortgage-and-a-kid thing.

It’s all admittedly a little daunting, which may be why many of us have thus far failed to impress our elders.

Here’s the thing though: in this new era, we wield power unlike any that came before. As we learn how to control and utilize this newer, more volatile energy in this newer, more volatile world, our generation will do great things.

But beyond all of these external circumstances exists what I find to be the most interesting characteristic of this new age: fundamentally, a great majority of us seem to be devoted to the idea of using this new-found power to do good in our careers and lives. Beyond the checkbook, beyond the Girl Scout cookies, beyond the token weekend at Habitat for Humanity, this appears to be the first generation in which many — perhaps most — of us wish to find fulfillment in our jobs and careers, and make that desire a priority as we design our lives. We want to feel as though a contribution to a larger purpose or cause is woven into our everyday lives; for many of us, the hours between 9am and 5pm are about much more than money.

Perhaps it’s a result of our more globalized, media-rich perspective: we witness injustices not only in our own communities but also around the world, and want to do our part to eradicate them. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been so fortunate as to have our own basic needs (and then some) met – we now have a cognitive surplus available to consider more than just our own little lives.

Perhaps it’s simply because it’s much harder to be a jerk these days. Whether it’s the woman on the train using her education as justification for being inconsiderate and disrespectful, a kid who got wrapped up in a bad moment and turned temporarily stupid, or a nonprofit organization acting somewhat less than honorably, information gets out. Anonymity, for better or for worse, is dying, and it is increasingly difficult to get away with being selfish.

Likewise, in addition to devoting our careers to companies and causes we support (and it should be noted that the number of “good” endeavors a person can pursue is enormous – what an individual will find personally fulfilling within that selection varies widely), we’re also more likely to patronize institutions whose values align with our own: department stores that give a percentage of revenue to back to the community, universities that take care to not send their students into life-altering debt, household cleaning products that are kind to the environment, and on and on.

Because of all these things, I foresee tremendous growth in the coming years in the realm of social entrepreneurship, but in particular around four specific nodes on that spectrum:

  • First, nonprofits. Our startup-oriented, value-creating generation will likely and rightly explore new territory with 501(c)(3)s.
  • In particular in the nonprofit world, I imagine there will be significant exploration of the organization that utilizes innovative business models. While many charities may somewhat inherently be non-lucrative labors of love, many others could benefit from a savvy approach that takes care to maximize value, revenue, and talent to provide the greatest possible benefit to their beneficiaries. charity:water and OpenPlans jump first to my mind in this realm.
  • One step over on the spectrum is the for-profit business that integrates a social mission into its structure and operation in an inseparable manner. One need only venture into Union Square on a spring afternoon and look down to see the success TOMS Shoes has had with this approach.
  • And yet another category will be the for-profit business whose products and services don’t blatantly fall under the “good” heading, but take care to embrace accompanying causes or charitable projects. Tactics to support this approach could include offering employees a paid day each month to volunteer at their charity of choice, partnering with a local school and mentoring students there, or providing its goods or services pro bono to populations in need (Taproot, while itself a 501(c)(3), does an excellent job of facilitating this sort of giving from for-profits to nonprofits on both an individual and organizational basis). I imagine this will become a widely-utilized method to engender brand loyalty among customers willing to pay a premium to support a cause they believe in, and company loyalty among employees who might otherwise be enticed to seek employment they find more fulfilling.

There is no denying we live in interesting times. With the technology and myriad means of communication available, the capacity of these new twenty-somethings (and anyone else who chooses to embrace the tides of change and development in order to forge a productive place in the world) to effect real change — to do good — is enormous. Delivering on that capacity and fulfilling our potential is now up to us.

Accountability

June 18, 2011

I yelled at my youngest sister yesterday.

I love the girl dearly. She’s smart, much savvier than I was at her age, and has a great talent for seeing through bullshit to the heart of an issue, which in my own not-so-humble opinion is one of the most valuable skills a person can have.

But yesterday she really needed to be yelled at.

My dear little sister feels stuck. She is 20 years old and made the rather gutsy decision after high school to forgo college, which puts her her at the oh-my-god-now-what place that a lot of us (well, me, at least) reach in our mid-twenties a few years early. Specifically, now.

This sister of mine has been teaching dance in some capacity since she was about 12 years old (assisting in the beginning). As the years have gone on she’s learned how to handle classrooms full of 3-year-olds, classrooms full of 13-year-olds, and all of their parents; has established herself as the voice of authority among her peers, and been deemed trustworthy enough to often be in charge of unlocking and locking the studio and generally running the show on days when the owner isn’t around.

Not too bad overall, but the situation still is less than ideal. Just about all of the growth of the eight years has happened organically, linearly, and unofficially. While she’s been open to and seized upon each opportunity as it has arisen, she hasn’t really actively designed and guided the path she’s found herself on — she’s followed as it has unfolded.

Because of this, she’s just not quite where she wants to be. And while she’s theoretically okay with not being where she wants to be right now, she (rightly) feels as though this unfolding path is not even heading to this destination she fantasizes about. The one she’s on is certainly a fine path, but it’s sort of like this path is going to St. Paul when she really wants to go to Minneapolis. Or it’s headed toward LA when she really wants to go to New York.

It’s a perfectly legitimate path; perhaps perfect for someone else. But when your inner eye is on one thing and you’re seeing something else on the horizon… well, you should probably be doing some sort of a course correction.

Baby Sister and I have been discussing said course correction for the last several months. We’ve been trying to define what “success” looks like, what the actual differences are between that scene and the current one, and what real steps can be taken right now to minimize the distance between the two. There have been many hours on Skype, many points bulleted, and one paradigmatic, big-picture shift in what the destination actually is (totally fine).

Which brings us to yesterday.

We had a lovely sister-ly conversation, not initially related to our scheming. Joked a bit, talked about a bizarre dream she’d had the night before (in which I had a baby and named him “Zachary Mack” — I may now have to get a cat so I can use that name), and commiserated over the woes of laundry. Then we got into talking about the studio. Some recent interactions with some key people. Plans for the summer. Thoughts about next year that were quite at odds with many of the goals we’ve been setting. A certain amount of helplessness and frustration (the former worthless, the latter only valuable if steps are taken to fix the situation that causes it) pervaded her side of the exchange.

As her tales wound down I took a little breath and said, “You know I love you, you know I think the world of you and your abilities. But I am about to say some things that will make you very uncomfortable.”

We’ve had this conversation before.”

We have. Multiple times. Same players, same frustrations, and some unsurprising variations in details.

“The goal should be to not have to deal with these same frustrations day after day and year after year. And you and I have been talking about how to fix this for months now. What steps to take, what opportunities to seek out. What will make things better now, what will make things better a year from now, and what will make things better a decade from now. And from where I stand — do correct me if I’m wrong on this one — it doesn’t seem as though you’ve acted on any of it.”

I listed some conversations she needed to have. Research to be done. Contacts to be made. All things we’d previously discussed.

Bless her heart, my generally feisty and quick sister made the somewhat-obligatory attempts at explanations, but didn’t argue when I called her out on what they were: excuses.

“It’s excessively important to think. And talk. And plan. But here’s the thing: that’s the easy part. You can do all the thinking and talking and planning in the world, but if you don’t do the work, go out on a limb, and surrender yourself to the discomfort of pulling your thoughts out of the ether — where they are perfectly content to stay — and into the real, physical world, we’re going to be having this conversation again in four months. And again in December. And again next March. And I just don’t want that.”

“It’s not that I’m not interested, it’s not that I don’t care, it’s not that I don’t value or respect the truth of what you’re going through and feeling. It’s that you are not living up to the standards you have set for yourself.”

“You’re doing a hell of a job of pretending you are for the outside world, but right now I will be the one to call you out on the fact that you are not. backing. it. up.”

“I wouldn’t say any of this if I didn’t absolutely, completely, wholly have faith in your ability to pull that life you want into reality, or if there were any question of your desire to do so. But I do have that faith and you do have the desire, and right at this moment, you are still just looking over at the other path — not actually turning the wheel to move toward it.”

Quiet.

‘…I know you’re right.’

 

And so on.

 

***

 

We’ll see where that all goes. I’ll keep the whip out and utilize that distinct desire to impress the elder sister that every little sister houses to the situation’s advantage, but at the end of the day it’s up to her. So we’ll see.

But the conversation really set my brain alight, pondering the value of having someone who doesn’t care if they make you uncomfortable. Someone who will look past the surface of an interaction (”Oh things are greeaaat! I’m happy, and busy, and… greeaaat!”), understand what’s going on beneath the presentation, and actually call you out on the crap.

It’s pretty freaking hard to come by, largely because most of us go out of our way throughout our whole damn lives to minimize encounters that make us squirm. (I myself am certainly no exception, having worked quite hard over the last decade or so to establish my identity in my own social circles as one who’s “got it all together” …which doesn’t exactly lend itself particularly well finding someone to occupy the crap-calling position…)

But man-oh-man what I wouldn’t give for someone — an accountability partner of sorts — to do the same for me. To sit down with an outsider’s perspective (just outside my little brain is far enough) and cut to the core of things and give me shit where and when I deserve it. Because I’ll tell you right now, I certainly do deserve it.

I’m pretty positive most of us do.

…just shadows that move across the wall.

It’s a funny thing, time.

I remember in eighth grade my classmates and I were required to take a survey of our peers. The questions could be anything we chose, and one boy thought to ask:

“Do you think time is real or made up?”

Now I was not the most creative, out-of-the-box thinker at that rather unfortunate age of 12, and this query kind of blew my mind: I’d never thought to question such a basic truth. Of course it’s real…

…right?

I mean, how could it not be? Our entire society is based on time. School years and careers and lives and relationships. People get paid for hours worked, not just showing up and hanging around for a bit.

Like I said, it threw my tween self for quite the little loop. In a good way though.

These days, as an adult who is slightly savvier, significantly more skeptical, and marginally more intelligent than the pre-teen me, I still find myself hemming and hawing on the matter (depending in no small part on just how abstract and philosophical I’m feeling at the pondersome moment).

Considering the notion that time doesn’t exist is a little like recognizing money is a completely manufactured system of measurement with no basis in the world beyond what us humans have decided is true. The alternate reality is certainly interesting to think about, but such a departure from the fundamental construction of how we’ve set up society that in my more cynical moments I wonder whether there aren’t more valuable topics to spend brainpower on.

And yet that odd little memory remains vivid, and here I am, over a decade later, returning to it yet again.

And time remains a curious thing.

It ebbs and flows and flies and slows; our bodies grow, and ultimately shrink and fade away. The ‘me’ of today (whatever that means) is not the same ‘me’ who years ago was flabbergasted at her classmate’s consideration of a timeless reality existing in place of our own.

Time is limited, yet expansive. And I am quite certain each of us has moments when we are absolutely overwhelmed by the soul-crushing, spirit-liberating truth of those simple sentiments.

Most of the time that pure sense of recognition fades into the background of our awareness though… our little brains don’t have the capacity to continually grasp such big thoughts in our moment-to-moment existence.

So we focus on the 15-minute commute to work or pride ourselves on always being available to answer the phone when it rings, on catching every tweet or sweet new viral video or whatever else flutters into our sphere of awareness — the low-hanging fruit that lives and dies about as quickly as the news cycle these days. But we lose the rather counterintuitive urgency of the longer span: a legacy, making our ‘mark,’ accomplishing something truly significant that we care deeply about and are fulfilled by.

The sort of Big Stuff that doesn’t feel related to the present moment in any way, shape, or form, but simply never happens if we don’t figure out how to bridge that gap and nurture such a relationship.

Lots of people don’t ever figure it out and never come particularly close. A few are lucky enough or strong-willed enough or smart enough or full enough of that elusive ‘x-factor’ to somehow just more or less innately understand it.

Many have moments of clarity, brought about by a near-death experience or some big life-changing event or just a random clouds-parting-light-shining-angels-singing sort of a moment while sitting at their desk at work on a Thursday afternoon.

These are the moments when you understand just how significant your life could be. When you realize how much you want to do, and feel as though you really could do it. When you know the ability and will to do so is right there in your gut, just waiting to be exercised.

But then how horrifyingly easy it is to dismiss the significance of these moments mere moments later. To “come to our senses” and go back to life as it’s always been. To never act on the long-term urgency.

I imagine it’s a defense mechanism, kicking in to protect us from overexertion (or just plain exertion), disappointment, or having to accept our own limitations; from having to consider whether we’ve fiddled away too much time already and think about the ever-imposing shadowy presence of the Grim Reaper and our own mortality.

But what if we were able to hang on to the elusive moments of clarity? What if we didn’t dismiss them — if we used them to re-chart (or just plain chart) our course? How would it change the game each of us are playing?

I’m struggling with those answers myself right now, in a pretty significant way. Ultimately I’m fairly certain the more important question isn’t “What if?” but “How?”

And that one… well, it requires some more cogitation on the part of my little mind as it tries to ponder Big Things.