Bus thoughts: The trap of millennial “Passion”
Preamble: Below is a first and ~very~ rough draft of thoughts I’ve been brewing over the past few months. These thoughts concern what it means to “pursue your passion,” and the detriments (and successes) I’ve experienced while pursuing my editorial passions over the past four years.
Since leaving my staff reporting job at Quartz in January 2019, I’ve begun a year-long exploration of early-stage startups and VC , an itch I’ve wanted to scratch for years, as cliché as that may sound (especially to media folk). It’s been difficult to distance myself from the coveted status of “regularly published writer.” In fact, it’s been way harder than I’d like to admit.
And yet, as much as I miss writing (which I plan to pick up again in the near future), I’ve missed my clearly demarcated status as Young Person Successfully Doing A Cool Job more. I’m not proud to say that, but it’s true. And it’s worth unpacking.
So I’ve decided to start writing for the love of writing again — which is what initially drew me to journalism, and will always draw me back.
First up: throwing darts into this whole pursuing your passion trap, and why I think it’s rather f-ed up.
Please be aware: This isn’t edited. I wrote it on a bus. It’s raw. That’s intended, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Let me know what resonates, and what doesn’t. Vulnerability matters.
Bus thoughts: Before writing this I was scared, not of who I am, but of what I had become, or not yet become, in pursuit of what I should be. That may sound confusing but it’s representative of a reality more true than I’ve felt in a long time, which is that so much of my identity is enrapt with what I look like in the eyes of someone else, or rather, in my eyes, as seen from outside rather than within myself.
To say this image is materialistic, simplistic, or the manifestation of an impressive resume would be an oversimplification so severe it undermines the entire nature of conflict for the millennial mind; an oversimplification so seductive and hackneyed we, the people it supposedly describes, have come to accept it as true. The truth, however, is not complex in its intellectual inaccessibility. It’s complex in the distance between the way we presently live, think, and feel, and the way we would exist if we truly wanted it to be true, and made it to be true both in our actions and (perhaps more importantly) in our self-image. By we, I can only speak for myself.
In a microcosm, what I mean by this whole conjecture is that over the past month I have been scared to start writing. To put pen to paper (or fingers to keys), and do the one thing I know how to do best. The thing I’ve been professionally trained to do. Paid to do. The thing I supposedly — and actually — love to do.
Writing, for the past two years (if not my entire life), has been my identity. But when I say “writing,” I do not mean writing for the sake of self expression, beauty, or freedom from the limitations of human interactions—though those have been byproducts of writing when I’ve done it well, and from my heart. I mean writing—more often than not, and despite my best conscience—for the sake of being seen. Being known. Gaining social capital through the demonstration of intelligence. And not just intelligence, but exceptional intelligence, unexpected due to my comparatively young age and lack of experience and exposure in a professional field so saturated by brilliant people it’s almost humorous.
It’s not lost on me how repugnant that sounds. I feel gross even writing the phrase social capital with respect to myself, having been groomed to embody the millennial idealizes of liberalism, selflessness, equality, and at times, neosocialism. But this discomfort doesn’t make the truth of the previous paragraph any less resonant, or real. And the dissonance between that truth, and the discomfort of staring it in the eye, is the fundamental paradox of the hyper driven, hyper anxious millennial state.
When you are socialized to believe your self worth is more powerfully epitomized by what you do (and how many praiseworthy people (who you probably don’t know and never will)) applaud what you do, than it is by how you feel, or how you make those people within your immediate sphere of influence feel, than in no real exaggeration of the phrase, you sell yourself to the masses, in favor of what the masses spit back… which is a series of “liked” comments and amplifications of the image you’ve crafted for yourself.
The true delusion of this scenario, however, is that we all think we understand it inside out. We think we’ve out tricked it. We think we know the influence of social media and internet culture and hyper materialism and grades at prestigious universities. And while we know we are affected by these socially constructed measures of worth, we also presume that our sheer knowledge of their influence absolves us of the blood-coursing grip they hold around our throats, our lifestyles, and our ability to even access who we really may be, if released from this grip.
This is the fundamental paradox of the maxim “I think, therefore I am.” Or rather, “I know, therefore I am.” What older generations miss is that we do, truly and genuinely, know about the toxic influences of our socialization and shared cultures. We are not cyborgs, and we are definitely not ignorant. that would be way too easy. We would all be way happier and more relaxed.
This knowledge and consciousness, rather, is the prison in and of itself. It’s why despite being a writer, since leaving Quartz— where I had a socially designated stamp of editorial approval, and an economic and interpersonal mandate to write, or else be fired — I have not written a word. I have wanted to. I have sat down and tried to. But my anxiety overcomes me and my excuses win. I am conscious of my condition, and I’ve let it strip the ease and joy and relaxation from a thing that, at least per the story I tell myself, was once my only escape.
But was it? And this is the question all millennials resist fully answering, perhaps because we don’t know how to, and perhaps because the answer is too painful. The things we tell ourselves we love — our skills, our writing and running and singing and dancing and sporting and analyzing and coding — are also the things we’ve been groomed to define ourselves by, not because of the inherent or self-inspired joy they bring us, though this absolutely plays (or played) a role in the selection of our capital P Passion. But rather, because our social capital and in turn self worth has, since we can remember, been defined by these Passions. And this experience has been one that’s always been framed as a privilege, in part because it absolutely undoubtedly is. It’s an opportunity our parents — most of which were never encouraged to pursue a passion, nonetheless asked what they were “passionate” about in the first place — never accessed. And due to this inaccessibility, the pursuit of and self-definition by Passion is all our parents ever wanted for us—it’s the greatest gift they could give us, or so they thought. Because it would set us free, in a way they always craved, but never knew.
The flip side, however, is that definition by Passion almost inevitably ensures resentment, then burnout. And there is a sure (and terrifying) difference between losing access to one’s passion, and losing a job that is, quite literally, an occupation: a means to make money and ensure the survival and prospering of the more human elements of life. One’s family. One’s friends. What one does for joy in the privacy of their home, when — per the greatest and most maddeningly accurate of all cliches — no one is watching.
We, as a generation, or at least I (until perhaps now) are not working to ensure the survival of this humanity. Because when our passion is our worth and our work, there is no divide. There is no humanity outside of the grind, because the grind is the humanity and the loss of the grind is a void so unfamiliar it may as well be death. If that sounds grim, that’s because it is.
This is not to say we, as a generation, or I, do not find overwhelming joy and fulfillment in the “human” elements of life. In the curve of a lover’s nose, as they lay in morning light, asleep next to us. Of the first warm breeze in February. Of drinking too much, and laughing too hard with the people we know most honestly, and love most deeply. Of course we do. Again, we are not cyborgs, and the romanticism of our ability to regain a stable and humane sense of purpose—the one we’ve never understood or known — solely by being more “mindful,” or spending more “quality time” with friends and family is a delusion perhaps more imprisoning then our condition itself. Because at its core, manufactured mindfulness is a reinvention of the predicament it portents to absolve. It’s a beautiful, and very profitable lie.
And yet, here I am. Both aware, and imprisoned by my awareness. Passionate and desperate to be less Passionate, so to be more alive, or unrestrained. Writing, finally, for myself. And yet desperate to be read. This is the balance we know. And this is so, so far, from balance at all.