This is a series about ideas and concepts: ones that influence our thoughts, our lives, and our world. Because the words whose meanings we think we know the best are often the ones that make the least sense.
Growing up, I learned a lot about success. We Millennials were, after all, raised in a “culture of praise”, primed to think about the world almost exclusively in terms of our own potential. But during the boom years of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s, it was easy to keep failure at arm’s length, an intellectual bogeyman that no one reasonably expected to experience. The “ownership society” prevailed; Gordon Gekko, from 1987’s Wall Street, became an unintentional hero, while the Masters of the Universe grew accustomed to ballooning paychecks. Some of that success even trickled down to the little guy: nearly every year since 1994 set a record for the percentage of American households that owned their own homes, reaching its peak at just under 70% in 2004. Even religion hopped on the success bandwagon, with televangelists like Joel Osteen claiming that God has a lot to offer us instead of the other way around, and making millions in the process.
In short, everything from pop culture to politics reinforced the idea that a tangible American Dream — a house, an education, and a retirement plan — was within everyone’s reach, and that failure was a kind of personality trait, one generally found alongside ugliness, laziness, or basic stupidity. Consciously or not, the United States became a nation of hyper-individualists and Social Darwinists. And those same hyper-individualists and Social Darwinists raised a generation in the image of their own, late-life success, sheltered from want and groomed to believe in themselves at all costs.
So when the members of the “Me Generation” crawled out from under their parents’ umbrella, they were bound to be just a little bit socially maladjusted. It’s probably no surprise that they isolate themselves in the real world even as they invent and reinvent themselves in the virtual one, and demand automatic As for effort in the classroom and constant praise from their bosses in the workplace. Yet who could have predicted that they would also manage to create the first counterculture — hipsterism— that has never opposed the mainstream in any meaningful way?
It turns out that wearing keffiyehs and snorting cocaine is not the same thing as agitating for social change (simply voting for Obama doesn’t count, either). As the growing tribe of hipster-haters has pointed out, time and again, hipsters are just consumers like the rest of us, if maybe a little more militant about their choices. Their brand of “counterculture” simply boils down to a specific set of musical, literary, and fashion tastes, combined with a melodramatic (but unspecific) world-weariness and an overdeveloped sense of contempt. But hipsters offer no alternative to the culture of consumption and success; they have no real social rebellion to make. Having lived too long knowing only prosperity and wish-fulfillment, they cannot imagine giving it up for the sake of a political or social ideal. Self-perpetuation for its own sake: the end goal of the culture of success, and the end goal of hipster culture as well.
It’s especially ironic, then, that we Millennials, who have generally shown ourselves incapable of rejecting the culture of success, have become that culture’s victim in another way. By now, it’s well established that misguided financial innovation and bad investments — all driven by the financial industry’s desire to make money well past the point of common sense, and all but encouraged by deregulation — led to the current recession. But guess who has to deal with a disproportionate amount of the fallout? According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, only about 20% of the class of ’09 had found a job by their senior spring, and as early as August of 2008, business writers warned that the job market made it a “bad time to be young.” The headline “College Graduates Face Tough Job Market” (or some variation thereof) has, I’ll wager, appeared at least once in almost every local newspaper and newscast in the country, but even summer gigs and minimum-wage retail and service jobs for those youngest members of our generation are drying up, too.
So in the space of two years, we’ve seen the economic security promised us by our parents’ society crumble beneath the weight of mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps, and we’ve learned that believing really hard in ourselves doesn’t insulate us from brutal economic reality. Just when we thought that the brass ring of success that we’d been promised all our lives was in reach, we’ve realized that, instead, it’s time to reassess, retrench (a.k.a. move back in with parents), and reacquaint ourselves with failure.
Because other than apple pie and baseball, there is nothing more American than a fear of failure that borders on neurosis. It’s the flip side of our stereotypical optimism and can-do attitude, which supposedly won us a World War and a Cold War and gave Larry the Cable Guy a catchphrase in the process.
But given failure’s relative absence from middle-class life for the last few decades, no wonder we’ve got a strange relationship with it. And the Age of Irony practically demands that we distance ourselves from emotion and experience with that sneering, self-aware humor that fuels everything from The Daily Show to gossip rags. We’ve found a slideshow of Schadenfreude in the middle of the stock market crash, and even made the word “fail” into a catch-all interjection to brand any sort of comically bad situation, from injuries to badly-drawn diagrams. Between callous laughter on the one hand and a purposeful dilution of the word on the other, it’s clear that we fear failure — all the more because we’re so profoundly unfamiliar with it.
And why shouldn’t we fear it? There’s nothing romantic about failure. It’s degrading, it’s stressful, it involves fear and shame and all kinds of unpleasant emotions with which we as a generation have had so little prior experience. It’s certainly possible to live a life without running the risk of failure, medicated by drugs, alcohol, cable TV, or any number of meaningless pursuits designed to blot out thought and emotion.
But proper, abject failure has its upside. To recover means that you have stripped away pretenses and inconsequential things, and made hard decisions about your wants, needs, and goals. It requires a kind of self-awareness that you probably have not had reason to demand from yourself so far. To quote J.K. Rowling:
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way… The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.
So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
When Rowling delivered this speech in June of 2008, she acknowledged that her advice about “the fringe benefits of failure” bordered on the “quixotic,” and that like so many other commencement speeches, they would probably be discussed earnestly and at great length for a day or two and then forgotten altogether. Now, in the middle of the biggest economic disruption since the Great Depression, her words seem almost prescient.
We Millennials live in one of those moments that will profoundly shape our generation, if not our society, for a long time. And it’s fair to say that most of us haven’t done much to define ourselves so far. We’ve let ourselves believe that prosperity could be eternal, and that acting out of self-interest and a sense of entitlement is a perfectly acceptable way to live. But that security blanket has long been frayed, and it’s falling apart right before our eyes.
There’s no question that many of us are about to get that first bitter taste of failure. The challenge will be coming out of it more confident in ourselves, and more thoughtful about what we believe. Maybe some will find that failure, contrary to our neurotic fear of it, has some fringe benefits after all. With luck, that might prompt us to rethink our definition of success, too.