I’m 31 years old. By now, I should be ending lunch with a Cuban cigar and a glass of Cristal. I should be approving the marble countertops for my new state of the art office space. And then I should top the night off with box seats at the Yankees game. But that’s not my life. Far from it. In fact, this luxury dream version is light years away at best.
I haven’t created my own unicorn startup. I like playing with tech gadgets but I have no interest in creating a tech company. I don’t want to learn how to code. I don’t want to take part in the modern-day Gold Rush. But I feel like if I don’t, I’m basically deciding not to be successful.
My professional story is a little more along these lines. I was fired from my job at a startup six months ago. I got my first writing job for a measly $5 just three months ago. There have been points over the last sixty days when my checking account balance dipped below $100. I was even on New York State unemployment for thirty days. There are a lot of numbers in this paragraph, but none of them include a comma followed by more zeros.
By the definition of success that’s fed to me by the media and everyone’s goddamn Facebook posts, I’m not sure 2016 has been a good year. It’s one that’s been defined by forced reinvention; a metamorphosis that’s been grounded more in survival than creative pursuit.
"I’m a writer. And in a sense, I’m still clinging to an ancient dream that Ivy League kids had back in the 70s."
I’m a writer. And in a sense, I’m still clinging to an ancient dream that Ivy League kids had back in the 70s. I still think it’s prestigious to be published in the New Yorker. I still want to get famous selling books. I still want people to read things instead of scrolling through them. I want them to appreciate long-form journalism instead of having their information dumbed down into a listicle. But I can’t singlehandedly fight an entire culture shift.
People have called me a lot of things throughout my life, but an early adopter wasn’t one of them. I just uploaded my first YouTube video last month. I just launched my podcast this month. I just like to write. And despite my clear and thorough understanding of how people digest information, I’ve been reluctant to embrace digital that doesn’t involve reading.
It’s quite the conundrum. I’ve allowed my personal understanding of professional success to be shaped by the very medium I’ve tried so hard to reject. I’ve got one foot in the past and the other straddling the line between the present and the future. It’s an exhausting tug o’ war, but maybe it’s my definition of success that’s the problem.
What is success, really? How do I know if I’m successful? Am I a failure if I’m not Mark Zuckerberg? Or Evan Spiegel? Or Lin-Manuel Miranda? They are all best case scenarios. One of a kind success stories. But it’s these stories that we hear about. Where’s the news story about the below average guy with grand aspirations? Oh, that’s right. No one wants to hear about the all the hard work that has to be done between an idea’s inception and its successful launch. For every Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, there’s a hundred Eran Hammer-Lahavs and failed startups like Nouncer.
Our parents grew up cherishing the value of steady employment. Of providing for their families. Of living a life financially independent of their parents. But it seems my generation defines success by how quickly their business reaches billion dollar profits. Every publication from here to San Mateo County has something to say about it, too. Last December, Fortune magazine declared Silicon Valley was distorting millennials’ definition of success. Inc. actually sees millennials’ competitive edge as a plus. Attn: seems hell bent on proving that we millennials are all about peace, love, and the simpler things in life. Just last month, CNN sought out a psychological expert to take a deep dive into the issue. The conclusion? Millennials have less life experience so they lack the necessary grit to reach the kind of success they aspire to. The piece was really just a big euphemism. The headline may as well have been “Millennials Too Lazy To Achieve Success”. But a million variations of that headline have already been used.
"After we’ve been psychoanalyzed in countless think pieces across the web and even ridiculed for wanting to take the easy way out, those same publications suggest articles with specific roadmaps on how to achieve success."
What if all of this is bullshit? What if no one is right about how millennials define success? One thing is for sure-there are just as many opinions on how to get to success. So after we’ve been psychoanalyzed in countless think pieces across the web and even ridiculed for wanting to take the easy way out, those same publications suggest articles with specific roadmaps on how to achieve success.
I don’t want to read another fucking article about the 6 steps I need to follow to be successful or the 15 habits of the most productive people in business. People are obsessed with finding the shortcut to success. And writers are obsessed with feeding it to them. There is no blueprint or roadmap. Or at least there’s nothing in those articles that you can’t figure out on your own. Unless you’re one of the bad millennials.
You know the type. The kind that’s so spoiled. That’s been celebrated for simply showing up. And breaks into tears every time they don’t get a 100% on the test or perfect score on their performance review. If you’re that type, you probably do need a roadmap. Or you’ll end up on a path that leads you right back to your parents’ house.
Not every millennial is fixated on the new age idea of “making it”. Some of us are satisfied with good, old-fashioned Baby Boomer values. Millennials in Japan are expecting to work until they die. A hard working bunch. Their ethics are admirable. But that outlook on life is sad. Or is it?
We’re raised to look forward to retirement. Everything we’re doing now-the long hours, the nasty bosses, the insane taxes-it’s all so we can enjoy a life free of work. But if we love what we do, should we ever stop working? It’s common for singers and artists to work until they die. But plumbers, electricians, and all financial analysts begin to salivate at the site of the finish line. Is our cultural approach to retirement just the big picture equivalent of staring at the clock all day?
"It’s common for singers and artists to work until they die. But plumbers, electricians, and all financial analysts begin to salivate at the site of the finish line."
Is retirement even something to look forward to in the first place? Just yesterday, news broke that the Social Security trust fund would run dry by 2034. People will still be able to get their money; just not all of it. Like 70% of it.
Thinking about all of this is beyond stressful. But that stress begins to evaporate when I think about success on my terms. I may have been born in the 80s, but I have grit. I’ve learned to jump ship on a plan when it doesn’t work. I’ve learned to keep pushing even when my efforts seemed futile. I’ve developed a much tougher skin than I already had.
I’ve learned that it’s never too late to use your degree. I’ve gone from having no direction in life to publishing over 100 articles for independent clients. I’ve trademarked my business name. I’ve transformed my blog into a digital magazine. I created my own business model, and after sticking with it through an incredibly painful period and dry bank account, I’ve achieved some moderate success.
And not to mention, I’m getting married. I’m out and proud. I’m in control of my life. By my own definition, I am successful.
I’m rewriting what that means to me. Perhaps I’ve already stumbled upon a new path to billionaire status that I haven’t even realized yet.
I guess that’s the beauty of the future. It’s unpredictable. It’s a thrill ride. But as long as I stay grounded and base my happiness on my own realistic definition of success, I’ll enjoy every minute of it.
As an LGBTQ writer of color, it's inspiring to see that there's space for so many stories. I'm feeling even more motivated today.
And subsequently seeing Sterling K. Brown, Riz Ahmed, Aziz Ansari, and Donald Glover take home awards.
I'm not gonna lie...I got a little teary-eyed watching Lena Waithe's acceptance speech last night.