When we left off last week, I was sharing that when I moved to Minneapolis, I fell hard for the city right away. However, it is taking longer to feel at home in this youthful, creative, fast-paced city suddenly recognized throughout the country as the hot place to be (figuratively hot, not literally!). In new places I often feel I start at a deficit, being naturally reticent and an introvert. I admit to sometimes feeling outpaced – my reaction times, my overall sense that I can keep up – swamped in the wake of the amazing twenty-and-thirty somethings who are making waves and pushing this community forward. Many Baby Boomers and GenXers have dissed Millennials as lacking a strong work ethic, carrying a sense of entitlement, being unable to focus. In the now famous rant by the character Will McAvoy on HBOs “Newsroom”, he accuses a young questioner of being “…part of the Worst. Generation. Ever.” In her article for NYTimes.com, “The Truth About Millennials (in Boomer Eyes)“, Kate Dries shares a list of negative articles about Millennials which blame them for everything from killing the NFL to destroying the housing market.
My own anecdotal witness is that much of the negative press about Millennials is untrue. Millennials are nothing if not change-agents. A few years ago I hired my first true Millennial employee, Layne. As her supervisor, I spent the first few months trying to determine the best ways to mentor and guide a creative dynamo who saw no absolute boundaries. To her, everything was permeable and up for renegotiation. Hiring her changed both my professional life and my personal ways of interacting with the world. Despite the early disorientation I experienced, I regard hiring her to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Which leads me to my adjustment to Minneapolis. As I have observed, read, attempted to parse the lay of the land and come to love not only the structure of this city, but also the people who embody this community, I’ve been learning some valuable things from the Millennials around me. There are qualities and/or approaches that seem to be widespread among Millennials that are not standard equipment in the tool kits of GenXers. That Millennials experience and express their generative impulses differently than previous generations seems undeniable. Layne first taught me how to work with and love the energy of Millennials – what even GenX apologist Gordinier grudgingly but admiringly calls their “confidence and entitlement”. Since moving here, I have been learning to appreciate more than their optimism and belief in possibility. I have a growing respect for their ability to get shit done. Not necessarily or only work, in the traditional sense. But important stuff, nonetheless. Stuff like making the world a more inclusive, kinder, more joyful place.
Below, three things I’m learning from Millennials I’ve met and how I’m hoping to emulate them in my own life :
1. Millennials grew up during the Nike revolution. They took in the motto: Just Do It! with their mother’s milk and have been living it ever since. For Millennials, ideas and action are inextricably linked. The caution shown by previous generations, the overdone analysis of whether the idea is feasible before engaging in the action, is considered by many Millennials to be the very reason nothing changes. They “Just Do It”, and see where it leads.
The reason this is an important take-away for me, and for many in the generation(s) preceding the Millennials is that we tend too far toward caution. Even when we are in the midst of building something new in our lives, we over think, over-plan. From Millennials, I’m learning that sometimes jumping in with both feet is the only way to do it. Tentative and overly-analytical isn’t self-motivational. And if you’re not self-motivated, forget convincing anyone else to come along.
A Millennial who typifies this approach is Patrick Stephenson, cofounder of 30 Days of Biking. Not only did he and a few friends have a thought (“We should bike every day in April”), they decided to act on the that thought and invited others, via social media, to join them. Five years later, thousands of people the world over took that same pledge this year, sharing their experiences and photos in a joyful explosion of bike-related community. Patrick, known as @patiomensch on Twitter, was named one of the top tweeters to follow in the Twin Cities, and his energy, enthusiasm and contagious activism draw others to him and into collusion with his spontaneous ideas. He is aware, however, of his own generation’s downsides. Last week he tweeted what could reasonably be considered a response to the Millennial tendency toward narcissism: “Fellow Millennials, don’t worry about cultivating your ‘personal brand.’ Just do cool, fun shit that you BELIEVE in. It’ll all work out.” If any Millennial I know has a personal brand, it could be argued that Patrick does – but he’s about the doing; the spotlight is a side-effect of that, not the focus.
2. Millennials are not hampered by the idea that their revolutionary actions must always have life-long effects. When they decide to see where a creative idea or impulse leads, they are prepared for the possibility it will turn out to be a stepping stone to something else. I like to think of this as Millennials’ “pop-up” mentality. Pop-up stores or restaurants appear, have their moment, then give way to the next great thing – and that’s how it is intended to go. Millennials are good at seizing an idea, building something with that idea at its base and being prepared to let it go when the time is ripe – their version of Tibetan sand-painting. I think this comes, in part, from the redefinition of failure which has taken place in our cultural consciousness in the last decade. Michael Jordan has said that his failures, much more frequent than his successes, are what truly built his greatness. Millennials believe that failing is a natural part of creating a life – whereas I, along with my age-mates, was taught that failure was not an option. If failing is an o.k. option, why wouldn’t one take risks?
One evening in April, on a group bike ride, I met Diana Neidecker (@dianapantzmpls) who mentioned that she “did a thing from home” when the subject of work arose. Later, I asked about her “thing”, and Diana’s answer was, “I’m starting a kindness revolution.” We went on to have a wide-ranging conversation about Millennials, making things happen, and creating nontraditional pathways in life. Diana has several projects underway, including a business in which on-line subscribers receive a monthly Be Nice Box ($1 of each box is donated to charity). Diana also has a vegan lifestyle blog, is training for some serious athletic endeavors (triathlons, duathlons, etc.), and this past weekend planned a kindness flash mob. Will all of Diana’s projects be equally successful or have long-term staying power? It is too soon to know – but Diana told me that, “I feel certain in my own heart that I’m doing what I’m meant to do with my life.” One of the great things about being a kindness revolutionary, in my estimation, is that even your duds or flops are likely to bear lovely fruit.
3. Inclusion is only a “thing” for Millennials because the world was already divisive, discriminatory and oppressive when they got here. This fact spurs Millennials to engage in social activism – though it takes new forms through their engagement. One example that I love is the marriage of social justice and entrepreneurialism. In Minneapolis, we have some incredible examples of this including Finnegan’s Beer (100% of their profits go toward hunger alleviation), Full Cycle (a nonprofit bike shop that works with homeless youth) and many more.
To be fair, Millennials who are taking on social issues aren’t all located in Minneapolis. I recently interviewed Frederick Newell, founder of The Dream Center in Iowa City, home to a unique academy for single fathers (among other innovative programs). Frederick didn’t begin with a dream to found a nonprofit – but he saw a need and challenged himself to find ways to meet it.
For Millennials, inclusion isn’t just about social justice or adopted causes, though. It has often been noted that Millennials are adept at putting the “social” in social media, and many of them cast a wide net – interested in and engaging with friends and strangers with the same degree of openness. Since my arrival in Minneapolis, I’ve discovered that – used as a tool rather than an end in itself – social media can help make real connections between people who would otherwise not have crossed paths. The #30daysofbiking community is a perfect example of this, as is Thursday night #bikeschool. What began as very topic-specific interactions have blossomed into voyages of discovery as connections, shared interests and commonalities are unearthed. Millennials are comfortable with the cross-over from media to in-person interactions For me, translating the connections I’ve made through social media into IRL connections and friendships is still an awkward process. But I’ve had the opportunity to both observe and experience how this can happen – and I intend to practice until I can make this transition with the ease of the Millennials I’ve met.
This is already an incredibly long post and there is still so much more to say – more stories and more people to introduce. Last week, I closed by asking the question: can I change generational affiliation? Do I want to? Scott Hess gave a great TedX talk titled, “Millennials: Who They Are and Why We Hate Them” (which you can watch, below). He answers the title question with this nugget of wisdom: because we are jealous of them. For me, and for several GenXers I’ve talked with since my original post, Hess’ hypothesis is partly (if not wholly) true. More than that, though, we find ourselves drawn to the energy and excitement of investing in and playing a central role in each day’s endeavors. For those of us who grew up comfortably operating in the margins, out of the spotlight, being in the center of the fray is a new experience. And I’m not the only one who wants to create an “intergeneration” that marries the best qualities of Gen X and Millennial. The Millennial in me says that’s entirely possible – just do it!