I’m a child of the ’90s. A millenial.
From the generation of self-esteem, where everyone was given trophies just for participating, and we were all spoiled with the best economy in ages.
One of the side dishes that comes with all this self-esteem, these adult adulations, that super-sexy economy, is that of heightened expectations.
We were the generation where everyone was a 1%er, where to be successful was a given. Where we would all get into great colleges, be totally emotionally stable, and solve every problem the generations before us had handed over.
I was one of those kids, the ones with the expectations. For a while, I was just a kid, just like everyone else. We were playing on the jungle gym, not expecting a thing of ourselves or each other. And then the next day we were given tests to see where we fit. I happened to do well on this, the first of many such tests (they called them “standardized,” to imply they could ever accurately describe a child’s potential).
Doing well on these tests was one of the worst things that ever happened to me.
Everyone started telling me I was smart. Teachers, parents, probably even dogs. Everyone saw… potential… in me.
The ’90s were that time of self-esteem, but what they didn’t tell you about self-esteem is that it was connected to one simple idea: you (and only you) are not just good. You are better than everyone else.
That was the expectation of our generation. Every single person was supposed to be better. Supposed to be the best.
Now, what this does in a child’s mind is quite powerful. If you are so smart, and you are the best, then your job, then, is to simply live out what you already are. There is no concept of growth or change. Life is about proving that you are the 1%.
And so what our generation’s parents unwittingly did was create a ceiling. A ceiling which was unbreakable. The ceiling was the amount of joy we could feel about our achievements, the esteem we could gain within ourselves. The ceiling was not interested in hard work or perserverence, learning or growth, it was concerned with results. Process did not matter, product did.
And so, when you achieved the expected results: the good grades, the good college admissions, the trophies for actual success… there was no joy. It was simply what was expected of the 1%. You had hit the ceiling, which is where you were supposed to be anyway.
And if you failed (defined as not being the best)… there was no floor. There was no safety net. Just a bottomless pit that descended as far as you allowed yourself to fail.
This, I believe, is the result of a lot of the angst our generation feels. I know that it took me decades to be able to decode its effects on my actions, my thoughts, my feelings.
But I imagine, if you grew up at the same time, you know what I mean. Maybe you feel it too? Maybe you feel that lack of joy when you finally achieve some big dream of yours, a feeling of, “Well, yeah, of course, now keep going…” A feeling of, “Just don’t screw it up now.”
And when you fail, do you feel that sinking feeling, like you just found out you’re not as great as everyone said you were?
They call us a spoiled generation, one where everyone thinks they’re the best. What they didn’t realize what that this belief is what has caused so many of us to believe that we are, in fact, the worst. Unless we did what was expected of us: getting good grades, getting into good colelges, having amazing careers… who were we?
We were failures falling into the bottomless pit of unfulfilled expectations.
There’s another way of looking at the world, one which many of us are starting to reclaim thanks to research by people like Carol Dweck that teach the painful falseness that so many of us live to this day.
Whereas the paradigm of the eighties, nineties, and on until the crash of 2008, was one of a ceiling of joy, of achievement, of growth, today we have started to realize that, in truth, there is only a floor. And above us, an unlimited sky.
Those standardized tests were believed to be our ceiling. They were all we could ever be. Ironically, all that great achievement that was expected of us greatly limited us. It said: “This is all you can be.”
In reality, everything from the tests to the trophies to the self-esteem, were just floors. They were where we were all starting. They were the floor.
Imagine that. Imagine a world where our intelligence was just the beginning of our journey, not the end. Imagine a world where our achievements were just markers of a ladder we were climbing that had no end. Imagine a world where our joy at achieving our goals, where our gratitude for achieving any measure of success, was all added to our life.
The fact is that this is a more accurate life to lead. We are all given a certain amount of intelligence and abilities when we are born, but all of that is just the floor, the bottom, by which we can build ourselves upon.
Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team the first time he tried. So his mom told him to practice more. And he followed that philosophy until he became the best basketball player in the world. He wasn’t a natural. He was a learner.
We are all creating buildings of our lives.
The immense amount of depression, the addictions (attempts to escape reality), and overall lack of joy of our generation, I believe lies quite squarely in the expectation that we are somehow meant to construct this building from the roof down.
There is no joy in knowing who you already are and trying to just prove it to the rest of the world.
There is immense joy, on the other hand, in building from the ground up. From knowing that you can be anything with the right amount of work, learning, tools, and community.
Whether our lives end up becoming a cottage, a shack, or a skyscraper, we will always know that we built something with our own two hands. That before we started all there was was a floor, with absolutely no expectations of what would result. That every brick laid, every effort we put in, everything we learned, was a complete and utter joy because it didn’t have to be, it was our choice. And no one can take that from us.