Terms such as ‘Risk-averse’ or ‘cautious’ are amongst the litany of supposed millennial characteristics used by our elders to project their moral superiority over this generation. Our demographic, or so the theory goes, innovate and create less than ever before. We are happy to live with our parents; content in our reliance on others. We do not make our own opportunities. This is the natural consequence of a society that coddles youth and tolerates entitlement apparently.
In an era of ‘alternative facts’, it may seem redundant to point out the gaping holes in this thesis. It is probably not worth our breath to mention that our earliest memories most likely include that of two airplanes flying into the World Trade Centre; two symbols of global stability literally crumbling into dust. There also appears to be little gained from pointing out that this generation had very little to do with the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of Donald Trump, the Syrian refugee crisis or the destruction of the environment. In a world that has been set ablaze by our predecessors, it is little wonder that today’s youth might err toward the safe side. It entirely makes sense to look for stability when uncertainty is widespread. Unfortunately, the image of narcissistic kids who are more concerned with hand-outs and selfies than making an impact remains a very real perception. Our legitimate grievances fall on deaf ears. Our stilted ambitions are still all our fault.
There is only one option if we can’t reasonably argue the ‘safety first’ position. Call their bluff. Take a risk. You may fail but you will survive it. Keep trying and you can at least say you did everything in your power to fulfil your dreams. Remember, you will be criticised in some quarters regardless of what you do. In that case, why not pursue your passions gung-ho? In describing his many unsuccessful attempts to create the lightbulb, Thomas Edison once remarked, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” If you find yourself at a crossroads in your early 20s, it is a quote worth remembering.
It is an easy thing to say of course. Coming from Edison, the premise of risk is inspirational. Admittedly, it sounds like bullshit when it’s coming from someone like me. I haven’t achieved anything. I have grown up in a privileged position. My parents have sponsored my education; a patronage that has allowed me to move to New York City and pursue a career without any major debt or anxieties. In a world where the 1% dictates the 99%, I am well aware that I am one of the fortunate few amongst the many. Being told to ‘take risks’ on a middle-class 23-year old graduate student’s blog is presumably as self-aggrandising as the Twitter feed of the Orange Buffoon who currently occupies the White House.
Nevertheless, I will persist in the hope that a little personal anecdote might motivate you to take a leap of faith in some way or another. So here goes. I was recently offered a position at a major financial company. They offered me the equivalent of an employment unicorn in NYC- a paid, full-time internship with an opportunity for visa sponsorship. I was left with a Sophie’s Choice;
Do I take the first step on a ladder I do not wish to climb or pursue two unpaid internships related to an industry I have a passion for? Do I take the position that offers a steady income and the opportunity to live permanently in the city of my dreams or do I take the latter; a bookseller job that gives little by way of money to support two media internship positions that offer even less?
On both counts, I took the latter option. You may consider that an insane move. In many ways, you would be correct in that assertion. Yet a little bit of madness is something that we must not lose. I do not want to consider options in my life merely because they offer security. The financial firm offered a great opportunity- for somebody other than me. I may fail spectacularly and my ambitions may never materialise. Yet, there is the satisfaction of knowing that you aimed high and failed. It is better to exhaust every option in pursuit of what you love. To actually attempt something and revel in both the successes and failures of it. The alternative of looking back with regret seems more painful.
You may not know what you want as a career. That’s okay too. Taking chances can come in many forms; Travelling, studying, loving. The crux of my point is that you prove the cynics and nay-sayers wrong merely by trying. That is not to say that I am the man that should be offering such counsel. Perhaps like you, even amongst my own friends I can think of plenty of more knowledgable people on this subject; those who have taken far greater risks and overcame significantly larger obstacles than I have. What is undoubtedly true is that these people tend to succeed merely by their willingness to attempt to. In doing so, they are the north star for the rest of us.
During this period of global turmoil where authentic leadership is lacking, our generation can assume the mantle not by retreating into a safe space but by chasing the things that drive us, even in the face of economic adversity. You may not believe me, especially if you spend any time listening to the current leader of the free world, a man who ironically embodies every Freudian accusation that baby-boomers have ever levelled at today’s twenty-somethings. I strongly suggest that you take guidance from a very different type of US President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man who navigated many through even rockier storms. He famously stated; “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”