by Melissa Mesku
By the time I entered my twenties, I was equally certain of two things: that the world was fucked up and that I was unique and had great capacity. Insofar as both notions are totally subjective, I occasionally wondered if they were indeed true. But I accepted them because they continued to feel true even when no one seemed to agree.
The questions that I constantly asked myself at the time were these: In all seriousness, how am I going to fix the world? What needs to be done most urgently and how am I going to do it? With these things occupying me, other concerns – concerns for normal things like finding love, getting a job, or buying cute shit – failed to resonate. Insofar as that made me an outsider, I didn’t mind: my self-imposed sense of responsibility filled me with enough self-importance that I was able for a long time to subsist on that alone. Carrying the weight of the world is shitty but nothing on earth will make you feel as unique.
What I never could have expected was that I was not alone, that there were literally millions like me who felt the world was fucked up, that feeling uniquely positioned to act was in fact not unique at all.
And so we have a generation ostensibly defined by people who are starting companies instead of taking a job, people engaging in social entrepreneurship, starting organisations, publications, movements and trying to make a dent in the world before they’ve even hit thirty. This is not all of us, obviously, but it is the subset of us that our culture celebrates. These people are the empowered. They are the ones who feel capable of taking action, authorised to remake the world, uniquely positioned to live up to their uniqueness.
Their rise, if I am to believe the platitudes about this generation, is in part due to how we were raised believing we are special. The idea was that if people believe themselves to be intrinsically worthy then that will spur them on to try new things, and in the trying is the possibility of succeeding.
Wondering as I did whether I was in fact special, whether what I perceived about myself was indeed true, pushed me to test it out. I spent most of my twenties doing shit to prove I was special to myself and to anyone who was looking. It was incredibly gratifying. It was also a huge waste of time. I lived out that half of my identity because the other half, the grave sense of responsibility, the desire to not just take on the world but to actively work toward solving some of its deepest problems, is far harder to live up to.
This is what I see a lot of the time in the empowered, in the ones who push themselves to new heights of personal accomplishment. They are proving themselves. But to what end? If the motivation is just to prove themselves to be somebody special, then it’s a vanity. If the social form most characteristic of our generation is the startup, then take a good look at them: most never make any money, sure, but worse, most don’t attempt to solve problems that are all that important. Most startups are vanity projects, destined to be discarded and forgotten like all vanities.
If it was once rare that a person felt called upon to have a destiny, that one had to be born at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve for the concept of a glorious personal fate to take hold, then it is a strange thing now to find ourselves unique, willing, able, and yet stuck in the same broken world as all the other midnights’ children. We are special snowflakes falling gently across an apocalyptic landscape, too busy admiring our intricacies to see the fucked up place we are headed.
Maybe these things must first play themselves out. While my efforts to reify my uniqueness were in large part driven by vanity, they were not in vain. Along the way I established a deep sense of self and an unshakeable esteem that now serve as the foundation of anything I go on to do. Maybe we must first acquire these things in ourselves before we can take on the world. Maybe we only really take on grave responsibilities when they are thrust on us, and until that day each of us is shadowboxing, playacting, expending effort that looks pointless until the moment it becomes necessary to put it all put to use.
Having a great fate awaiting us is one of the most lasting promises whispered to us as millennials, an entitlement so deeply engrained that it almost feels like our birthright. But who is responsible for granting us our great fate? Who will fix the mess we’re in? We are children until we take proper charge of the world, though perhaps no generation has managed to do that with any degree of success. Perhaps we are all children, no different from the generation that came before us and no different from those who came long before them, despite our being the children born on the cusp of not just one new year but a thousand of them.
Melissa Mesku is a writer, web developer, entrepreneur, and the founder of New Worker Magazine.