Flashback Friday: The Making of a Millennial

Many of us 1980s-born Millennials are heavily invested in differentiating ourselves from the “rest” of the Millennials, the entitled generation. That’s not us, we say, we have our own GenX-Millennial hybrid category! Hard to fault anyone who wants to escape the rampant cultural criticism aimed at the millennial generation. How many workplaces are we ruining? How many industries are we killing? Let’s stop apologizing for the decline in “breastaurant” chains’ revenues that we are causing; I am all done caring about whether my birth year entitles me (ha!) to non-Millennial status. I am a Millennial and I am coming for your breakfast cereal (and breakfast cereal is bullshit, by the way; you can put that on my tombstone). I finished a marathon in 5,280th place last year, and they still gave me a medal. I hung it on my office wall, because of course I did; I was raised on participation trophies, after all. I still have some of them! So let’s jump back to 1994: get a load of this self-aggrandizing exercise and tell me I am not part of the Me Me Me generation.

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My still-strong commitment to writing in cursive script locates this gem somewhere mid-third grade, in an after-school Girl Scout troop meeting. How much more “me”-focused could this exercise have asked me to be? “Create a ‘Brag-bag’,” it says! “Write down as many things as you can think of that make you special!” it says! Such an opportunity for a burgeoning special snowflake. What did I come up with? Let’s start with the first four, as the tightness of their script groups them together somewhat. I’m kind, helpful, polite, and I help others. So entitled, right? Moving on: I care for other people. I’m cheerful. I’m someone you (you!) can have fun with. I’m very good at piano. I’m so good at reading. I’m smart.

The order of operations seems key here to me. I knew very well that I was smart and good at reading (on the piano, however, I plead the fifth). Teachers, relatives and friends praised me for these things all the time. I was genuinely proud of my “smart” label, but I also knew not to overplay it, which is why, I imagine, I would only write it down once I had established my politeness, helpfulness, and deference to others. Oh, and let’s not forget cheerfulness! I’m “someone you can have fun with!” I may be smart and a good reader, and possibly good at playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” on the piano, but don’t worry, you’ll like me.

In the ninth grade, I received the “Most Conscientious Player” award on the J.V. soccer team. Did this “award” also mean that I had the worst ball-handling skills on the team and scored the fewest (read: zero) goals? Yes, and I don’t think anyone would argue with that, least of all me. But I also showed up to practice every day even when I knew I wouldn’t ever start a game, and I wind-sprinted and drilled and all the rest. I didn’t check out, even after devastating games where my dad showed up to watch and I didn’t play a single minute. I cheered for my teammates from the sidelines and suppressed the bad attitude and self-pity that so wanted to take over. Maybe the coach was just looking for some way to spare my feelings in the presence of other teammates being awarded for “best corner kick” and other actual athletic accomplishments, but I interpreted that award at the time as recognition for my contribution to the team such as it was, even if it didn’t involve ball-handling skills.

I did grow up thinking I was special, which is why I am totally a Millennial. I think that to me, though, special actually meant something outward-facing instead of inward-looking. I genuinely did aspire to be helpful, cheerful, a good friend, and generally a value-add in any given room, and I was proudest of the moments when I knew myself to be so. Being asked to brag about myself in Girl Scouts probably felt as awkward then as it would now, and I think my instinct to defer to ways in which I am most pleasing to others has largely remained intact. But, I think that is actually the most accurate summation of what makes me special, if indeed anyone is special for any reason.

For the second time this week, I will lean on Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which is something I think I might love an embarrassing amount.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.