David Brooks writes that as legions of college graduates begin parading into the world (paper degrees in hand achieved with sides of seemingly insurmountable debt), we do so inauspiciously. That is, we are going about living our lives in entirely the wrong manner. Quite rightly, Brooks identifies the marching orders for each and every (relatively well off, economically) college graduate in the U.S.—the maxims by which we have been told, most likely since kindergarten, to lead our lives.
“Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself.” He calls this the “litany of expressive individualism,” something pervasive throughout American society.
Of course, this is merely his set up for the turn of the article, which comes when he writes: “Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. . . . Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life.”
I’m reminded of the scene from the movie Fight Club when Tyler Durden, Ed Norton’s cooler, hipper, I-don’t-give-a-damn-about-material-possessions alter ego—the in-the-flesh Facebook page of the ’90s generation—angrily relates how pissed off we all are because we’ve been told that, one day, we’ll be rock stars and movie stars. And the “tragic” (read: obvious, but oblivious to us) reality is that most of us won’t headline Bonnaroo or get hungover in Thailand.
Now, what Brooks harps on here is nothing new. The “millenial” generation has been getting a bad rap: we’re flighty, self-important, narcissistic, and more concerned with our own accomplishments versus what we may contribute to some collective project.
As it relates to journalism—and writing more generally—Brooks’s point that losing yourself in some bigger operation leads you to your strengths, and, eventually, your great contributions, is worth noting for any aspiring Jonathan Franzen. Before Black Hawk Down, there was Mark Bowden at the Baltimore News-American and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Before Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there was debt-ridden and unsuccessful Hunter S. Thompson, writing cover letters to newspapers in Canada with levels of snark that would put Esquire magazine to shame.
For most writers, the payoff comes not in a multimillion-dollar book deal, or a first feature story printed in The Atlantic. Your pitch letters, for a time, will suck. Your articles, for a time, will be heavily edited. Your story ideas, for a time, will be greatly suspect and viewed as unambitious and unworkable. You will, for a time, probably have to slog it out at lesser known publications to build a clip file and gain (valuable) experience and knowledge in writing and editing. It took me two years working at the Loyola Greyhound before I sold my first story, to Chicken Soup for the Soul; it took me nearly three years before I sold my first story to a magazine. And it took a full four years before any of that previously acquired knowledge and experience earned me any sort of external recognition.
The case for gradual improvement, for moving slowly, for being willing to admit that you don’t know it all, and that your success—however you define it—will in all likelihood require your paying your proverbial dues . . . it’s a humbling reality, and one I’m still trying to learn.
Until I’m done paying up, I’m quite alright—for a time—being lost in the shuffle.
As a parting note (because this post wouldn’t be complete without the actual footage…):