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Self-aware but not necessarily selfish (or, why we Millennials really are awesome)

July 20, 2010

My slightly older friend recently asked me, “It seems like your generation is more attuned to professional development, finding what you’re good at, and skills identification. Why do you think that is?” Here are my musings on this question.

For me at least, at my university, I had the opportunity to participate in a lot of those personality and skills inventory tests, Myers-Briggs and so forth, that help you identify personality and strength attributes, like creative, entrepreneurial, and analytical on one evaluation, and find career possibilities that would be a good match. I think a lot of people in my generation, Millennials, had the chance to take such tests and self-evaluations in college or high school, or at least on Facebook.  And those of us who took a basic psychology course were introduced to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the concept of self-actualization.

We’ve been told by our parents, “You can do anything you want,” and by advertising, “Have it your way. What do you want? Where do you want to go today?” This makes it harder to accept a job and lifestyle that does not make us happy. We don’t merely aspire to happiness – we expect it.

A recent talk at TEDxPotomac by Cake Love founder Warren Brown encouraged the audience, “Do what makes you happy. Follow your happiness, answer to yourself.” This message resonates with young adults because, one way or another, we’ve been hearing it all our lives.

And more easily than in the past, we can tailor our world to exactly match our preferences, our news to exactly match our interests and views. Starbucks’ recent “however-you-want-it” frappuccino campaign played to the expectation of customization.  Facebook’s instant personalization may have been subject to many privacy critiques, but I would assume that to some young people, it seemed merely another way to access the information most relevant to them, the natural evolution of the internet from a distributive channel to a very personal, interactive, social experience.

The simple act of customizing a Google or Yahoo! homepage asks you, “What do you want to hear about? What kind of news and information do you like?” You have to stop and think, “What do I like to read about, learn about, and stay up-to-date on?” The previous generation wasn’t given this opportunity at every turn to customize their information stream. You could pick your TV channel, your radio station, but weren’t asked what specific topics interested you the most.  Now, from customizing our internet home page, to selecting the news feeds in our RSS reader, to building our Twitter lists of organizations and people we want to follow, we filter our worlds far more granularly than ever before, constantly asking ourselves, “Is this information going to be relevant to me?

The filtered news many of us now receive has been talked about in the context of the echo chamber, selective perception, and an increased polarization of political views.  I believe it has also had the effect of helping us paint a clearer picture of ourselves, as “me” and “myself” become more clear and better defined through many deliberate acts of choosing and defining what we like.  We fill out profiles, list our interests, and write snappy 160-character bios of ourselves, spending more time consciously defining “about me” than previous generations were asked to do.  Sure, this has the potential to lead to a selfishness, a false expectation that the world revolves around that “me,” but this heightened sense of self can also lead to more true happiness, as we have a better idea of how we each define happiness for ourselves.

And in the career realm it can lead to a better awareness of the skills you possess, your interests, the types of work you like, the things and ideas that motivate you, and greater satisfaction and productivity at work. Millennials like to work for a bigger purpose than just mere money. We may not always enjoy taking direction, but we enjoy learning and trying new things and finding creative ways to do something more efficiently or better. And if we can say with confidence that we’re doing something we enjoy, we’ll be happier and more productive employees or entrepreneurs.

Look at Twitter.  There are many people not just sharing what they eat, but what they read, what they do for work or for fun that they are passionate about.  My Twitter stream is full of highly productive people who love what they do, do it well, and love sharing their passion and knowledge with others.

And that is what makes me (and others) hopeful that my generation can and will “change the world” and “make a difference” on the issues many of us care about (like the environment, hunger, and poverty) – our desire to share and cooperate with others. A recent New York Times article and the TEDxPotomac speech by Frances Moore Lappé pointed out that people are wired for cooperation, to be helpful to one another and gain satisfaction from doing so.  We aren’t just more self-aware than ever before, we really are better able to connect with others who care about the same things, who share our passions and our values.  As Steve Moore pointed out at TEDxPotomac, we can harness our instant connectedness not just for mass snowball fights, but for mass action and gatherings to create better neighborhoods and solutions to the problems facing the world that we live in.

Note: This post was written shortly after attending TEDxPotomac in May 2010, but edited and published a couple months later.

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