Millennials: Young and Yearning
When I speak with friends and travel the 50 states, I’m struck by how numb many people are to the world. Besides immigrants and their children, both of whom inspire me with their ambition and passionate work ethic, I see fear, complacency, and extreme risk-aversion everywhere.
Benjamin Franklin once said: "If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking."
The most talented people follow the same narrow tracks. People are afraid to dream big or stand out. Without a positive vision for their future, these young Americans are stuck playing vicious, zero-sum status games. Instead of constructing our own desires, they mirror the goals of people around them. Patrick Collison, the CEO of Stripe, shared a similar observation:
"If you're in the US and go to a good school, there are a lot of forces that will push you towards following train tracks laid by others rather than charting a course yourself. Make sure that the things you're pursuing are weird things that you want to pursue, not whatever the standard path is. Heuristic: do your friends at school think your path is a bit strange? If not, maybe it's too normal."
There’s a lack of differentiation. As Thiel observed:
"There is something very odd about a society where the most talented people get all tracked toward the same elite colleges, where they end up studying the same small number of subjects and going into the same small number of careers… It’s very limiting for our society as well as for those students."
The top colleges have become vocational schools for investment banking and management consulting. In 2007, for example, half of Harvard seniors took jobs in finance or consulting. This mirrors my own experience. My college jobs department steered us towards high-status jobs instead of high-impact ones. Students, professors, and advisors cared more about perception than reality. It felt as if the goal of life wasn’t to improve the world, but to win awards and build an impressive resume. Instead, my smartest friends were pushed towards a handful of fields: law, management consulting, and investment banking. Other options were peripheral and besides the point.
Young Americans are trapped by student loans, crippled by path dependence, and constrained by runaway housing costs. They’re raised in institutional environments where conformity is praised and originality is punished. Like Pavlov’s rats, they’ve responded with authoritarian obedience. To no fault of their own, they’re sleepwalking through life as if their best years are already behind them.
I recently had dinner with a fraternity brother in Manhattan. Let’s call him Jim. Right after the bacon cheeseburgers arrived and just as we splattered ketchup on our crispy French Fries, I asked him how he liked his job. First, he paused for time. Then, he wiggled his eyes left and right, and said "Good. I’m learning a lot."
Immediately, I smirked and questioned his answer. It reeked like Orwellian doublespeak. In my experience, "learning a lot" is code for "boring, but I’m putting up with it."
Jim told me he liked his job because it taught him how to "collaborate" and "work with people." His words sounded like they were parroted from the company’s Human Resources department. I poked and poked. And after 10 minutes, we reached the truth.
He explained how the school system taught him to follow rules, mimic his peers, and listen to teachers. That’s how Jim was taught to succeed, so that’s his strategy for climbing the corporate ladder. It’s as if the age-based fraternity hierarchy never left his mind. Pledge first. Succeed later. All the while, he’s spent years marching along the institutional track, obeying orders and doing exactly what others told him to do, without questioning why he should listen to them in the first place.
Spoiler alert: Jim is wasting his time.
He knows how to get things done, but never asks if it’s worth doing in the first place. Instead of working on important problems, he’s building "options" for the future. Like so many other college graduates, he’s been pushed into mundane and uncreative profession. His dream-filled heart is crushed by the cold logic of investment banking. And another friend said: "I’m just trying to get through the next 25 years as fast as possible."
Sparkling dreams have become minor annoyances, like a buzzing fly in a lakeside cabin. Student loans keep him stuck on the institutional treadmill. He paid too steep a price for college, and now he’s unable to question the system and forced to accept the institutional doctrine as gospel. As I listened, I wondered what would happen if a high-voltage defibrillator shocked him and he woke up from his intellectual slumber.
Until then, he’ll stagger along the soul-crushing stepping stones of life: work hard in middle school so you can do well in high school; work hard in high school so you can do well in college; work hard in college so you can get a respected job; and get a respected job so one day, towards the end of your career, you can finally do what you want to do. All the while you "build skills" and "accumulate options," as if the next corner will provide the happiness you’ve been seeking all along.
In an essay called The Trouble with Optionality
, Harvard professor Mihir Desai worries that the language of finance has polluted life. He condemns the modern, finance-fueled affair with optionality. Rather than taking risks or working on important projects, students acquire options. In finance, when you hold an option and the world moves with you, you enjoy the benefits; when the world moves against you, your downside risk is protected and you don’t have to do anything. The more optionality, the better. Picking a path reduces optionality, so people stay in limbo and don’t make commitments. This language doesn’t only apply to career planning. Some students talk about marriage as the death of optionality. But life is not like options trading.
Optionality is a means to an end, not the end itself. Our obsession with optionality can backfire. In theory, these safety nets give them freedom. Bolstered by the confidence of security, they can jump head-first into ambitious projects. In practice, they become habitual acquirers of safety nets and never work on anything of substance. The longer they spend acquiring options, the harder it is to stop.
"The shortest distance between two points is reliably a straight line. If your dreams are apparent to you, pursue them. Creating optionality and buying lottery tickets are not weigh stations on the road to pursuing your dreamy outcomes. They are dangerous diversions that will change you."
When we pursue optionality, we avoid bold decisions. Like anything meaningful, venturing into the unknown is an act of faith. It demands responsibility. You‘ll have to take a stand, trust your decision, and ignore the taunts of outside dissent. But a life without conviction is a life controlled by the futile winds of fashion. Or worse, the hollow echoes of the crowd.
By brainwashing us into thinking that prosperity is inevitable, privilege can have a numbing effect. Among my friends in the upper echelons of society — the ones with the means to pursue transcendent dreams — I wonder if they’re too comfortable. Nobody believes in destiny. Social events revolve around binge drinking and conversations so superficial a robot could automate them. They’re dozing off in an intellectual slumber. Rather than rising to the level of their dreams, they fall to the average of their environment. In my college classes, where the annual education costs $40,000 per year, the vast majority of students wasted the time away on Facebook. Office hours were an afterthought. "Try hards" were mocked and made-fun-of, and nobody had a vision for their future.
We lack courage, not genius. We’re swimming in money, but starving for ambition. Every venture capitalist I meet says there’s too much money and not enough good ideas. As Peter Thiel reminds us:
"Progress is neither automatic nor mechanistic; it is rare. Indeed, the unique history of the West proves the exception to the rule that most human beings through the millennia have existed in a naturally brutal, unchanging, and impoverished state. But there is no law that the exceptional rise of the West must continue."
We increasingly believe that progress is inevitable. Progress, though, is not guaranteed. We must work for it. Otherwise, our living standards will not improve, and may get worse.