The media narrative about millennials is well worn right now. You’ll read they’re lazy, narcissistic, soft, and entitled. It’s a great way to get pageviews—it either gratifies the older reader, or it pisses of the younger one. The result is a lot of comments and angry Facebook shares.
Of course, this doesn’t accomplish anything. The reality is that the economic situation for millennials is not a good one. Thirty-six percent of our generation still lives with their parents. Unemployment for millennials is twice the national average. Half of all Millennials have taken a job they didn’t want just to pay the bills and only 30 percent consider their current job a career. According to one 2011 study by the University of Michigan, many graduates aren’t even bothering to learn how to drive. The road is blocked, they are saying, so why get a license I won’t be able to use? Despite student loan debt rising above $1 trillion, surpassing credit card debt, we go back to school.
And a lot of young people are stuck because of it. We are paralyzed by the obstacles which lay before us. Fear. Frustration. Confusion. Helplessness. Anger. Depression. These are understandable emotions in the face of what seems like insurmountable obstacles everywhere we look.
Of course, this has always been the case for young people. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1841:
“If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life.”
If that was printed in The New Yorker tomorrow under a different name, no one would bat an eye. That’s because our situation is not unique. We’re all, at varying points in our lives, subject to random and often incomprehensible events. It just so happens that when we are young we don’t have the framework to deal with these problems. We have no idea how to turn them around.
But we are in great luck, because we can find examples in the icons of history who used this formula to persevere and turn their obstacles into advantage. They took what should have held them back—paralyzed with the same emotions we are feeling—and used it to achieve great success. Just like them we have the ability to see our obstacles for what they are and attack them to achieve what we want in life. Like them, we can use the following framework to stand out amongst those who remain mired in this rut.
Control Your Perceptions
John D. Rockefeller took his first job in 1855 at the age of 16 making 50 cents a day. Less than two years later the Panic of 1857 struck. It was at the time the greatest market depression in US history and it had hit him just as he was starting his career. Instead of getting angry or growing despondent, he looked at the panic as an opportunity to learn, a baptism in the market. Within 20 years of that first crisis, Rockefeller would alone control 90 percent of the oil market. We can try to see disaster rationally. Or rather, like Rockefeller, we can see opportunity in every disaster, and transform that negative situation into an education, a skill set, or a fortune.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the classic series Little House, faced some of the toughest and unwelcoming elements on the planet: harsh and unyielding soil, Indian territory, and the humid backwoods of Florida. But Wilder wasn’t afraid or jaded, she saw all these unforgiving environments as adventures. As she put it: “There is good in everything, if only we look for it.”
For us, we face things that are not nearly as intimidating, and then promptly decide we’re screwed. Just because other people say that something is hopeless or crazy or broken to pieces doesn’t mean it is. We decide what story to tell ourselves. Or whether we will tell one at all. That is the power of perception.
Direct Your Actions
When former President James Garfield couldn’t afford his tuition at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in 1851, he paid his way through by persuading the school to let him be the janitor in exchange for tuition. Within just one year of starting at the school he was a professor—teaching a full course load in addition to his studies. By his 26th birthday he was the dean.
In the 1920s Amelia Earhart couldn’t make a living as a female pilot, so she took a job as a social worker. Then one day the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a pretty offensive offer: She could be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but she wouldn’t actually fly the plane and she wouldn’t get paid anything. Guess what she said to the offer? She said yes. Less than five years later she was the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic and became, rightly, one of the most famous and respected people in the world.
Sometimes, on the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. Often when we are just starting out, our first jobs “introduce us to the broom,” as Andrew Carnegie famously put it. There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another opportunity to excel—and to learn.
Strengthen Your Will
Theodore Roosevelt spent almost everyday during the first 12 years of his life struggling with horrible asthma. The attacks were an almost nightly near-death experience. But as a fragile child born into great wealth and status, he could have remained weak and would have been taken care of throughout his life.
Instead, he one day looked at his father and said with determination: “I’ll make my body.” He proceeded to work out feverishly every day for the next five years. By his early twenties his battle against asthma was essentially over. Roosevelt had worked it out of his body. Like Roosevelt, we can choose to not accept the hand we’re dealt with, a hand we don’t control. Instead of sitting back and enjoying the modern cushy life, we can prepare for the adversity that is all but guaranteed to come our way and react accordingly.
Abraham Lincoln’s life was defined by enduring and transcending great difficulty. He grew up in poverty, lost his mother while he was still a child, and suffered through intense bouts of depression. Because of the difficulties he endured in both his personal life and as President, he was able to embody the Stoic maxim: sustine et abstine. Bear and forbear. Acknowledge the pain but trod onward in your task. With all our modern technology has come the conceited delusion that we control the world around us, which is of course not true. We can follow Lincoln’s example and adjust to a world that is inherently unpredictable by remaining confident, calm, and ready to work regardless of the conditions.
Our generation needs to always remember that over a hundred years before us, people stood right where we were and felt very similar things, struggling with the same issues. People have always had to dig themselves out of messes they had nothing to do with creating.
This is a recession, not the Great Depression. Those that came before us dealt with much worse problems and had fewer safety nets and tools at their disposal. They dealt with the same obstacles we have today, plus those that they worked so hard and sacrificed their lives to eliminate for us.
We’d be so much better following the lead of Emerson’s counterexample, as someone who “tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet.”
This is perseverance. And with it, Emerson said, “with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear.”
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and he lives in Austin, Texas.
He’s also put together this list of 15 books that you’ve probably never heard of that will alter your worldview, help you excel at your career and teach you how to live a better life.