I came across a talk in my Facebook feed (of all places) the other day, and I have to admit that it struck a particular chord with me and raised a few questions. As photographers and videographers, we're mostly married to our computers, we have necessary if not uneasy relationships with social media, and many of us are part of the millennial generation. So, how do we find happiness in all this?
I'm not here to debate the whole millennials vs. the previous generations and who did whom wrong thing. Rather, this is about the video above and the questions it raises, the most important of which is: how do creatives find happiness in the modern world?
The Nomadic Millennial
I consider myself lucky to be an old millennial: I grew up during a time when the Internet was a novelty more than a ubiquitous repository of information and social interaction, when cell phones were just phones, and when asking someone on a date involved an in-person interaction or at least a phone call. And I don't say I consider myself lucky to have experienced these things necessarily because I believe they were inherently better, but rather because it gives me a perspective on our rather suddenly technologically inundated world. I've seen myself evolve as a person in response to technology's increasing presence in our lives enough to know what's good for me and what is holding me back. I genuinely feel some measure of sympathy for people even slightly younger than me, because they've grown up in a world technology is so ubiquitous, so omnipresent that it's difficult to understand life without it. Maybe that's a benefit, though. Maybe it's easier to be comfortable with it that way.
Though the video above speaks to the corporate environment, I believe the points Sinek makes are relevant to a vastly wider audience, particularly creatives who often have increased reliance on technology above that of even their Snapchat-loving peers; who eschew the 9-5 life for freedom to pursue both happiness and fulfillment, making them even more enigmatic (often read "lazy") than even those millennials mentioned in the corporate world; who are often complex and nuanced individuals who are in an eternal state of self-discovery, realization, and low-level existential crises.
When I was 24, I left a fully funded PhD program in Applied Mathematics to do a master's in Music Composition. People thought I was insane. My dad did his best to be supportive, but there was no doubting that he was dumbfounded and deeply concerned by my decision. I got into photography. It had been a long time coming: math is something I'm good at, but it's not something I deeply love like the arts. I essentially spent my undergraduate career and the first bit of grad school lying to myself. Still though, maybe I was insane.
Because none of that's to say music and photography have been smooth sailing. There's far less job security, and my path through life is much less predetermined. It's stressful. But stress always feels like a living emotion, like I'm alive in that moment. The monotony that my prior life was to me felt like nothing at all. And that's not meant as a jab at it; it just wasn't for me personally. But then again, billions of people stick with careers that aren't for them; they choose security, and you know what? That's a perfectly wise and respectable decision. In light of what so many do, maybe my decision makes me entitled. Maybe it makes me selfish. But as Richard Feynman said:
(I) have no responsibility to live up to what other people think (I) ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing.
And then something happened: my dad turned 60. Though he's been extremely successful and has even rebuilt all of his finances after a stockbroker embezzled his life savings, he's recently been feeling a bit down regarding his accomplishments; namely, he feels as if he has missed out on a lot of life in pursuit of extending his wealth. And he has; I won't deny that. But, he's also been very successful, and I'm proud of him for that. Nonetheless, seeing how the balance (or imbalance in his eyes) he struck between finances and everything else has affected him affected me. It affected him so deeply that he completely reversed his stance: if I'm happy doing what I do and not starving, then what more can I ask for? And really, that's how I feel too. I'm a pretty simple guy at heart.
And I think Feynman's philosophy is where so much static is generated. Many millennials seem to have adopted some version of my attitude: better to wander through the unknown than to be a prisoner of a known you reject. While I won't speak for an entire generation, it is largely antithetical to our parent's generation's philosophies. And no, I'm not saying that millennials are literal and philosophical nomads aimlessly traipsing through life, but I am saying that the prospect of that, at least if only done temporarily, is an acceptable outcome for many, because somewhere at the end of that journey is that thing whose definition is as nebulous as the very path to get there: happiness.
The duality of this generation is something Sinek touches on: technology and impatience. We have more capability at our fingertips than ever, but as a byproduct, we're more impatient and in a lot of ways, less easily fulfilled. As creatives, we sit at the forefront of culture, we're forced deep into that world simply to market and sustain ourselves, and that creates a difficult situation for many of us. We are the content creators, the ones who while hopefully noble in our pursuit of artistic endeavors, also often have an aspect of that manufactured reality — the incessant race to create the image of self that is most compelling, most exciting, most seemingly fulfilled among our peers. If the previous generation embodied the period, we embody the exclamation point. Indeed, imagine my amazement when I had to explain to someone that my use of periods in text messages was not some passive-aggressive sleight, but simply grammar in action.
Two side effects of all this are addiction and depression. Social media addiction is real. The correlation between higher rates of social media usage and depression is real. Is there causation there? I don't know. But Sinek touches on something important: the proliferation of "fine." I see this constantly: friends with seemingly remarkable lives on social media belie that things are really just "fine" when speaking in person. Extremism of image has rendered normalcy "fine," and as a consequence, the ability to find the nuance and joy within normalcy has withered. It becomes a nebulous cloud, a fog through which we wade professionally and emotionally. I believe in a conservation of energy law when it comes to image and fulfillment: there is a finite amount of energy for both, and in a generation that devotes much to the external, the internal is often left wanting.
But as creatives, we don't always have the luxury of the "pull the plug" solution. We are beholden to the Internet, to the "like," to the follower count, at least to a degree. While there are some outliers, the fact remains that more and more, people turn to the Internet to find services, and as such, that requires those who provide those services first to have a presence there and second to constantly work to rise above the veritable din created by an environment in which most anyone can claim to be most anything with the same feigned legitimacy as anyone else. We're likely more susceptible to the aforementioned pitfalls than others. We often work alone, tied to a computer. We work hard to create brand images. Much as we might to disconnect, our livelihoods often rely on us being connected.
So, how do we restore balance? How do we maintain strength of relationships beyond the virtual bounds and form new ones? How do we compensate for a job that often forces us to externalize our sense of self and our image? How do we find fulfillment in that which is seemingly unglamorous — everyday life?
If you thought I'd come full circle and have the answers to all of this in this article, I'm sorry, but I don't. If I did, I'd probably be on a speaking tour right now. I can tell you what works for me, but it's imperfect, and it's no guarantee that it'll work for you. I'm not always fulfilled. I live in a state of constant low-level existential crisis. I struggle to find a balance of building relationships in a world where that is most easily (not necessarily most effectively) done electronically with my intense desire to do so in other ways. I could take the idealistic route and refuse any relationship not built in person, but that's going to severely limit my ability to connect with people I share common interests and beliefs with and will likely leave me no happier than if I spent my days entirely chatting on Facebook. I could spend all my free time contemplating in a pastoral field, but hey, Netflix is cool too. The problem is that while there may be a balance, we, particularly as creatives, are not entirely free to find that ideal balance, and the resultant cognitive dissonance can be poisonous. So maybe, as Sinek also hints at, the best we can do as individuals is to take control where we have the option to do so, and to accept the imbalance elsewhere in our lives as a necessary evil. I'll be the first to admit, though, that that leaves my idealistic self still unsatisfied. But I don't have a better solution.
If nothing else, I think talking about this among ourselves is a start. What do you think? What do we do?