Entitled Millennials, Social Media, and the Modern Photographer

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.

Dueling Perspectives

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. 

One of my wandering places.

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.

Nebulous 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?

Meet my entirely analog friend.


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?

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Simon is such a great speaker. Check out this talk from him https://youtu.be/u4ZoJKF_VuA

Also, great article!

Thanks Alex, very thought provoking. You have explained quite well how I think I feel on a regular basis. At 53 I gravitated to a career in photography quite late after traveling and doing other things more secure for a long time. Even though I have an MBA I don't have a Plan B & i really cant see myself doing anything other than take photos. Thanks for letting me know that I am not the only one feeling connected but disconnected at the same time.

I love Simon... Wish I could understand human behavior as much as he does!

I think at the crux of all this is the sense of purpose. I firmly believe that having a sense of purpose is a fundamental human psychological need, and that when absent can be a catalyst for depression or other psycho-social afflictions. As a content creator I still compare and compete with everyone else, but the standard I hold my work to is my own, so although I participate in the hunger games-esque world of content creation, I don't get dismayed at my results.

I'd like to suggest applying a classic market economy concept to the problem of too many creators. Laissez-faire in the sense that the cream will rise to the top. Open yourself up, become vulnerable, put yourself out there and hope that strikes a chord out there with someone.

Finally, healthy body, healthy mind. I believe in a rigorous fitness schedule to combat all the hours behind a screen.

I have never heard of Simon, thanks for sharing!

This is a very interesting topic! As for myself, I'm now 31 and have been slowling disconnecting from social media. The first major one was Twitter, and the Facebook short after that — now couting more than 2 years without them.

I'm trying to find a balance and decide if I should keep Instagram or not. It now seems like the only way to have sucess is having "online" sucess too, and I'm really not fond into this idea. I often feel that the effort it takes building the so called "brand persona" in social media is exhausting, and I rather be crafting my real self and work instead. The typical idea of sucess is much overrated and this is from before the internet — social media only made it worse.

Ability has to come with a genuine humility (not meaning to rhyme here) in order to feel any sense of fulfillment. I used to get excited when someone would comment positively on my photography feeling like I created something, but as I've grown up (kinda) I feel humbled that I have the opportunity to do what I love to do. When I step back from the scene, I can appreciate it for what it is, and not my ability to render out its likeness in a way that will maximize its appeal to the masses. In truth I had the smallest part in it. There are millions of gallons of water hanging over my head, mountains pushed up from the earth, life in the tiniest detail, photons trveling at mind boggling speeds to hit our atmosphere and light frequencies that create colors beyond our visual spectrum, but my selfie was pretty cool.
Either way, appreciate where you are for what it is, and feel full till the next time.

What an incredibly well-written article Alex! I couldn't help but feel the exact same way in so many of the points you raised. Definitely bookmarking this! Thank you for writing this and sharing it with all of us.

"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."

Nothing about pursuing what you want to pursue makes you entitled. That seems to be the buzzword of the 2010s and it drives me nuts to see people feel that way.

Great read, in any case.

I hate the video.... with a passion. Love the article, but the video is thorn in my side.

Great write up. One book you may be interested is Alone Together by Sherry Turkle.

Also, I find that limiting my time on social media is very important to my emotional well being. I'm currently looking into using a service like Freedom (www.freedom.to, I'm not paid by them). For me the problem with social media and my phone is there are no barriers to using them. It's so easy to pick up and flick through. I'm trying to create barriers to entry with them so I can be more present in the moment.

Great article Alex,
I agree with him 100% on the topic of social media, phone use, addiction, etc. However, I have to disagree with our generation being "entitled". I agree with Mike Kelley with that word being very overused, or perhaps just applied without full understanding. Or maybe he's right and I'm just an outlier. As a full time engineer and part time photographer I'm exposed to a lot of both generations (old baby boomers at work and young creatives). I admire my own generations aspirations to do something with "meaning" (i.e. something that makes them happy) as opposed to just "putting your time in" as the old timers say. .It is their generation, after all, that admits in their old age that they spent too much of their lives on making money/success rather than family.
I believe you hit the magic word in your article which is: Balance. We can all use a dose of reality when we become impatient, and learn to appreciate just how amazing life really is. We can also employ a healthy dose of aspiration to become what will truly make us happy (which I don't believe makes us entitled). We only live once, so we should make decisions that lead us to the happiest life possible. I feel a metaphor coming on with the exposure triangle and balanced exposure with a triangle of life... can't solidify it right now haha. By the way I see you're in Cleveland - I'm in Hudson, if you want to grab a coffee I would love to chat more about this topic!

This is the best article I've read from you Alex. Not to imply your other articles are bad. As I type this in my office, alone behind my computer, it's one I relate the closest with. I'm trying to separate myself a bit from social media and my phone, however it certainly feels like an addiction. One that I even make excuses for. "I have to have facebook to market myself," "I must try and post something on instagram to gain more followers as often as possible." etc.

Just like you, the question is - where is the balance? It's one thing to discuss what Sinek does about the effects our contentedness has on our mental health. It's an entirely new topic to acknowledged that many of us have careers that rely on at least understanding how to utilize what's at our fingertips. How do we find a common ground?

I could type and discuss forever, but I'll just leave you by saying that this article hit close to home and I'd love to write more about it sometime.

Excellent article and while I agree with the premise. I think that many have lost sight of the fact that social media is just another tool to be used as needed. While I am a baby-boomer who went into photography late in life. I have a high-tech career that I am very happy in and I don't see photography as an alternative to my primary career but an addition that allows me to be more creative. I derive satisfaction from both not one to the detriment to the other. Alex you are correct in that life requires a balance and that is where many have lost their way.

Thank you so much for putting up this video.
I literally felt he was talking to me.
Great input and lots of good things to think about.
Thank you, Alex!

My, you have been thinking deeply lately, Alex! I like it!

I am not a millennial and the older I get, the less confidence I feel in having any answers to your questions. But thanks for sharing your stimulating thoughts and questions!

Being the only "right brain" child in a household of extreme "left brain" siblings, they looked at me like I was always nuts, and I looked at them like they were all nuts. They had the "I have a plan, and I am going to follow it in a straight line" attitude. Of course, I have always had the I'm going to just follow life as it comes attitude. When I was about 35, I sat down with one of my fathers best friends (dad had passed away). I confessed to him that I was getting concerned that I hadn't picked an actual career like my siblings and everyone else I knew.

Now, Roy and my Father were from the "Greatest Generation"... They absolutely loved their careers. It wasn't a "well, another day another dollar" kind of thing. They loved their careers. Dad died the year before he retired, and Roy about 7 years after. At any rate; when I was talking to Roy about my delimna, he asked me the simple question of "are you providing for your family?" I said yes. "Are you paying your bills, putting a roof over their heads, feeding them?" Yes.... Pretty much his final response was "Why are you so concerned about having what society considers a career". Now, I am not sure what I expected him to say, but that was not it. He reminded me of things my father would have probably told me. In short, you need to follow what is right for you, not what is right for someone else. But the bottom line is you still need to provide for yourself, for your family or whomever you are responsible for. It doesn't matter how that happens, you just need to be responsible.

People who are extreme left brain and must have a plan for everything usually cannot grasp that concept. Even though I have always provided for my family, and have done so quite well, have less debt than almost anyone in my family; for the fact that I have never had a "career"; they just cannot accept that I have done anything.

However, I have one sibling that has 2 Bachelor degrees and 3 master degrees and has never used a one and is so far in debt she will never see the light of day and is in her mid-60's now. One sibling who had an IQ that broke the ceiling would admit that he had no idea what he wanted to do other than get a degree to become an officer in the military. He did that. He picked up 3 masters degrees. Type A personality and died of a heart attack 3 years after he retired from the military. The last sibling went into medicine and retired. He has started to relax after a health scare almost took his life, however up to that point he couldn't even understand one of his own children who is about as right brained as I am.

Bottom line, follow who you are and what your heart tells you to. The thing about that though is you still need to find a way to provide for yourself. For your family or whomever else you are responsible for. That is where the disconnect between generations is right now. From the Greatest Generation, to the Baby Boomer, to Gen X to whomever is next to the Millennial who is catching to much crap. All of the generations have a lot in common. Don't let anyone tell you differently. The biggest difference is that there is a marked increase in the number of millennials that are indeed going back to their parents homes and not leaving. They are not willing to take the crap jobs because of "...........................". That is one of the reasons that the current generation has gotten the reputation they have. No previous generation has gone that route. But make no mistake, if social media wasn't around to tell everyone what everyone was "supposedly" doing or not doing, people wouldn't have forgotten what their own generations did or didn't do. We have all been there and most of us have experienced the same thing the millennials are today.

But follow that voice. Know that it will be a hard road and you might be doing it with minimal support. And do it with the knowledge you might have to work the crap jobs in order to support yourself. But follow where your heart leads you nonetheless.