Between the Cracks in the Pavement
By Kate Jenkins
Letter from the Editor, Issue 1
To understand what The Intentional is about, some context is crucial. By “context” I refer to my background as the founder, and why my experiences led me to create this project from the ground up. But perhaps more importantly, I refer to my entire generation’s place in history.
This is a place that many have sought to assign to us. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you haven’t picked up a newspaper in a long time. There is a veritable stream of recent articles that have emerged regarding the peculiar personality of my generation, and few of them are flattering. And in case we weren’t discouraged enough by the flurry of misnomers and insults thrown at us—namely, that we are apathetic, entitled, and irresponsible (we are pioneering “emerging adulthood” as a new stage of life, after all)—we must now swallow Time’s suggestion that our generation be renamed “Generation Screwed.” Newsstands everywhere are becoming increasingly hostile.
Add to that the surge of entertainment that seeks to explore what it means to be 20-something in the 2010s, and one can easily come to the conclusion that our generation and its misadventures is a topic about which the American public feels great curiosity. I probably don’t have to mention the HBO show Girls, in which the protagonist Hannah clumsily seeks to be “the voice of my generation…or at least a voice, of a generation.” Even choosing to reference the show is trite, but my point is proven; people are talking a lot about Girls and the lost young people in it, who are so enticingly easy to relate to.
So why are we so damn interesting? I can’t decide if it has more to do with who we are or what we’ve been through.
In mentioning “what we’ve been through,” again I feel it’s unnecessary to explain myself by detailing the economic plunge that occurred on roughly the same day I graduated college. My friend W’s intimate connection to this plunge is pretty classic. He writes to me: “I couldn’t even tell you how many jobs I applied to that said, ‘We’re looking for a former middle school teacher, ideally someone who taught seventh grade English, who quintupled the pass rate on the EOG in two years, and who has had some experience with nonprofit communications and D3 sports reporting. The ideal candidate will have the initials WHN; that way we don’t have to make a new name badge.’ And I’m like, that’s ME! But then I wouldn’t get an interview.”
While we have all heard enough of these personal accounts to make our ears bleed, it seems that we are failing to analyze an important element to the collective hurt. Our experiences only really have meaning because of who we are. Satisfaction in life is inextricable from the ways in which our realities measure up to the expectations we lay out for our lives, and 20-somethings were raised to expect we would have it all. Our brilliant careers would fulfill us, define us, pay us big money, and leave us with enough time to enjoy our families and the extravagant travel experiences that would surely lie within our reach. With our “you can do anything” upbringing, boy are 20-somethings disappointed with reality.
I am probably a very typical example. I won’t go into the details of my academic performance, but let’s just say that I was an overachiever. And today, after excessive education and preparation, I use precisely none of it in my job as a waitress. In an attempt to squeeze some meaning out of the experience, I even conceived of a collaborative concept blog called Still Life with Waitress where other writer-waitresses could come and express what it feels like when you teach a person to define herself by her profession. And then self-perception sort of collapses in on itself in the absence of a profession.
For reasons I’m sure you can intuit, the project is on hold.
But just as I understand that I am not unique among young Americans in suffering the consequences of this major historical crisis, I also feel a popular connection to the Occupy movements and their vague pleas for the construction of a better life. There is a long, unspeakable, common thread of longing that unites the personal disappointment I’ve experienced with the collective disappointment that fueled the Occupy movements, and even that which inspired the Arab Spring. But it isn’t as simple as many would like to believe. Watching the Occupy events unfold, I remember thinking: this isn’t just about unemployment.
To my continued surprise, I frequently find evidence to support this theory through conversations I wander into with fellow 20-somethings who are situated on the other side of the successful/not-successful line that I foolishly drew between us years ago. Take my friend J, for example. J has one of the most coveted jobs a young, educated American could dream up; it is creative, it is challenging, it is prestigious, it has an impact on the world, and it happens to be in a swanky office in SoHo. I have frequently assumed that true fulfillment in life is reserved for people in positions such as this, and so I found it first baffling and then endlessly entertaining when he informed me that work was “good, I guess,” but that J’s real ambition was to quit so that he could work in a coffee shop. Say what? Doesn’t J know that professional prestige is the magic bullet against all of life’s frustrations? Rebounding from the shock of hearing a stylishly employed young person mirror my practiced sense of restlessness, I finally thought to ask him why he didn’t just take the plunge. My dear friend replied by asking “if I had any idea how hard it is to get a barista job in New York.”
J and I are learning the same thing on opposite sides of the divide. Satisfaction doesn’t work like a straightforward equation of inputs (say, an ideal career) and outputs, and this fact is at audacious odds with the rhetoric we were fed as children.
It’s no wonder we like to plunge headlong into nihilistic ecstasy binges. And it’s no wonder we have such an affinity for teaching English abroad.
But before you write this off as yet another self-indulgent kvetch, and God knows, before you begin to feel sorry for us, I’d like to clarify by explaining just how thoroughly I’ve come to revel in my failure. In all the years of my childhood, through all the many times that adults told me how successful I would be when I grew up, it never once occurred to me to say “no, thank you.” So you’ll imagine my surprise when the gut-wrenching envy finally went into remission and some really beautiful things started to sprout up between the cracks in the pavement.
Don’t get me wrong—life was easier when I had a 5-year plan neatly tucked under my pillow at night. But through my personal adaptive process, I’ve become interested both experientially and academically in what Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert calls “synthetic happiness.” This is the idea that when we don’t get what we believe will make us happy, our brains compensate to such an extent that his research shows little to no difference in levels of happiness among subjects who recently became paraplegic and subjects who recently won the lottery.
Admittedly if I had gotten everything I expected from my career, then I would be significantly more rigid and less imaginative. I suppose the strength of character that one can only develop through failure is shared by an army of the “screwed.” If nothing else, we’ll come out of this scrappy as hell.
Our collective experience has been for many a catalyst toward re-evaluation of what matters and even towards revolutions in our personal lives. There is truly good work to be done in dismantling the prescribed roadmap to fulfillment that we’ve been brought up with, so that room can be made for a wider, fresher variety of approaches. As far as I can tell, advances are being made on this front. Consider the writers for this first issue, who were willing to volunteer their skill and time to the creation of something they deemed important. Their contributions have not done much for their professions, their bank accounts, or their search for that one perfect mate, but they did it anyway because it allows them to engage with a community of people who are seeking out the good life.
It’s rough, working through the unwieldy entanglement of societal assumptions and personal truths, but the process in itself is liberating. And there can be poise in talking about it. With the readers’ blessing, we’d like to proceed with a series of conversations about ways to intentionally seek out what I’ve come to simply refer to as quality of life. To blaze a fresh trail in the search for fulfillment—a trail that is not bounded by the constrictions of conventional expectations for career, family, or general lifestyle choices. (Because—I don’t know if you’ve heard—our generation just prefers to do things our own way).
Okay, so this is obviously a tall order. And as much as I’ve worked on articulating what The Intentional is getting at, the gist of it remains vague. But I no longer feel the need to apologize for that. This new perspective is partly inspired by an initiative called Le Laboratoire, which is sort of like a museum of ideas, encouraging the craft of brainstorming even in the absence of practicality, financial value, or usefulness. Founder David Edwards asserts that the production of ideas is in itself a valuable practice, and that notion has recently reshaped the way that I think about innovation. Perhaps even the end goal of innovation is allowed to be fuzzy. I envision The Intentional as a continually evolving platform for ideas that, when pieced together, might teach us something about how to really live it right.
Twenty-somethings, you know you aren’t apathetic. Cross-generational studies have proven that we are more concerned for the state of the world than our predecessors. And in fact, this goes a long way in explaining why we have felt so disappointed by our professional belly flops; so many of us genuinely wanted to dedicate our careers to making the world a better place, and so we are confused at why the world doesn’t seem to want or need our special talents. But as empathetic as we might be, we lack a common banner under which to unite. This is, incidentally, a common criticism at which supporters of the Occupy movements bristle; but I no longer believe that’s necessarily a weakness.
And so in this conversation about quality of life, very little will be left out of the mix. We will discuss international aid and volunteerism at length because the demographic of our readership understands the importance of creating meaning through service. But we also know that it isn’t enough. Personal growth, health and well-being, intellectual engagement, creative outlets, and a sense of community and connection with the human race all contribute to “the good life” and thus to this conversation.
My vision is that the bulk of the writing for The Intentional will be done not by seasoned middle-aged writers with prestigious careers behind them (which turns out to be quite convenient for the, uh, budget), but rather by young people you have never heard of who are nevertheless incredibly talented. This is their opportunity to speak up from within the thick of this madness.
I realized I could fill a whole magazine just with stories from people like me, waiting tables and seeking enlightenment. But creating a forum for unrestrained bitching seemed like it would breed more bitterness in the end, so we have limited our self-expression to occasional indulgences. The rest is an exercise in optimism and solution-oriented thinking.
There will be ample opportunity for participation in this forum. Thanks for joining it.
This piece originally appeared in issue 1 of The Intentional.