The Dangerous Doldrums of the Safety Net

This is the fourth post in a short series of thoughts on Millennials. You may want to read the first, the second, and the third posts before you read this one.

In her article for Slate entitled "Why Millennials Can’t Grow Up," psychotherapist Brooke Donatone says she has "had at least 100 college and grad students...crying on my couch because breaching adulthood is too overwhelming."  

That doesn't surprise me. I've felt the same fears, and so have many of my friends. We Millennials experienced societal coddling, promised success, and unexpected difficulties through the 90's economic boom to today's recession bust. Our maturation process has been weird, and growing us has been hard. 

So how did some of us finally pull ourselves out of existential doldrums? Everyone is different, but I've seen a pattern in my most successful friends: they spurn backup plans that involve an unnecessary reliance on others. They do whatever it takes, even if that means adjusting their goals and expectations, to forge their own way in the world. 

Metaphorically speaking, life is like an acrobatic act. Until we learn to twirl through the air alone, we're a dangerous collision risk to ourselves and others. So we must chose to avoid safety nets as much as possible. It is the only way we learn to fly.

A safety net -- that thing that comes between you and real or perceived destruction -- comes in many forms. It's your parent's basement that you know you can move into when things go bad. It's the money that you know you can borrow from the bank or the government. It's that graduate program you know you can hide in until you "figure out what you want to do." It's that unpaid internship that you know will be a dead end, but you stay in because you can't find another way to pursue your dreams.

We think that the process of growing up causes our existential doldrums. We think that learning to take responsibility for ourselves, working sucky jobs, and not getting everything that we wanted and hoped for is the problem. That's why we keep returning to the safety net. We mistake it for a trampoline that could send us soaring into the air again with perfect form. We think the safety net is the way out of the doldrums.

In fact, the safety net is the doldrums. It can catch you when you fall, but it can also hold you, entrap you, and keep you from soaring again. It gives you a false sense of security. You might stay in the safety net for years, watching others fly above you, watching others fall, watching to see if they climb back up again. You might think you learn by watching, but you don't. You learn by doing.

So get up. Carefully, patiently climb the ladder again. Calculate your next leap. And then make it. This time, because you learned from your previous mistakes, you might soar.

Avoid the safety net. You're lucky to have it there if you need it, but get out of it as fast as you can. Gradually, your acrobatics will seem less overwhelming. Before you know it, you'll be a grown up.

photo credit: khalid almasoud via photopin cc