Technically, you’re unique. Your genome is different enough from everyone else’s that no else could be confused with you (if you looked really, really closely). Even identical twins are slightly different due to lifestyle and environmental factors. You also have a unique set of experiences, thoughts, emotions, and routines. You’re pretty special, in the original Latin’s sense of species.
But you’re not special in the normal meaning of the word: better, worthy, deserving. No one is, simply for existing.
As a millennial, I was raised to believe that everyone was unique/special/insert buzzword here. Everyone could achieve anything they wanted and everyone’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions were important and valuable. And most importantly, you should challenge anyone who pigeonholes you or tells you you can’t do something. The only thing standing in your way is you!
This has led to a pervasive and annoying stereotype of millennials as self-absorbed and entitled, even though we were (sometimes forcibly) handed things like participation trophies and coddled like puppies. Really, we were operating under a tremendous lie: that if we pursued our dreams, worked hard, and believed in ourselves, we could do anything. It was the new American Dream, more profound than taking a piece of land and building a house: live a comfortable life according to your passions and pleasures and experience fulfillment.
This would work if everyone was indeed special, if our everyday lives were so remarkable and our contributions to the world so impactful that we could unlock an impossible array of successes and thrills. But we’re not.
Worse, this notion that unfettered passion + hard work = a wonderful life leads to disappointment, inevitably. In fact, the more we push ourselves to this impossible standard, the less happy we are. Older generations misunderstand millennials’ interest in a flexible schedule, thinking we want “work–life balance.” Really, we’re wondering if we can switch around that shift because we need to accommodate a second (or third) job and maybe work on that novel, of which we’ve written two pages.
Worst of all, the emphasis on the primacy of our own thoughts and their validity has contributed to a glut of misinformation and bigotry. How? Because these days, after the death of rhetoric education, people — not just millennials — believe they are “entitled to my opinion.” Their opinion must be allowed to exist and must be given equal play in conversation, policymaking, and, yes, the job market. It works: with a dollop of charisma, an exaggeration of skills, and a hierarchical society, anyone with a dream and the bare minimum requirements can achieve greatness — or at least a decent paycheck. Are they special? Not necessarily — in fact, likely not. Our economy is run on personality, and that means that if you’re lacking the right connection or set of cocktail-bumping skills, you’re out of luck no matter how hard you work and how passionate you are.
Perhaps it’s better to understand yourself as not special. If you’re part of a group of mediocre individuals in a relatively young species in a mundane world, your failures don’t matter — or really, exist. What’s one drop in the stream of the planet’s history?
In fact, if you’re not special, you’re not thrust into the proverbial rat race or, for millennials, the need to affirm what you’ve grown up hearing, that you just needed to do your best and believe in yourself. We’re not all going to be Oscar-winning filmmakers, or Pulitzer-winning journalists, or Nobel-winning scientists. We’re not all going to be wealthy by the age of 30 or able to retire by age 40. We’re not even all going to go viral. We’re failures, most of us — at least if we insist upon the belief that we’re all special. Maybe, we’d feel better if we accepted that we’re not special, not unique, and really, just humans living their short, brutal lives. Maybe therein lies contentment.