I’ve always loved watching the Olympics. When I was nine, I gave myself a concussion trying to imitate Mary Lou Retton on our concrete patio. When I was a teenager, after watching the 1992 Winter games, my mom got my sister and me tickets to Stars on Ice featuring Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan when they came through town. There is something special about the human spirit displayed at the Olympics—the culmination of hours of determined training, the triumph over adversity, the emotion of representing one’s country. Whether they fail or succeed, the athletes inspire me to work harder, dig deeper, and leave it all on the field.
This year, in my taxi-mom life stage, I was not able to watch much of the competition, but my girls and I watched almost all the figure skating and marveled at those gorgeous Russian skaters battling it out for gold with poise and grace. Watching them almost made up for the fact that the U.S. women did not medal.
A few days after the games concluded, I watched an interview with American skater Mirai Nagasu in which she blamed her poor performance on several factors, including her rigorous schedule, the crowded conditions in the Olympic Athletes’ housing, and the lack of hot showers. On Twitter, she blamed her failed triple axel attempt on a rut in the ice and speculated that she might have competed better had she been able to sleep in her own bed for those weeks before the competition. There was no owning her mistakes, no expressing disappointment in her performance, no marveling at the sheer joy of being at the Olympic games. Instead, she highlighted her previous success in the team competition and admitted that she was treating the final program as an audition for Dancing with the Stars (“because I want to be a star”). She then exaggerated her role in the team bronze medal by saying she “saved” the medal for the United States, which was likely false.The desperation to prove oneself and the inability to own mistakes are common among Mirai Nagasu’s much-discussed (and often maligned) Millennial peers.
Nagasu has since apologized for those words, but they stuck with me. In vain, I tried to imagine the inspiring Olympic athletes of my youth getting on national television and making excuses for their poor performance. Unfortunately, such self-justifying comments are not abnormal among younger celebrities. I see them as a window into the soul of her generation.
The desperation to prove oneself and the inability to own mistakes are common among Nagasu’s much-discussed (and often maligned) Millennial peers.
Why is this? I’ve heard two theories.
Millennials Are Coddled
The first explanation I’ve heard for the self-absorption and insecurity of the generation born roughly between 1982-2004 is that they were supremely spoiled. Labels like “The Snowflake Generation” seem mean-spirited and unfair, but there is ample evidence now to suggest that something is up with the fragile egos of many Millennials. Much has been written about the problem, but I prefer solutions over complaints, so I was attracted to Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, which helps parents and educators develop perseverance and emotional grit in their kids.
For those who haven’t read it, the basic premise is that there are generally two categories of learners: those with a fixed mindset, and those with a growth mindset. The fixed mindset people are those who focus on their inherent traits and abilities, believe they are either good at something or not, and believe that degree of effort does little to alter outcomes. The growth mindset people believe they do have inherent traits, but they can develop their abilities, adapt to new environments, and improve outcomes with increased effort. The goal of the book is to help readers switch from fixed to growth mindset to achieve success.
You may assume, since Nagasu has reached the pinnacle of success by making it to the Olympics, she has a growth mindset. She certainly has put in countless hours of practice to improve her skating over the years. But her response to failure indicates her mindset is probably more fixed than it would appear. First, she could not bring herself even to see, much less talk about, her failure. Second, she talked up her success, and even exaggerated it in an attempt to overshadow her mistakes.
Dweck writes, “If everything is either good news or bad news about your precious traits—as it is with fixed-mindset people—distortion almost inevitably enters the picture. Some outcomes are magnified, others are explained away, and before you know it you don’t know yourself at all.” I appreciate the focus of this book on the action steps we can take to fix the problem, but the book doesn’t delve into the why. Why are so many young people lacking self-awareness, humility, and grit? Psychologists and educators are coming to terms with the failure of the Self-Esteem Movement that shaped this generation.
The Self-Esteem Movement
Before I talk about the failure of the Self-Esteem Movement, I need to clarify that it was the movement that failed, not the idea behind it. A healthy self-esteem is vital to our ability to assess ourselves accurately and realistically with all our strengths and weaknesses, yet possess the self-worth to carry ourselves with confidence, dignity, and humility. Christians are notorious for throwing out babies with our bathwater. The concept of self-esteem was good. The method that culture put forth for achieving it was not.
In the eighties and nineties, educators latched on to the thinking that “[m]any, if not most, of the major problems plaguing society have roots in the low self-esteem of many of the people who make up society.” Once this premise was established in our collective consciousness, we set about finding ways to boost the self-esteem of our employees, students, and children. Self-help books filled the shelves, employers hosted seminars, Oprah inundated stay-at-home moms, therapists changed their methodologies, and PSAs extolled the value of self-acceptance. Teachers and parents were taught to compliment kids excessively, eliminate rating systems and competition that would make some children feel bad, refrain from criticizing children, and give everyone a participation trophy.
As we now know, many of the methods used to boost self-esteem produced the opposite outcome: less confident adults who need to be praised and affirmed continually to feel good about themselves. Dweck believes we can fix the problem by changing the way we compliment kids. Her studies show that kids who are praised for their innate qualities (“You are smart,” “You are beautiful”) perform lower than kids who are praised for their effort or their strategies (“You are a hard worker,” “You are a problem solver”). And not only do they perform lower, but they also feel worse when they fail and make excuses or try to hide their failure.
The self-esteem movement certainly has had the effect of making this generation less tenacious and more sensitive. But, there may be another explanation for their desperation to prove themselves and inability to own mistakes, one that goes deeper and that, when recognized, can bring us to greater empathy.
Millennials Are Afraid
Underneath all their snowflake tendencies, and behind Mirai Nagasu’s self-justifying comments, is an undercurrent of fear. Today’s young adults fear many things, often with good reason, but I want to focus on two: They are afraid they won’t measure up, and they are afraid they won’t be accepted.
Ironically, for all the focus on eliminating competition in the eighties, nineties parents took competition to insane new levels. Unlike the Boomers, whose hands-off parenting produced the infamous “latchkey kids,” Gen-X parents went all in, dragging their kids around from the field to the gym to the dance studio to the pool to the track. If it wasn’t sports, it was music lessons, chess club, robotics, programming, art lessons, or drama classes. Few parents would care to admit how much of their kids’ frenzied schedule was motivated by their own fear—fear of letting their neighbors’ kids pass up their own, fear of being judged a bad parent.
As if parental pressures weren’t enough, fear of our country’s education falling behind drove up educational pressures in the forms of more standardized testing, increased graduation requirements, more AP classes, and more weight on SAT scores. From junior high on, Millennials were encouraged to join as many clubs, extracurricular activities, and community service opportunities as possible, while keeping up their grades and taking challenging classes to place them above their peers on college applications. College became more of the same for them but came with the added stress of paying off mounds of student loan debt.
The job market, which many older Millennials entered at the height of economic scarcity, provided yet another backdrop for measuring up. It seems the stereotype of Millennials living in parents’ basements and needing extra incentive to work hard is not true. One study showed that 75% of Millennials are working more than 40 hours a week. Another study stated that 48% of Millennials in the workplace do not use up their paid vacation time for fear of losing their jobs or promotions.
The pressures to perform academically and economically are matched or even outweighed by the social pressures of curating a flawless social media image, keeping up with online trends, and maintaining a sufficient number of friends, followers, and thumbs-up to appear well-liked by their peers. In striving to measure up to the expectations of their parents, teachers, bosses, and peers, many Millennials live with the pervasive fear that their performance is never quite good enough.
The second great fear of this generation is that they won’t be accepted. These are actually twin fears because our culture frequently conflates performance with acceptance. If I don’t perform to your standards, you will criticize me, and criticism is rejection. Observers in my generation can wag our fingers all day long at these delicate china-doll kids, but let’s not forget the world we created for them. From reality TV shows like American Idol and The Bachelor, in which contestants are either lauded and loved, or ridiculed and rejected, to the realm of social media, which exacerbates the human fear of rejection, we have conditioned them to believe that critique of performance is a critique of self. Add in the fact that we have yanked the stabilizing, identity-grounding forces of family and faith from under them, and it is no wonder they feel they must protect and defend themselves from all forms of negative evaluation. Remove trust in humanity, participation in family, and belief in God, and the self is all they have left.
The Compassionate Response
How should mature Christians respond to the self-justification and insecurity of the Millennial generation? We can take the “kids-these-days” superior stance our parents took with us, shaming them with adjectives like “lazy” and “spoiled.” We can also maintain our superiority by looking down on them with pity from our mature perches and gracing them with our sage advice. The gospel calls us to a third way, the way of incarnation—to see our own fears mirrored in theirs and to walk alongside them in solidarity. To Mirai Nagasu and the millions of her generation whose fear convinces them they must defend and protect, we must compassionately add, “We are afraid too.”
“Compassion,” write Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison,
asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.
The younger generation needs to know that my generation is afraid too, that we confuse performance with identity just like they do, that we need the same salvation from our desperate need to prove and justify ourselves. Then, they need us to hold their hands and walk together into the acceptance we all crave.