Millennials: A generation paralysed by our own potential

Image Credit: Paul Kitchener

Image Credit: Paul Kitchener

The millennial generation (comprised of those aged roughly 22-30, who coined the phrase ‘quarter-life crisis’) is a complex one.

There are many challenges this generation faces that are entirely unique, and many that are simply challenges each generation has faced, just re-packaged and re-branded. Of the challenges unique to millennials, however, one is rather deceptive: our potential.

Millennials growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s were the beneficiaries of a vast amount of opportunity – from the subjects they were taught at school, to extra-curricular activities and university options. Most of the people I know (within my generation) excelled in more than one subject in school (if not all of them), and participated in sports, music, theatre and/or art. We are a generation raised under the mantra ‘be anything you want to be’, and we were certainly given many opportunities to explore all that mantra entailed.

You would think that this would result in well-rounded, ambitious, confident people who can launch themselves into the future with a fair amount of self-assurance. But instead, many of us are hesitantly teetering on the edge of the future, not quite sure what to do. We’re indecisive and self-conscious. Why?

My theory is that we as a generation find ourselves paralysed by our own potential. We have entered adulthood with a huge collection of skills, passions, qualifications and ambitions, but don’t know where to go from here.

If you can be anything, you can be anything

The only problem with being told that you can be anything you want to be when you grow up is exactly that – you can be anything when you grow up. This leaves us staring down the barrel of the question: ‘What do I want to do with my life?’

When you have graduated with a solid GPA across most of your subjects, excelled in multiple extra-curriculars, and completed university in a similar way, you come out the other side having invested a huge amount of time into your arsenal of skills and passions. So the question ‘but what do you want to do?’ feels more like being asked ‘which of these hard-earned skills will you keep, while discarding the rest?’ Our schooling and upbringing equipped us with the ability to do whatever we wanted, but it didn’t necessarily explain what to do with that ability.

Lest we be remembered as the generation that collectively looks a gift horse in the mouth, we should realise that being asked what we want to do with our lives is a huge privilege. Many — from previous generations, to fellow millennials in other parts of the world — have not enjoyed the privilege of facing this question.

Part of our hesitancy, however, may come from realising just what a privilege it is to be given the chance to answer that question – to decide what we want our future to look like based on what we want to do, rather than primarily on what we must do to survive.

The need to be a jack-of-all-trades

Deciding what to do with our lives isn’t as simple as taking stock of our skills and passions and pairing them with a job we think will meet our needs. Today, careers are becoming less linear and more horizontal. There’s less ladder-climbing and more hopping around and entrepreneurship. The beginnings of a good career path today bank on well-roundedness, personal initiative, and an ability to learn new things. This can leave us feeling as though we need to hedge our bets. We fear relentlessly pursuing one particular area of skill/passion, lest we let slide other skills that could come in handy in the near future.

Lots of millennials don’t even get the chance to worry about linear or horizontal career paths – they are simply struggling to find a job to begin with. Finding time to think and plan long-term while job-hunting and/or working a dead-end job is difficult. When you aren’t sure what your next move will be, it’s tough to know how to focus your energies, and which skills are the most important to keep developing.

The ‘solution’

As a millennial who is writing out of her own experiences and thought processes, I don’t really have a solution – otherwise I’d be more than happy to share it. Instead, here are a few thoughts that I’ve found helpful during this process:

Stop thinking you’re done learning

One way to stop being afraid that you’ll waste the learning you’ve worked so hard for is to realise you’ve only just begun to learn – it doesn’t stop when you graduate university. If you’re 25, you probably have another 50+ years ahead of you to continue to learn and grow and discover brand new things that you didn’t know existed or think you’d find interesting. Don’t think that you’ve come to the end of your education and now have only the options you can see open to you. Instead, make some choices based on your education and your current options, and then go forth and learn more and more for the rest of your life. You’ll still be discovering when you’re 40 (or 53, or 72)  – don’t think your learning journey is over now.

Be thankful for entering adulthood with the skills and knowledge you have, but don’t stop there: make big plans to go out and develop more and better skills, and gain more knowledge.

Learn the difference between things you love doing and things you get paid to do

The career you had from age 5 to age 22 (aka, school) is the only one you’ll ever have that will perfectly combine sports, math, science, art, history, theatre, music, and every other subject or extra-curricular you participated in. Don’t try to find an outlet for all your creativity and passion in one job or career (though if you do find one, that’s fantastic). Learn that it’s OK to have things you love doing, and things you get paid to do, and for them not to entirely overlap.

See the value of commitment

Rather than letting yourself stay paralysed by your own potential, commit to doing something. No, you probably aren’t the best at whatever you are thinking of doing, nor are you the first to think of doing it, but there is value in simply getting on with it and building something. The biggest difference between you and someone else doing what you want to do is that they are doing it.

The only thing worse than being paralysed by our own potential is wasting our potential. And a guaranteed way to waste our potential is to fritter it away by spending our 20s in constant indecision.



  1. This is a brilliant article. You have put into words so many thoughts I have had in the past few years.
    p.s Fritter is a great word (especially if it is preceded by “Apple”). =P

    1. I would like to officially clarify my post to state unequivocally that I endorse all apple fritters.

  2. Colin · · Reply

    Sorry for the late reply. In response to your question of what difference did it make for me to figure out much of what you said in your post, let me first add 1) that the first important point is that I spent much of my life having *not* figured this out, which frames the changes that I made later. Let me also say 2) that by ‘figured out’ I really only mean ‘identified’ because I think my actions and thoughts still reflect aspects of things mentioned in your post, and it is taking a conscious effort for me to move from ‘identification’ to ‘action’.
    I am the poster boy for the Jack-of-all-trades. When I was younger I reveled in the recognition it got me, but as I got older my inability to specialize led to dawdle professionally and personally. I was (and am) aware that any affirmative choice to do something meant that I was automatically excluded from doing other things. An extreme example is marriage. There was no question that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Sadie, but some part of me was uncomfortable with the permanence of it – which was completely irrational, because it was exactly what I wanted, but I was aware of it, and I think it caused me to procrastinate getting engaged.
    In short, I was inexorably drawn to possibility and opportunity, and, paradoxically, at the same time completely hesitant to actually pursue any opportunities or possibilities, except those which preserved the most opportunities or created the most possibilities.
    The fact that I am aware of this now has meant that, while I still don’t like shutting off opportunity and possibility, I recognize it as a necessary part of living life. I think its alright to keep possibilities open, but not at the cost of the present. And I have come to recognize that it is damaging to my soul to not make decisions and live with the consequences.
    I’ve realized that I need to pursue what I love, and what I love *now* – not leave the door open for some possible unknown thing I may love more in the future for some unknown reason.
    I’ve decided that it is ok to say goodbye to some things – to recognize that they’ve had a part of my life and are now gone or, perhaps, that they never were a part of my life at all, and, again, to embrace those things that are in my life now.
    Also, knowing now that I feel this way has caused me to ask if there is something redeeming in it, and I think there is. So I have also tried to keep up some skills and hobbies while embracing the fact that I will simply do them for their own sake, not to obtain an end. Writing and recording music, for example, is one of these things.
    Anyway, I could continue to ramble in this self-reflective (and probably self-absorbed) way, but I imagine that you get the drift at this point. I think your post was very helpful and challenging for me, because I need to constantly reflect on and question my motivations and goals.

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