Self-Focus as a Selfless Act


We all know the common characterization of Millennials:  as self-centered, self-absorbed, narcissistic little twerps who don't bother to look up from social media long enough to gaze beyond their navels. Overlooking for a moment the gross generalizations being made here - and the evidence that such assumptions are untrue - I say:  if you guys do manage to be self-focused in your twenties, more power to you. And more power to society.


I think the most selfless thing you can do during your twenties is look inward to find your authentic self. You see, my favorite quotation in all the world, the one that encapsulates my life's philosophy, is this one:

I believe this quotation with all of my heart (and in a future post I'll lay out my science-based rationale for believing in it).

At the core of Mays' sentiment is the assertion that one must first find their "unique and distinctive thing" in order to then be able to fulfill it. His statement "born into this world" also implies that the "unique and distinctive thing" is WITHIN us, not without. It's as internal as our personality, our preference for pet puppies over pet tarantulas, our feeling that Snooki is more than a tad bit sketchy.  In other words, the only way to find the "unique and distinctive thing" is to look inward, navel gaze, and be a little, well, self-absorbed.

Not forever. No. We're not talking some Peter Pan-ish suspended childhood here. We're talking doing the work of self-reflection - the hard, uncomfortable work that, when done well, triggers an identity crisis - at a time when it is developmentally appropriate. And guess what? In our contemporary Industrialized society, the developmentally appropriate time is now:  in your twenties.

Was the world really better when the age of first marriage and first child were wildly lower? Did people (especially women...) in those generations have the time and space to find their "unique and distinctive thing"? I'd argue - as a mother who knows how one's sense of self can become, shall we say, removed from consciousness while parenting a young child - that much important work may have been left undone. Why else would Oprah have an entire network? There's a big Confusion & Crisis market in a generation that never got to stop and think.

If I personally hadn't had my twenties to figure out my All I Want To Be Statement before jumping into parenthood, my life may be taking a very different trajectory today. For instance, I wouldn't do the sort of advising and teaching I do now, taking Mays' quotation implicitly into consideration at every turn. Or, say, writing this blog. (Which, if you're real students who love snow days and instances of professorial illness, you may see as a decidedly hopeful possibility.)

I can see some of you raising your hands:  yes, good point, many people in contemporary society don't get the luxury to be self-focused in their twenties. Very true. But the way I see it, you can either lament this fact and feel guilty, or you can use this cognizance to make you grateful for the opportunity you have and give you the determination to make the most of it.

And this isn't some insignificant opportunity. Let's consider who stated my beloved quotation. Benjamin E. Mays, the once-President of Morehouse College, knew of what he spoke. Mays' most famous student certainly sorted out his "unique and distinctive thing" and how our nation - and our world - would've been different had this student left his work undone. You see, it was Mays who introduced Gandhi and other key philosophies to none other than Martin Luther King, Jr.

In an odd twist, Mays also happens to be an alumnus of the very college where I teach. I fell in love with his quotation while miserably floundering through grad school. Then I stumbled on my job at Bates College and, years later, put it together that Mays was a Bates alum. (Apparently I can be painfully slow-on-the-uptake:  I often walked past the residential building named after Mays on my way to my car. Uh...what was I saying about twenties navel-gazing?)

All in all, don't apologize for your natural tendencies to introspect, to "find yourself," to figure out what the hell you're doing with your life. This is your time to do it. Your family, your community, and perhaps even the entire world, will be better for it. Being self-focused now is the most selfless thing you can do for later.

Have you found your "unique and distinctive thing"? Or at least have some semblance of a clue about what it might be?