I was once a millennial. The year was 1980. I’d just graduated from college and was working my first job as an Admissions counselor for my alma mater. The job involved driving more than 1500 miles a week to recruit prospective students from the City of Chicago and most of the rest of Illinois. The first grind extended from September through November. That was followed by another recruiting drive from February through May.
Despite how little I knew about college admissions in my first year on the job, I hit my quota of 70 students. Times were tough in some respects. The economy was not yet rebounded from the gas shortages and international turmoil of the late 1970s. That daft Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan was President. It all seemed pretty shallow and messed up to me.
Figuring shit out
On one hand I realized that I knew little about the real world. On the other hand my instincts in recruiting prospective students were clear and practical. Explore through conversation. Find common ground and interests. Establish a relationship. Appeal to the goals of both student and parent. Get them to visit campus. Invite them to enroll. Turn in the application. Call and welcome them college.
That part was simple. It was dealing with the conflicted ideals and pressures of the people managing the Admissions department that was tough. The process back then was haphazard at best. Our “database” consisted of postcards filled out by students in our territories. Many of these cards were filled out months prior to when I ever saw them. Then you mailed them an invitation and (hoped) tried to meet up with them during school visits or college nights.
The prior counselor had lived in the territory for ten years. He knew all the guidance counselors, pastors and Luther alumni in the recruiting network. I tried resourcing with him but the college had given him the bum’s rush in a massive effort to refresh the recruiting process. I was his replacement. How would you feel about giving up all your contacts and relationships to a new guy under those circumstances?
The entire scenario was further complicated by the fact that I was deeply in love with the woman that I’d met heading into my senior year in college. We’d kept up our relationship during the summer after my senior year and she was finishing up one last semester that fall. Then she moved to Minneapolis to take on her first job in the real world.
Things we do for love
That meant I’d get back from driving around Illinois all week and sleep the night in my second story apartment on Friday. Then I’d pop up at dawn if I was not working in the Admissions office that weekend and drive to Richfield, Minnesota to spend the day and night with her. Then I’d drive back to Decorah, gather up my admissions materials for the week and take off driving to Chicago or some other zone of the state.
It was insane. It made me wonder what the hell I was doing with my life. As an art major with an English minor, I’d not mapped out a clear career path, but reasoned that time would tell about that. So I hung in there. Painted when I could. And wrote poems and stories longhand on legal pads between college visits. I started work on my first book. It was titled “Admissions,” about a fictitious University of Wisconsin-Dells whose funding was based on tourism. Many things that I wrote about in that book have come true over the last four decades.
And fortunately, Luther College reformed its admissions process and remains one of the most respected liberal arts colleges in the Midwest.
Toward late spring of 1981, I received a call from a painting client named Robert Van Kampen. He was starting up his own investment company and wanted to know if I’d like to come work as a graphic designer in marketing. They were putting together a corporate catalog and he wanted my watercolors to be featured in the piece. That little break felt like a triumph of sorts.
Yet I left Luther feeling a bit bitter about how I’d been treated. There was a bit of browbeating from managers concerned that I did not have my “head in the game.” Perhaps they were right. But the context was complex. What reasonable human being thinks it’s a good idea to drive 500 miles in two directions just to start your job? The following year they let the new Chicago and Illinois rep rent an apartment in the territory to avoid burnout from the job. Seemed like a vindication of sorts to me.
That was the first of many proofs in my lifetime that “grownups” often had no real clue or plan about how things are supposed to work. The only thing that kept me sane during all those road trips was my running. Granted, I could not put in the type of miles I’d done in college, and I felt guilty at that. But pulling into a strange town on a dank afternoon, at least one knew that a run could clear your head and make you feel like a normal, functioning human being.
As it turned out, the job with the investment firm lasted a couple years until they moved me out to Philadelphia with the marketing department. Then they closed the whole thing down to head in another direction, handed me a severance check for $7,000 and told me “Good luck.”
So I moved back to Chicago and started running full time to see how good I could get. I figured it was the one time in my life when I could pull that off before real responsibilities got in the way. I worked for a running store while making ends meet, did some freelance work and scraped by as a sub-elite athlete until I got married two years later. Suddenly, I was a grownup too.
I took what I thought was a grownup job working for a non-profit. That organization turned out to be one of the most corrupt organizations in the world, lying about its membership and engaging in corrupt schemes to hide that fact. After two years I quit that job and networked my way into advertising sales and then marketing. My twenties were finally over. But I’d survived and had become a father. We all get there one way or another. I took the long route.
Bitching about millennials
So when I hear people of my generation complaining about how millennials seem so unmotivated or unable to function in the “real world,” I think back to how my mind worked through all those years. I was both dumb as a brick and smart as a whip about the real world. I could see that people were driven as much by fear as by knowledge. I could sense that people were compromising their principles on all sorts of fronts in order to put themselves in positions of seeming security or power. I could see that they were also projecting their own shortcomings on others for the sake of making themselves feel justified in their selfish concerns.
Yes, I was once a millennial disillusioned by the world. And truth be told, I will be one as long as I live. I see millennials balking at the stupid expectations and assumptions of this age and think, “Perhaps there really is hope after all.” Because only by questioning the stupidity of the world is any progress every made.
Never stop questioning. And when the answers don’t seem to come, go out for a run, a ride or a swim. That’s where salvation often lies.