The 26-Year-Old Identity Crisis

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Last week, I had a personality evaluation with a company called Hogan Assessments. I was selected to participate in a study they were doing on young professionals, and with that, I was required to take a series of three personality tests and be a part of a one-on-one feedback session following the tests that went over my results. It was in this feedback session that my evaluator told me something point blank that I had known for a while about myself but that I hadn’t told anyone:

“You’re not necessarily a creative of the visual arts; You just appreciate the visual arts.”

The other day at work, I looked out the window to see a what looked like a 15-year-old kid operating a DSLR camera on his own in downtown Oklahoma City. He was out with his friends taking portraits, photographing the cityscape around him and executing a flawless photoshoot . . . as a 15-year-old. When I was 15, the only thing I could execute was mowing our backyard, and even that got a little dodgy around the edges. Here this kid was handling a piece of equipment worth thousands of dollars and probably getting some great experience, and he probably had to have his parents drop him off downtown to do so.

As I watched he and his friends, I couldn’t help but wonder how the sales of cameras have trended since the development of Instagram and other photo sharing outlets. I wouldn’t know if they would have increased or not with everyone, as well as their dog, owning a camera phone, but either way, 2018 feels like a time when everyone has the chance to be a photographer. As a guy who, up until recently, thought of himself as a photographer, a world full of photographers seems weird.

As of late, photography, among other things, has been a part of a weird identity crisis that I’ve been having. For example, up until recently, I held the job title of ‘Graphic Designer.’ I took on that identity. However, here’s the catch - I didn’t feel like a graphic designer because in my mind, even with the title, I was not a graphic designer. I know my fair share of graphic designers, and according to the calculations I was running in my head, what they were and what I was were not matching up.

To break that down a bit more for the sake of example, in my mind, a graphic designer is a creator - one who is able to make something out of nothing. One who can take what’s in the mind and turn it into a tangible piece of art that communicates feeling, meaning and beauty. Now, what was it that I was doing? I was replicating. I could look through designs, find one that I liked and use a design program to replicate what was done before me in a manner that fit what I needed, but I was never able to create from scratch. I felt more like a graphic replicator, not a designer. In other words, I felt more like I had been making pre-made frozen dinners in the microwave, rather than creating my own recipes for homemade meals. 

It’s hard to place when I started having my weird identity crisis, but I think a good place to look back to is when I started following epic photographers on Instagram. These folks had thousands of followers, captured spectacular imagery and traveled to the coolest places. After following those accounts, I made sure to follow some great graphic design accounts as well because photography and graphic design go hand-in-hand, right? (right? . . .) Anyway, the more I looked into these accounts and the lifestyle of these artists, the cooler it seemed. The work seemed cool, the people seemed cool and all of the Insta-cred seemed groovy too.

For a long time, I think I got confused and lost through social media and in the lives of others. I found myself trying to conform to a lifestyle that others might deem cool, and I even went to the lengths of taking on new identities to do so. Would I have ever liked photography without Instagram? Probably not. Would I have ever strived to achieve the title of graphic designer if I hadn’t seen a lot of cool hipsters online carrying that title? I kind of doubt it. Falling into comparison is a scary trap to get snagged in, and you can lose who you are and what you like along the way.

Now, I’m in the process of trying to get back to what I like, what I want to do and who I’m supposed to be. Now more than ever, I’m terrified of falling back into the trap of comparison and into another identity crisis along the way, and while this current, mini identity crisis has had it’s wake-up calls, it’s also had it’s perks.

For one, I appreciate art now. I appreciate design and its process, I appreciate photography and those who do it for more than a double-tap, and I appreciate aesthetic more than I could have ever imagined. I have learned to appreciate what I’m not, rather than to covet it, and I have (hopefully) learned to embrace who I am, rather than compare myself to what others are.

While living in a world full of photographers may feel weird at times, it’s also pretty cool because I know it’s giving others the chance to appreciate things they never would have appreciated before. It’s giving folks new inspiration and the chance to find a new hobby and new art, just like it did for me. Chalk it up to a new lesson learned, a new chance to be vulnerable and another chance to write.

-Cliff

Cliff’s Note: Comparison is the thief of joy, so don’t covet what we aren’t, but appreciate it.

Why Don't You Chase Your Goals?

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Not having goals may make life feel meaningless, but having goals and doing nothing to achieve them makes it feel damning.

It never fails, the hardest thing for me about writing has always been sitting down to write. I’ll do just about everything under the sun (i.e scroll through Instagram, taxes, iron my socks) to avoid starting the writing the process. I’ll tell myself that I want to write, but I’ll then find every excuse not too.

A few months ago, I was sitting in my room one afternoon living in the middle of one of those excuses not to write, and I fell down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos from the TV show, ‘The Office.’ It was in this hole that I found something, a kick in the pants that I needed to hear. There was a video that featured interviews from the selected cast of ‘The Office’ reading lines from their future characters. In it, the actress who plays Pam, Jenna Fischer, read this line regarding her job on the show as a receptionist:

“I don’t care if they get rid of me . . . I don’t know what I’m going to do, but whatever it is, it’s got to be a career move, not just another arbitrary job. Jim’s advice was, ‘It’s better to be at the bottom of a ladder that you want to climb rather than halfway up one that you don’t.’”

That last line, the one about being halfway up a ladder that you don’t want to be up, really got to my 26-year-old self.

It’s a weird place to be in, having goals, dreams and aspirations, but not doing anything at all to pursue them. It's like looking out over something beautiful and turning away from it like you had just looked at the back of your hand for the hundredth time. It’s a realization that’s not only sad, but even more so, self-deprecating and hostile.

I have goals; They’re aspirations that I set for myself over the years based on my gifts, skill set and passions. I want to write a book one day. I want to start my own business that funnels a communal environment into a town that lacks it. I want to invest in the lives of individuals who are younger than me who are seeking the same types of things that I sought. I want to make a difference, and to be living a life that doesn’t pursue any of the differences you want to make is living a life without purpose.

There are a lot of reason why I chose (choose?) not to pursue my goals. Pursuing goals isn’t safe, and there’s risk. There’s a great possibility of failing, and is there anything scarier or more demoralizing than failing to achieve one’s goals or having others criticize your dreams?

I think not.

For a long time, I’ve felt halfway up a ladder that I didn’t want to be up. I was climbing up a series of safe steps that were comfortable and provisionary, but while they were safe steps, they were also dangerous. They were steps that were turning my hobbies into career moves and turning my goals into unachievable dreams due to lack of pursuit and experience. I was scared of failure, and I was scared of lack of provision.

Recently, at my church in Tulsa, we went through a sermon series that covered the book of Judges in the Bible. In this book, there’s an overwhelming pattern of God’s people repeating a pattern of sin and failure over and over again that looks like this: The people serve God, they fail and fall into sin, they become enslaved, they cry out to God to save them, God raises up a Judge to deliver them, they are delivered, and then the entire cycle repeats itself over and over again. The funny thing about the book of Judges and this cycle is that it’s really easy to focus on the repeating failure of the people in the story, rather than the repeating pattern of God’s redemption.

I don’t want to take this Biblical narrative out of context, but I think there’s something to be said for God’s redemption in people’s failures - even in regards to pursuing the goals and passions that He has instilled in us. It’s one thing to fail in choosing to follow our own, self-preservation narrative in rebellion to what He has put in our hearts. It’s another thing to fail at trying to follow God and the dreams He’s given us - in that, I believe God has endless patience and endless grace, and that is a good realization to believe in.

After taking a hard look at the ladder I was standing on, I’ve stepped off of it for the time being, and I’m standing at the bottom of a new one with the same old fears of failure and lack of provision. I can’t see to the top of this ladder, and I’m not exactly sure what’s supporting it; however, I feel like this is a ladder that’s made up more of the steps that lead to goals - goals that make life feel meaningful and a lot less damning.

-Cliff

Cliff’s Note: It’s never too late to look at what ladder you’re on.

Why We Coffee

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I spend a lot of money at coffee shops- probably too much money, and you know what? So do all my friends- even the ones who don’t like coffee.

What is it about a coffee shop to a 20-something-year-old that makes it so special? Why do we ‘coffee?’

I’m one of those people that basically pays rent to a local coffee shop that I go to. I’m here all the time, and each time I go, it’s a $2 - $5 out of my pocket, depending on what I order. Some would say that’s a poor use of my money and time, and that’s why I’m writing this post- to process why a person, like myself, would pay money to have an experience they could essentially have for free.

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in a crowded room full of strangers in an old bucket chair from the 1970’s while Creedance Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’ plays over the house speakers. I’ve just finished my second cup of drip coffee, and I’ve got the caffeine shakes. Somehow, this whole experience is lightyears ahead of the experience I would be having at my own house where I could practically be doing the exact same thing for free. So, I pay to have this experience here. At a coffee shop. Where I can’t take my shoes off, where I can’t ‘make myself at home’ and where I may or may not have the best wifi or seating option. 

It’s not just me that’s paying for this experience either- it’s families. Right now, there’s a mom, dad, son and daughter all sharing one couch together, drinking the beverage of their choice and pointing out the art on the walls and talking about it. It’s an experience for them. They could probably spend time together at home and do the same thing for free, but instead they chose to spend $15 - $20 to come here instead. Why?

Here are some questions on my mind:

  • Why do we spend hours at these places every single week?
  • Why are we spending money on an experience that we don’t need to spend money on?
  • Is it the music? The lighting? The seating? The decorations? The coffee itself?
  • What makes these places so different than making a cup of a coffee at home and doing work there?

Whenever I go into a coffee shop and sit down to work, my mind goes into another world. My creativity increases, I’m way more aware of my surroundings, and I can reflect on things more clearly than a mirror that just got a fresh Windex treatment. Surely, it can’t just be because of the caffeine? I can’t do this in other places; I’ve tried. Whether it’s at work in the office, at home on the couch or outside in nature, nothing seems to be able to get my mind to the level it’s at in these shops that simply serve a hot, black beverage that tastes terrible to some and like manna to others. I’ve had people tell me that doesn’t make sense- that coffee shops aren’t really that special, and maybe they aren’t to everyone. But to me and others, they are.

These are truths:

Coffee shops are places of community. People come to them to meet with other people and commune.
Coffee shops are places of art. Every single one has a unique vibe, unique art and a unique clientele. 
Coffee shops serve an ancient beverage. Coffee has been around for ages, and it’s always been a drink that people can receive and experience together.
Coffee shops are successful. There’s a reason cities can support multiple coffee businesses.

So, why do we coffee? Lots of reasons I’m sure- Lots of reasons that I don’t know and that I’m not mentioning. But if I were to try to answer that question with an answer that isn’t one of ‘the third place’ nature, it would be this:

We coffee because we want to experience the kind of rare and unique community that has been experienced for thousands of years in a place that inspires us and surrounds us with other people facing the same kind of life that we ourselves are experiencing. 

One day, I want to own one of these places that people spend a third of their week in. One day, I want to create a space that lets people come in as they are and experience a sense of community, all the while getting to know each and every person that comes in. I want it to be unique- tree house seating options available outside the building. I want it to be a place where social barriers crumble- diversity is a must. I want it to bring life- a place that sparks creativity and a place that someone actually wants to be themselves. 

Hopefully that dream can come true someday, and hopefully that dream comes true in a place that has yet to experience coffee because then they’ll know why we coffee.

-Cliff

Cliff’s Note: We don’t coffee for the coffee; we coffee for the coffee. 

Why Seemingly Unimportant Questions Are Important

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Going to a new school for the first time is a hard thing to do. No matter if it’s college, high school, middle school or elementary school, any time you start your first day in a new place full of new peers, it’s a big deal and takes at least a small amount of courage.

When I was in the fourth grade, I went to a new school for the first time after having gone to another elementary school in the same town for Kindergarten through third grade. At my new school, my teachers saw it fitting that I was qualified enough to be in an ‘enrichment’ class, and on the first day of that class, I sat in a group with two other students- a guy named Bryce and a girl named Laura. I remember it like it was (almost) yesterday.

Both of them seemed like really cool kids, and they both seemed like they’d been at the school for a long time, so in my mind, it made total sense to try to be friends with them. I gave it my best go, and here’s how it went:

Me to Bryce: “Hey, so do you like sandwiches?”

Bryce to me: “. . .Leave me alone.”

We’ve been the best of friends ever since.

Sixteen years ago around this same time of year, I brought a peanut butter & honey sandwich to a new elementary school where I knew relatively no one, and that historic sandwich got me a lifetime friend. I knew what I had in my lunchbox, and I knew that most other kids probably had sandwiches in their lunchbox too. If I could forge some sort of commonality based on that guess with at least one other person, it could be the ‘Start of Something New’, as High School Musical puts it. (Note: Bryce did not have a sandwich in his lunchbox that day, but that’s okay; it still worked out.)

To paint a simple picture of what happened, I asked a random kid if he liked sandwiches because I knew I liked sandwiches. It was that foundation that started a conversation (kind of?), which, in turn, started a friendship. Bryce became one of my best friends, and weird questions, outlandish conversations and inside jokes no one else can understand became a staple throughout that friendship- all because of one seemingly unimportant question.

I was talking with another friend the other day about what it was like to meet people and connect with someone for the first time, and she made an interesting point: “It’s the seemingly unimportant questions that mean the most- how else are we supposed to forge connections with people?”

It was a side comment in another, broad conversation, but it was that comment and question that I’ve been thinking about most of the week because

  1. it’s so true
    and 
  2. that’s how I’ve met a majority of my best friends

When we ask seemingly surface-level questions, it gives us the opportunity to ask deeper questions in the future, not as a means to an end, but because you always have to break the surface to get to the depths. All questions are important in their own way, and how people respond to those questions, surface-level or not, speaks to who they are (i.e. do they answer genuinely, sarcastically, etc.). What questions do you ask?

-Cliff
Cliff’s Note: Always ask if they like sandwiches- you’ll make a friend if you do.

If I Write About Being a Millennial, Does That Make Me a Millennial?

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This past Monday, Georgetown University hosted ‘Millennial Day’ at their soccer match against UCLA.

It’s 2017, and this is now a thing.

‘Millennial Day’ at #georgetownsoccer featured:

  • Participation trophies for 500 fans
  • A dabbing-friendly safe space
  • A cable-cord-cutting station
  • Stadium-wide naps during halftime
  • A D.C. area Juice bar gift card raffle
  • Pregame selfies with ‘Jack the Bulldog’
  • Greetings with words of praise upon entry into the game
  • A millennial communication section (verbal conversation prohibited - cell phone use only)
  • Tickets available for just one half for those who did not want to commit to a whole game
  • AND free admission if you held 3 different jobs over the last 3 years (upon showing LinkedIn profile)

Not only do I feel like this was a genius and bold marketing move to hit their target audience perfectly, but I also feel like I fit into every single one of those stereotypical categories that they were targeting… and I’m not sure how I feel about that because these marketing slogans assume at least four big things at the most basic level: Millennials are lazy, narcissistic, struggle with commitment and lack confidence. I don’t know about you (said one millennial to another), but I don’t really want to be assumed to be any of these things right off the bat.

It seems like more often than not, I hear the term ‘Millennial’ (in reference to Generation Y) in a negative connotation. Millennials are lazy, need words of affirmation constantly, can’t take losing without getting their heart broken, don’t know what they want in life, jump from job to job, only live off of their parents or off of loans, are too wrapped up in their phones and technology, etc, etc. . . the list goes on. There’s a lot to say about the generation I’m a part of, and there’s been a lot written about the generation I’m a part of- both the problems and the strengths of the generation, and this is article may just be added noise; however, this is an article about me, and about how I am (narcissism?). Maybe you can relate.

Sometimes in the workplace, I’m introduced as ‘Austin, the typical millennial,’ and as much as I’m proud of my generation and who I am, sometimes I wonder what exactly that introduction is leading me to be and what it means. Yeah, criticism can be hard for me to take, I’ve easily had three jobs in three years, I’m not sure what I want in life a lot of the time, I blog and like to travel and words of affirmation are my love language, but does that really make me like every other person in my generation? Are we all fitting into this mold that’s becoming a marketing tool to pull people into college athletic events? Or are we more than that?

Personally, I know of a lot of millennials who are doing some super amazing things. I have friends living overseas in some of the most hostile nations on the globe trying to make a difference in the world they see, I know guys running one of the most successful and thriving businesses in the city I live in, and I’ve seen friends my age start and run their own businesses like well-oiled machines with the expertise of Henry Ford. I’m not claiming to be anywhere on this level, but still, there are some pretty incredible things that people from generation Y are doing.

It seems strange to me that an entire generation (not just ‘millennials,’ but any generation for that matter) can develop a negative stigma based on they way they are. After all, each generation was brought up by a previous generation, so it seems silly to demonize a generation for being one way and not another. If anything, I’d like to believe that generations learn from the generations before them and try to do the right things they were taught and try not to make the same mistakes that were previously made. I’m not so sure that America has had its ‘Greatest Generation,’ but rather that each generation in America is brings its own unique successes and struggles. That’s what makes not only the place we live so great, but also the people have the lived here before us.

Maybe this article is millennial of me to write because it’s on a blog and because it’s about the millennial stigma, but at this point, who cares because I was born in 1991, and that’s just the way it is right now, right, wrong or just different. When I told my friend I was writing about being a millennial, I asked her if it made me a millennial. She responded with ‘L O L O L what doesn’t make us millennials?”

I agree with her. It’s who we are, and we’ll continue to write in all caps acronyms with spaces in between each letter. *Inserts ✌️ emoji*

-Cliff
Cliff’s Note: Don’t confuse millennial with hipster- no matter how easy it is to do sometimes.