Saturday, April 4, 2009

On Being a Cusper

Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers is fascinating. He lays out some very interesting and convincing arguments for how people become successful. One of the pillars of the book is an acknowledgement of being born in the right time, with the right circumstances and even with the right culture. It may not seem "right," however, until you look back and realize how helpful it was.

One of his most compelling presentations is of Jewish lawyers who, because of bigotry and a closed, traditional culture, couldn't get into the big New York firms of the day. They were stuck doing takeover law, the "grunt work" no-one wanted... until the '80s, when that's what everyone needed. Suddenly, they were perfectly positioned.

I see some of that blessing of circumstance in my own life course, though clearly the parallel fails when compared with the adversity of the Jewish lawyer's systemic exclusion. I was born in 1975. My simple set of circumstances and luck put me in a demographic trough known as a "cusper." I'm either considered the youngest of the GenXers or the oldest of the Millenials. This provides me with some very interesting perspective, and I think it defines much of how I find my roles.

As a GenXer, I'm disaffected. I'm frustrated with a conventional system that rarely offers me a helping hand and expects unquestioning loyalty and commitment to the organization. The first seven or eight years of my career, I played along to Baby Boomer rules. Arguably, I was pretty good at it. I climbed the ladder quickly and built a reputation for insightfulness, ambition and independent skill. At least to myself, I proved that I could succeed in that environment.

All that time, though, there's a piece of me that was a Millenial. I've never been much of one to conform, and I always had the unsettled feeling that everyone around me was wrong. If I've learned anything about myself over my career, it's that I never fully buy in to the system and status quo that's around me.

Millenials, by definition, are loyal to careers, not organizations. They're interested in ideas and results more than service to the boss. The laws of supply and demand make this so. There's a growing seller's market for thoughtful workers, and Millenials naturally have a stronger negotiating position to ask for work that makes sense.

I find myself now in the role of translator. I get the rationale and purpose of the status quo, though I simply don't agree. I don't see it creating results. It's all too driven by individual self interest. It's founded on a belief that jobs are scarce and the safe way is the best way.

I also get the Millenial approach. I know that it's not all entitlement and expectation. It's their birthright of a stronger negotiating position. They're ready to work, hard. But they want to do difficult, challenging and meaningful work, not the stuff that does more for show than results.

Cuspers are a rarity. Not only did I need to be born in the right time, but I also needed to straddle the two gravitational pulls on either side of me. We don't all stay in this no-man's land. I'm also amongst cohorts that are bitter GenXers and others that are uninitiated Millenials.

With rarity comes doubt. Am I really seeing and addressing a reality? Only a minority seem to see it this way. As the brilliant writer and artist Hugh MacLeod says, "Ignore Everybody." This has become a mantra for me lately. I'm sure I'm on to something. Keeping this discussion alive can and will serve a purpose.

Faith in this chance placement is scary, but I'm leaning in to it.


Anonymous said...

Good read. BUT I think you do, or you don't do - and the chances of success grows rapidly depending on how privileged you are. Keep your thoughts coming, its interesting.

Krauser said...

I posted the last comment, but this Blog put me as anonymous.
Steve Krause

Nevin Danielson said...

Thanks Steve. Good point. I definitely see a life of relative privilege as a major factor in where we end up.

I hope my post doesn't make it sound like timing is the ONLY factor. Educated parents, abundant resources, born in Canada... the list goes on forever.

Thanks for reading and commenting!