Me Telling You How to Overcome Me in the Me Generation

The baby boom generation, my generation, the “Me Generation” has had a particularly hard time getting out of our own way.  We’ve been Larry, Moe and Curly with 76 million of us each playing all Three Stooges at once  — poking ourselves in our own eyes, smacking ourselves with our own swinging planks and shoving open paint cans down over our own ears.  Who needs teamwork in a generation where anybody can do everything? Everything in Washington, for example.  Note the smooth, efficient and decisive operation of a me! me! me! domestic political system.  And U.S. foreign policy explained in three words by Curly Joe: nyuck nyuck nyuck.

Since the Me Generation took over, the economy’s been great, too.  I mean great entertainment.  Watching anybody being an investment expert in everything has been better than seeing a clown at a children’s party making balloon critters — the Asset Bubble, the Dot.com Bubble, the Housing Bubble and whatever the bubble we’re in now is going to be called.

Observe, as well, the improvement in the entertainment industry, exemplified by reality shows like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”  This was foreboded in a highly predictive 1970 hit, “Everybody Is a Star,” by Sly and the Family Stone (star performers when anybody in the band wasn’t doing everything smokable and snortable and Sly could find the stage).

Even dull, gray Me Generation bankers are stars, featured in newspapers, magazines, online media, Congressional hearings and mug shots.

Dull, gray bankers who make more money than a star athlete or, more to the point, a star athlete’s Me Generation agent or Me Generation team owner.  As for which owner of which team the star athlete will be playing for next month, this ain’t Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox.  Never mind my innocent high school coach saying, “There’s no ‘m’ and ‘e’ in ‘team.’”

Me Generation teams have paid the price for everyone believing anybody can do everything.  During the Vietnam era, Team War was mostly grudging conscripts who weren’t “free to be you and me.”  They did not make the Southeast Asia playoffs.

Team Peace opposed American involvement in Vietnam by eschewing haircuts and baths, wearing sandals and tie-dye, and articulating our principled moral and ethical objections to the conflict in high squeaky voices after big bong hits.  Ending the war in Vietnam only took us nine years.

Paradoxically, the fact that the Me Generation has self-esteem like other generations had acne plus a “There’s just one ‘I’ in individualism” attitude led to our greatest generational teamwork triumph, the creation of a digital virtual reality where anybody can do everything — in Minecraft.

But none of this is the Me Generation’s fault.  Just ask us.  We are victims of pathological lying.  Post-World War II American optimism experienced a severe manic episode.  (Google “1959 Cadillac.”)  Delusional parents, teachers, church youth ministers, Scoutmasters, camp counselors, YMCA volunteers and other authority figures began hyperventilating and telling us, “You can do everything,” “You can be anything” and other, similar, blatant falsehoods.

Why, you may ask  — using me as a gauge  — would a 98-pound eighth-grader with a C+ average who was winded after a brisk game of croquet fall for such hooey?  I don’t know.  I can’t even claim, “I saw it on the Internet.”  All I can say is that I hope parents, teachers, et al. are now taking their meds for this psychiatric disorder.

Which they aren’t.  I saw it on the Internet.  Type any variation of “You can do/be/have anything” into a search engine.  Click on “images.”  For each verb you will find more than 300 motivational posters, plaques, slogans, mottos and calligraphic renderings championing the idea.  Many of the posters are as offensive to aesthetics as they are to common sense.

The dos and bes and haves are often presented as quotations.  I encountered “If you can dream it, you can do it” attributed to both Walt Disney and Enzo Ferrari.  You can dress up in a mouse suit and die in a fiery race car crash.

Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, “You can have anything you want if you want it badly enough.” A peaceful resolution to the secession of the Southern states?  An amicable end to the injustice of slavery?  A quiet evening at Ford’s Theatre?

Lincoln never said any such thing.  The sentence was written by gloomy novelist Wallace Stegner in his gloomy 1961 novel, “A Shooting Star.”  And no good comes to the character into whose mouth Stegner put those words.

“You can do anything you want if you want to bad enough” is an old American saying.  “A Dictionary of American Proverbs,” published by Oxford University Press, doesn’t attempt to date it and simply notes general “recorded distribution” in the United States.  A variant gives some indication of the saying’s antiquity: “A fellow can do anything if he lists.”

The archaic “list” means to like, choose or wish.  “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride” — a Scottish proverb dating back to 1628.

The American can-do adage was doubtless homely in origin, with an implication that you could indeed, if you tried hard enough, plow a whole acre of stony land in one day with just a wife and a milk cow in the yoke.

But there’s no use explaining this to the Me Generation.  You can always tell a member of this age cohort, but you can’t tell him or her much.

The Me Generation is getting in the way of everything by making everything all about “me.”  What can be done?  Nothing.  It’s too late.

And late is good.  The youngest Me-Firsts turned 50 this year.  We’re aging out.  It won’t be long before the way is cleared for a younger and more sensible generation such as the 45-year-old Gen X slackers still living in their moms’ basements.

“Anybody can do everything” is probably also aging-out.  Consider those do/be/have Internet images. I believe it is a law of ontology that once any philosophical statement is decorated with kittens, flowers, hearts, rainbows and unicorns, and adorns the bedroom walls of preteen girls, that philosophy is past its greatest power of malign influence on society.

So sell short.  Bury Krugerrands in the yard.  Stay out of the way while the Hillary Clinton Me Generation political juggernaut weaves back and forth along the campaign trail.  And sit back and watch the fun.

Look at the bright side.  “Anybody can do everything” is a lie, but as a lie it’s a huge improvement on “except Jews” or “except blacks” or “except women” or “except gays.”  The Me Generation has been an engine for social progress, bringing greater fairness, justice and democracy to even the realm of palpable untruth.

Or you can do what the Me Generation does whenever we do anything stupid, which is never because we don’t do stupid things.  We have “learning experiences.”  Or, as our current Me Generation president calls them, “teachable moments.”

“Anybody can do everything” has been one teachable moment after another for me as I refused to learn the wisdom of Chief Sohcahtoa and got an F in trigonometry, put my motorcycle through a garden gnome and into somebody’s screen porch on a suburban cul-de-sac, yelled “Fascist pigs!” at a group of hardhats while walking alone near a construction site, tried to follow the John Belushi diet and fitness program, married my first wife and bought Pets.com shares at $11.  (Their stock certificates make lousy chew toys, btw.)

There’ll be no end to teachable moments until the last of the Me Generation is wheeled off to the extended care facility where we, in no uncertain terms, will be telling the nurses and doctors exactly how to get sick and frail and lose short-term memory.

Meanwhile you have to try to do what every good team-builder always has tried to do.  Hire people who are better and smarter than you.  A member of the Me Generation, for instance.  We all are.

Authors

  • P.J. O'Rourke

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute