I am away at an academic conference today, so I would like to introduce you to Gabe Gunnink, a 2014 Calvin grad who is now teaching middle school English and Spanish in Grand Rapids. This essay originally appeared on September 20 on the Postcalvin, an alumni blog for Calvin grads in their 20s. During the month of September, the Postcalvin’s regular bloggers (all 28 of them!) wrote on the theme “millennials in thirty things.” The idea was to meditate on the quintessential stuff of daily millennial life. For more hilarious, poignant, and trenchant insights on being a young adult, please visit the blog and discover some wonderful young writers. — Debra
By Gabe Gunnink
Confession: I have never taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. Neither have I taken the StrengthsFinder evaluation nor any IQ assessment. The closest I’ve come to placing my identity under a multiple-choice microscope was an aptitude test I completed in high school. It told me I should be an animal trainer. I now work with middle school children, so maybe I should be taking these things more seriously.
But, for whatever reason, I have not felt the desire to encode my sense of self into an acronym or all-telling digit. Apparently, it’s another of my abnormalities, because the Myers-Briggs test is administered to around 1.5 million individuals annually from Fortune 500 employees to self-concept starved college students to most Lord of the Rings characters (thanks to BuzzFeed). However, the quest for them all seems to be the same: to find themselves and (in the darkness) bind themselves into one cohesive sense of self.
In this way, the Myers-Briggs has captured in a jargony, statistical fashion the primary aim of our generation: self-discovery. We millennials are an identity-hungry bunch and are endlessly goaded by a string of new, you-centric slogans: “Be Yourself,” “Live Your Life,” “Do You,” “YOLO,” and far too many more.
Now, I don’t want to oppose some of the ideological foundations of these messages. In truth, I feel that freedom and self-understanding are important principles and that these mantras are certainly improvements on those that could be applied to other eras and cultures: “Be Your Husband’s,” “Live Your Caste,” “Do Eunuch,” “You Only Languish Once.”
However, these continual calls to self-being have caused us millennials to become at times aggressively ourselves, busting out of boxes and popping out of closets more frequently and fervently than any generation before in an effort to break down walls and achieve the openness necessary to become fully “you.” But, as we step out into the open air of uninhibited self-discovery, we hesitate. It turns out that our relationship with boxes is more complicated than we realized.
In reality, while millennials so vocally oppose being put in boxes, we simultaneously stick labels to ourselves like we’re a political radical’s bumper: ESFP, flexitarian, demisexual, Libertarian, White (non-Hispanic), Pisces, Trekkie, etc. There’s something about the gleam of labels that we can’t resist in our manic attempts to “do you.”
Truly, there appears to be no end to the supply of boxes we can step into, from the big, refrigerator-sized boxes of ethnicity, gender, and political affiliation to the smallest, most obscure boxes imaginable. For example, BuzzFeed offers to answer “What Country Music Cliché Are You?” while Seventeen asks, “What Movie Couple Are You?” and Cosmopolitan really just goes big and claims to divine “What Kind of Female Are You?” in just six simple, man-centric questions. Thus, I would argue that we are the first generation to make a full-fledged hobby of self-discovery.
In the past week alone, I have discovered which kind of diva, which Rocky Horror Picture Show character, and which half of Ariana Grande’s face I am! And, I actually felt surprisingly self-accomplished upon receiving some of the answers. (Yes, I am a “flawless diva,” thank you very much!)
But we don’t stop there. Instead, we post the results to our Facebook page and wait for our friends to append comments revealing whether they do or do not share our spirit animal, or we linger at the dining hall having surprisingly serious conversations about which flower we are as a nearby group of men’s cross country runners chuckle a few feet away. In this way, for perhaps the first time in human history, self-discovery has become an end in and of itself.
That said, I don’t think that it has ceased being a means. In fact, beneath all of the type testing and celebrity twin finding, I think there lies a realization that first-semester-of-Spanish-class adjectives aren’t enough. It’s not enough to introduce myself, saying, “Hello. My name is Gabe. I am tall and nice and athletic and extroverted.” We need labels to do some of the talking for us. Somehow, breaking out the boxes and saying, “Hello. My name is Gabe. I’m a proud Ravenclaw vegetarian with a tendency toward Monica-from-Friends-spirited lovers!” seems to lend greater depth and texture to who I am.
But I think there’s a greater reason millennials are going a little crazy with the label-maker, and it’s that no matter how many times we’re told to “be yourself,” “live your life,” or “do you,” we realize that ultimately “doing you” can be a lonely calling. Being unique loses its luster quickly. Thus, the best thing that labels give us is a sense of belonging. When we put ourselves into boxes, we realize that we’re not alone there. Instead, we find ourselves among our fellow INTPers, our District 4 kinsfolk, or our Green Party counterparts. We find ourselves dissolved into community.
So, I doubt that we millennials will end our flagrant fight for individuality or cease our incessant self-discovery. However, I do hope that we plot a new destination for this quest and take up a new mantra. I hope that we use self-discovery not as a path to acronyms or actor crushes but rather as a means to community. And finally, I hope that we begin to focus less on “doing you” and finally dwell a bit more on “doing us.”