Emerging adults don’t want to be anything–they want to be something

Photo by Amadeo Muslimović

There is a narrative that young people repeatedly hear from all kinds of well-meaning adults. The collective message insists, “You can be anything you want to be.” While adults mean this to be encouraging, it may be stressing young people out.

Anything means nothing

As we have talked with young people and reflected on the “You can be anything you want to be” mantra, we’ve come to the conclusion that young people hear more what’s between the lines, emphasized by a very scary two-lettered word: “if.” 

So you can be anything ...

If you work hard enough ... (But what if my best work isn’t good enough?)

If you make the right connections ... (So I have to compete against everyone else to be noticed?)

If you don’t screw up ... (You’re saying I need to be perfect?)

Further, this otherwise on-the-surface admonition makes an interesting shift. It places all the weight on young people and gives older people an escape clause from getting too close, too entangled, or too involved. In Christian circles, especially, we have a habit of using “spiritual” phrases that let us off the hook:

I’ll pray for you. (We know this is a classic conversation stopper that sets up a clear boundary)

I’m certain God will work it out. (Cross your fingers—Jesus style)

God works everything for the good of those who love God. (Classic (mis)quote the Bible tactic)

Perhaps “being anything” is more daunting for emerging adults than older adults realize, and adults’ attempts to inspire can sound more like threats: “Don’t mess up,” “You’re on your own,” “There’s nothing more we can do for you,” or “You’re an adult now, deal with it.”

Telling emerging adults that they can “be anything” doesn’t relieve pressure, it actually puts more pressure on them.

Tweet: "Telling emerging adults that they can be anything doesn’t relieve pressure, it actually puts more pressure on them."

The wonderfully scary step from anything to something

My wife, Jen, and I regularly invite emerging adults to our home for a meal, conversation, and what has affectionately been called, “the question of the night.” Each gathering, we ask just one question to the group and let them muse over it. One evening with good food and conversation, I posed this seemingly innocuous question: “What’s your gift to the world and how are you developing it?”

And there was silence.

Graduate students, creative directors, non-profit leaders, artists, nurses, and business protégés had little to share. As I reflected on this experience, I realized that their silence wasn’t because of their lack of talent. It was because these remarkable emerging adults were experiencing a developmentally appropriate period in their lives referred to as “fragile inner-dependence.” In this age-appropriate, developmental space they are discovering their gifts and how to apply their talents to their vocations. This process is both exciting, depressing, and anxiety-producing as they realize that the decisions they make mean “yes” to some dreams and “no” to others. This is often the first time that they risk publicly expressing their ideas and opening themselves up for affirmation and critique.

My question of the night invited them to vulnerably share out loud where they were in this process. Can they name their gift and describe the ways they choose to invest in the world?

Cass, an emerging adult herself, was at this gathering. It’s only fair that you hear her perspective:

Everyone held their breath. Gift to the world?

Gulp.

 Immediately thoughts raced through my mind:

What if I say what I really want to be and people think I’m arrogant?

What do I say if I have no idea what I’m doing with my life?

Why does everyone else seem to have it all figured out already?

What if I’m the only one who doesn’t have anything to give to the world?

Steve’s intuition about our reaction that evening was astute. For us emerging adults, there truly is a big difference between being anything and being something. Being anything leaves us gaping at the vast world of opportunities, overwhelmed with who we ought to be. Being something is challenging, but it provides us with the occasion to examine who we are and how to live more fully into who God is calling each of us to be. Steve’s question was so uncomfortable to think about because it caused us to ask ourselves not only, “What difference do I make?” but also “Who am I?” And as emerging adults, nothing makes us simultaneously so animated and anxious as when we tussle with these complex questions.

That night, many of us for the first time boldly named our gift out loud. And despite the initial fear that people would laugh or think less of us, each person around the table was earnestly affirmed in all they could do and would do with their gift to make an impact in the world. Right there in that sacred moment, we each took an important initial step from anything to something.

Gifting the world

There are light years of distance between “You can be anything you want to be” and “What’s your gift to the world?” More, there is a dramatic difference in the support older people offer when they choose one phrase over the other. The “You can do anything” people can walk away, cheer from a distance, and more likely blame young leaders for their own demise. The “What’s your gift to the world?” people implicitly move closer in order to understand how to invest in emerging adults to help them find their voice and use their gifts. Their success and failures are shared, not outsourced. Their answers are in process.

My something [a gift to the world]

Cass and I were so intrigued by our dinner conversation that we gathered responses from 50 youth workers who were mostly in their twenties and asked them this same question: “What’s your gift to the world and how are you developing it?” Compiling their responses, we began to see some characteristics similar to those that Cass described. Listen to the courage, fear, and self-reflection in some of their responses:   

I don’t know! I’m questioning who I am and what I am doing.

My gift is making others feel known, connected, and valued. But sometimes I feel limited by the constraints that those above me put on that gift.

My gift is teaching and I’m pushing myself to not shy away from any opportunity to share it.

My gift to the world is my passion. I’m trying to develop it through finding new ways to communicate it, whether it’s through writing, speaking, or music. My passion can be about so many different things, though, which can make it pretty confusing.

Like our dinner gathering, these leaders expressed a deep desire to name and develop their gifts. Each of them long for dialogue partners in their church who can encourage and help to refine their something. We can’t think of a more important conversation for older and younger leaders to have.

Reimagining and risking your own conversations

Emerging adult leaders don’t need older adults to tell them that they can “be anything.” They want to be something and they are seeking those who will help them clarify and amplify their voices.

In many of the ministry settings I have experienced, few older and younger leaders are ready to have these conversations. Whether it is because everyone’s too busy or too afraid, most conversations between young and old leaders get reduced to programming.

What younger leaders want is advocates and sounding boards who develop their voices and gifts. What they often get are conversations about to-do lists, scheduling, and weekly numbers. The moment we run from real conversations and hide behind programming is the moment we realize that we no longer have a ministry but an assembly line. Perhaps we can turn the tide of our older-younger leader conversations by daring to talk about something rather than anything.

Tweet: “What younger leaders want are advocates and sounding boards who develop their voices and gifts. What they often get are conversations about to-do lists, scheduling, and weekly numbers.”

Try these first steps towards these kinds of conversations. They’re worth the risk.

Questions older leaders can ask younger leaders

  • What is your gift to the world and how are you developing it?
  • What might be keeping you from developing your gift today?
  • How can I walk with you as you find and develop your gift?

Questions younger leaders can ask older leaders

  • How would you describe your own vocational journey and how you arrived at the place you are today?
  • What would you say is your gift to the world and how are you still developing it?
  • What gifts can you see in me and how can you help me develop my gifts?

Planning your conversations together

Often, attempting conversations like these can be logistically difficult or relationally awkward. Perhaps you can break the ice by: 

  • Printing or sending this article to your younger or older leader, asking them to read it, and then inviting them to have a conversation about it.
  • Trying to use the questions above to learn from each other.
  • Once you have a first conversation, pulling out your calendars and setting up a next meeting.
  • Committing to having these meetings be just about developing our gifts, our calling, and our formation. Save ministry logistics for another time. 
  • Being patient with each other as you learn to trust each other.

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