“I don’t always think about 19th-century Russia, but when I do, I make sure it’s Dostoevsky (not Dos Equis).”
Let me start by saying that Russian literature is not my forte. I normally don’t have the attention span for a book that can double as a child’s booster seat. But when words like “the greatest novel ever written” are thrown around, I get a little curious.
When I started reading The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, I didn’t think that it would be incredibly relevant to my life. Sure, the classics are supposed to be timeless, but I didn’t think an old, crotchety, 19th-century Russian felon would have anything helpful to say to me (a young, non-crotchety, American twentysomething).
To my surprise, his words struck a chord—specifically, his words to the “world-changing” twentysomethings of his generation. His words cut through the centuries and spoke directly to the shortcomings of my own generation. While I am more than aware of the contemporary opinion of millennials, I am rarely impressed by the shallow and one-sided indictments we receive. Dostoevsky’s description of twentysomethings—albeit from a different country and century—shows a level of thoughtfulness that I believe is worth our attention.
So if you are a twentysomething with a desire to change the world (you clicked on this article for a reason), Dostoevsky’s words are for you. I included a little bit of commentary and a few Dostoevsky-inspired applications, as well.
Also, the rest of the article is in Russian, so good luck with that.
A Crotchety Russian Man’s Thoughts On Twentysomethings “With A Cause”
Context: the narrator’s description of Alyosha, one of the main characters.
“He was a youth of our most recent times… honest by his very nature, demanding truth and justice, seeking and striving to believe in them, and… demanding with all the power of his soul an immediate part in them, demanding a quick deed, with the unbending desire to sacrifice everything for that deed, even his life.
“Though it is unfortunately the case that these youths fail to comprehend that the sacrifice of one’s life is… possibly the easiest option, and that to sacrifice, for example, five or six years of one’s youth-inflamed life on difficult, laborious study, on book-learning, even if only for the purpose of decupling within oneself the strength required in order to serve that same truth and that same deed which has become one’s dearest aspiration… [unfortunately,] such a sacrifice is quite often almost entirely beyond many of them.”
—The Brothers Karamazov
The Split Nature of the Twentysomething
To be clear, this passage is not a pivotal or important section of The Brothers K. But because I think a lot about life as a twentysomething, I returned to this passage more than any other text. As I’ve meditated on the twentysomething condition, I agree wholeheartedly with Dostoevsky and his diagnosis of our generation. To put it in my own words…
The average twentysomething is fiercely passionate.
Contrary to popular belief, twentysomethings are not apathetic bums. We may live with our parents and work at coffee shops, but that is often a conscious decision to pursue a passion over a paycheck. To find a “calling” rather than a nine-to-five.
This passion is what drives many of my friends. It motivates them to be advocates for something. To have a cause. To give generously. To volunteer readily. To work low-paying jobs in hope of changing the world.
Like Dostoevsky says, if they could die to end an injustice in the world, they would all take you up on the offer. When they say that they want the world to be a better place, they are not trying to win a beauty pageant. They, indeed, “[demand] truth and justice, seeking and striving to believe in them.”
The average twentysomething is fiercely impatient.
The fierceness with which we express our opinions and passions is—unfortunately—also our downfall. We want our lives to matter… NOW! We want change… NOW!
We follow leaders who promise a quick, widespread revolution. We celebrate nation-wide reform, ignorant of local issues. We critique without engagement. We post without asking questions. We pray without taking action. Rather than fix our broken iPhone of a culture, we throw it against a wall and demand an Android.
Twentysomethings may be passionate, but our passion is without patience or direction. It is too misplaced and short-sighted to have any real impact. We are fires made of kindling. We are sprinting a marathon. We are playing tic-tac-toe on a chess board. We “demand the quick deed” and have no idea that we are losing the long-game.
Passion and Impact
It is not for lack of passion that our efforts to change the world amount to little. There is just a wide gap between passion and impact that few recognize.
So how do we bridge the gap? How do we “decuple” (multiply tenfold) our passion into impact? What is this sacrifice that is “almost entirely beyond many”?
I can’t speak to your specific cause, mission, or ideology, but I know that passion alone will not change the world. Bridging the gap between passion and impact will not be easy. In the words of Dostoevsky, it will actually be harder than laying down your life. But I have a few ideas that might help.
Read lots of books.
To use Dostoevsky’s own thought, if you think you’re ready to change the world, are you also ready to sacrifice your twenties on “difficult, laborious study, on book-learning”? Have you considered how much can be gained from giving yourself to studying the greatest minds of human history? I’m not saying that you have to get a Master’s Degree in Humanities, I’m just wondering how often you go to the library. I’m just wondering if you’re filling your mind with too much Buzzfeed and not enough of the ideas of the other world-changers. Reading books is a way to convert your passion into the knowledge you need to actually change the world.
Engage with real people, not issues.
There are more than enough critics and complainers discussing the semantics of “the issues.” There will never be enough people who want to actively engage with the real people who are having “the issues.” It is not the critics who know how to change the world, but the people who are actually hurting. Get close to them, not the ones with the big Twitter followings. #changingtheworld #butprobablynot
Quality over quantity.
If you want short-lived “success,” focus on quantity. If you want lifelong fans (real success), focus on quality. Economics.
Play the long-game.
I interned for a church for a few years. One word that I heard far too often was “burnout.” Burnout is when a pastor or missionary takes on too much responsibility for too long and begins to hate everything he really loves (work, family, hobbies, God, etc.). As an aspiring world-changer, you don’t want to experience burnout. But you want to be diligent.
What separates the diligent from the burned-out? Diligent people know how to clock-out. They know how to rest. They know that impact is the result of consistency, not constant activity. They know when to turn off their phones. They know that impact takes time. They know that they are a part of the solution, not THE solution.
I learned to drive in Colorado where there are a lot of hills and mountains. When approaching a hill, it is wise to accelerate before (not after) you reach the incline. If you do it right, you can make it to the top without your cruise control kicking-in and revving your engine to 6,000 rpm. When you’re driving in the mountains, though, acceleration is not what helps you climb the steep inclines. You often need to drop down into 2nd or 3rd gear or risk significant strain on your engine and transmission. Driving in the mountains is more about the health of your car than speed. Same with life.
Some challenges will be hills and some will be mountains. Some will require a little extra planning and energy (accelerate before the hill) and some will require a heavy dose of humility (down-shifting into 2nd gear). If you find yourself approaching an incline, speeding-up is a good idea. But if the incline is too steep or too long, give yourself some grace to down-shift. To slow down. To avoid burnout.
Just do something.
My friend Ryan has more ambition in his pinky-finger than I have in my entire body. He wants to start and sell a $50 million company before he is 30. Is he equipped for that task? Not right now. And he knows that. He knows that he needs to succeed (and fail) at a lot of smaller endeavors before he can win big. So he’s always doing something. He takes free online classes. He finds internships he can do on the side. He writes every day to refine his communication and thinking skills. He reads like a chain-smoker. (Assuming cigarettes are books in this metaphor. I don’t think chain-smokers are, by nature, avid readers.)
I wouldn’t be surprised if Ryan was a millionaire in three years, not because he has everything he needs to change the world, but because he’s always doing something to get everything he needs to change the world.
Don’t be weird.
I feel like this one should always go without saying, but it doesn’t. Don’t be weird. Freaking people out doesn’t further your cause. People skills are important. Your special brand of weird is great, but save it for the people you trust. Practice not being weird around everyone else. Passion doesn’t equal weird.
Read more books.
“Successful people have libraries. The rest have big screen TVs.”
If you’ve made it this far in the article, I have a good feeling that you’re one of those world-changer types that I’ve been talking about. You’ve got passion. You’ve found a cause, mission, or ideology that is incredibly meaningful.
But what will you do with your youthful passion? Will it be focused, deliberate, and honest about its weaknesses? Will your passion have a game plan? (Or just a blog?) Are you willing to delay your impact until you’re 30 so that you can learn a thing or two first? Are you willing to play the long-game? Are you willing to admit that you actually don’t have all of the answers right now?
Are you ready for me to stop asking rhetorical questions? Me too.