"There was a time when I could bench over 300 pounds."
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Two days away from my graduation ceremonies at the University of Illinois, I was feeling like I was pretty hot shit. I was the managing editor of the Daily Illini, where I’d written constantly since my first hours on campus my freshman year; I’m not sure how you’d compile a list of “most DI bylines in a four-year period,” but if one existed, I’d have to be pretty high up there. I was well-known throughout the university, and especially the journalism department, as a highly ambitious, rather inescapable presence, someone determined that everybody within earshot know I Was Going Places. I already had a job set up, working for a magazine in Los Angeles, surely the first step in a media career of limitless possibilities. Shoot, I was graduating, on time no less, and about to go take on the world. The ceiling was the roof.
I was taking a victory lap of sorts around Gregory Hall, saying goodbye to my former teachers and the journalism department’s support staff, making sure I got one last visit in so they could all make sure they had vivid, lasting memories when the documentarians came around in 20 years to ask them about me, when I heard a voice from behind.
“Will,” a man barked from his office. “Will Leitch, is that you out there? Come in here, I’d like to talk to you.”
The man’s name was Bob Reid, and he was the most feared journalism professor at the University of Illinois. The toughest journalism class at the U of I was famously Journ 380, Reporting II, a semester-long project so grueling that we had people take the semester off from working at the student newspaper just so they could focus on it, and Reid’s 380 was notoriously brutal; stories of him failing students for misspelling a name in a story, or turning in a paper 10 minutes late, were legion. I was fortunate enough not to draw Reid for Journ 380, instead landing the relatively new and far more reasonable Walt Harrington, which allowed me to stealthily half-ass the class like I stealthily half-assed every class in college. I saw no problem with this. I was a star at the Daily Illini, with thousands of students reading my work every day, where I was my own boss, getting real-life journalism experience, not in some classroom but out here on these streets. Class was just something to get through, to glide by with Bs and Cs, just so I could say I had my degree and make my parents happy. I didn’t need to learn; I was too busy creating. I’d had little-to-no experience with Reid, never had a single class or conversation with him, didn’t know him even slightly. I had no idea at all why he’d want to talk to me.
“Yes?” I said, walking in his office, surely swooping my long floppy center-part ‘90s hair behind me dramatically, letting him know the golden kid had entered.
“Yeah, Will, it’ll only be a second,” he said, motioning me to sit down. I did, leaning forward impatiently. I had places to go. Why was I wasting time talking to this old man?
“Congratulations on graduating,” he said, but his face was not congratulatory. “So, I have to say, I hear all the time around here how you’re some big talent, how you’re one of the best students in class, how much potential you have. But I’ve been reading your work, and, well, I just don’t see it.”
I straightened up in my chair.
“Your work is lazy, not well-reported and almost purposefully unserious,” he said. “You have a certain style and way with words, but you’re coasting on it. You do not seem to have gotten much better since you arrived here. I’m not sure you have learned much of anything. You would have never survived my class. Since no one else has said it to you, I will: I don’t think you’re as good as everybody else does, and certainly not as good as you think you are.”
He paused. “There,” he said. “Now someone has told you. Enjoy your graduation.”
I didn’t say a word. I just got up and left. And then I thought about Bob Reid every day for about 20 years.
Oh: I was going to show him. Mr. Old School Journalism Professor, what the hell did he know, he’s just jealous because his career didn’t go the way he wanted to and now he’s taking it out on me, he’s past his prime, he doesn’t know how it works, he can’t see true talent, he’s just jealous because I have something he doesn’t. I’ll show him. I’ll show him. When I got out in the real world after college, when my career sputtered, when I spent years trying to break into the industry, when I was 30 years old and still hadn’t made any sort of name for myself … I was still thinking about him, how I couldn’t let him be right, how I couldn’t give up, how I was going to do whatever it took to prove him wrong.
No matter what I did—whether I was struggling or thriving—there was always that little voice in my head: You’re not as good as you think you are. It always, always pushed me. It still does. In five minutes, Bob Reid did something that no other professor, certainly not the ones I actually studied under, ever did: He made me work harder. I was furious with him. I was gonna prove him wrong. I had to.
Bob Reid died in back in 2004, so I never got a chance to thank him, or forgive him, or whatever I needed to do with him. I do not know if he was right when he said that to me, or if he was wrong. It doesn’t matter. He did something that desperately needed to be done: He told me something I did not want to hear.
A while back, a friend was looking to hire an aspiring student to help her with some side work, nothing exciting or glamorous, but something she figured the kid could use for their major, not to mention gaining a potential professional contact and earning a little drinking money on the side. She heard from one particularly exciting applicant she thought would be perfect, so she responded with some details about the gig, a few possible responsibilities and some questions about background and long-term plans. She then did not hear back from the student, and she moved on to hire someone else.
About two months later, an email response from the student showed up in her inbox. Sorry, the email said, I’ve been really busy, and I’m not very good about email anyway, I don’t check it very often. But yeah, this all sounds great, I’d love to get started.
My friend, quite understandably, was taken aback. This student was ostensibly applying for a job—a small job, but something they wanted to do nevertheless—and not only, upon hearing from the person they were applying to, did not respond for months, but also, when they actually did so, said the reason for the delay was because they had better things to do and that they don’t like to correspond on the platform their potential employer is currently contacting them on, as if these conditions were somehow now the responsibility of my friend to work around in the future. Oh, and the student seemed to think, after all this, that the job was still there waiting for them.
“Wow,” I said. “What are you going to tell them?”
“Oh, I’ll just tell them I’ve filled the position, and wish them good luck,” my friend said. “I’m not going to be one of those old people.”
One of the most common conversations I have with friends my age revolves, as has surely been the case for fortysomethings for generations, around These Kids Today. Sometimes it’s about how they don’t want to work, another generational chestnut. Sometimes it’s about how different their growing up experiences were than ours. Sometimes it’s about how little faith they have in the institutions we all grew up with, how the last 20 years of American life have left them with little to grasp onto but student debt and climate despair. Sometimes it’s about campus politics. Sometimes it’s about how they dress. Sometimes it’s just about how old we have become—can you believe we’ve become the people who complain about the kids?
There is one thing that I never hear, though: I never hear anyone want to tell them they are wrong.
They are sometimes wrong, you know. I’d argue, even, more wrong than they are right. They are not always wrong. They are things they know more about than people older than them, if just because you have more on your mind when you are older and are only have time for so much. (This is why your kids are now kicking your ass in fantasy football.) But they are not always right either. I know this because I was that age once, just like you were, and your parents were, and their parents were. Think back about that time, when you were the age of a college student, or in your mid-20s. Did you think then that you were right about everything? I bet you did. But now that you are older, it is extremely likely that your first thought about yourself back then is, God, what a moron. Because you were young! You didn’t know that much yet!
This does not mean that you and I are smart now, to be clear. This does not mean that there are not important things that you and I know less about now because you and I have gotten older. (There hasn’t been a end-of-year-top-10-albums list I haven’t found impenetrable in roughly a decade.) It does not mean that you and I do not have blind spots, that we do not still have so much more yet to learn, because we grew up when we did. It just means that you know more now than you did 20 years ago, or 10 years ago, or five years ago, or five minutes ago, because that’s what being alive is.
Now, I have only been alive for 48 years, so I cannot say this with absolute authority, but I would posit that this has been a fundamental understanding of how the world has worked for most of human history. Young people think they know everything, old people tell them they don’t, young people resent old people for doing so, old people get older and die, those young people become old people and tell the next generation of young people that they’re wrong about everything, and those young people resent those old people, and on and on it goes until the earth crashes into the sun.
But something does seem to have changed. It’s not that older people think young people are right about everything—far from it. It’s that they’re simply terrified to tell them they’re not.
A New York Times piece from a couple of years ago got this right, albeit in that Times Style section way that’s always one slight degree removed from lived reality: The 37-Year-Olds Are Afraid of the 23-Year-Olds Who Work for Them. There is quote from Andy Dunn, the founder of Bonobos, that I think is telling: “I feel very sure that I’m uncool,” he says. “I’ve come to accept that.” I believe the first part of that statement far more than the second part.
Because the problem is not, in fact, with the young people. They have not changed. They still think we’re wrong about everything, just like we did. They still think they’re right about everything, just like we did. What has changed is us. The difference is that we don’t want to accept that we’re uncool, that we’re the lame people they’re mocking like we used to mock our lame old people. We don’t want to be the old people. We want to be the young people! So we try to pretend we are. Which is hurting a lot more than it’s helping.
When you look around Gen X and Gen Z culture over the last 20 years, it makes sense. Almost every comedy for two decades was basically about people (mostly dudes) refusing to get older, trying to avoid growing up as long as possible—trying not to be like their parents. It is not a small step to go from I don’t feel like I’m 45! to I refuse to act like a 45-year-old. Because a 45-year-old is not cool. All those dorky parents in those ‘80s and ‘90s movies you grew up with? The dad from Teen Wolf? The mom from Mean Girls, the one so desperate to show she’s a “cool mom?” All in their 40s! Lame! Uncool! Which is fine. The job is not to be cool. The job is to be old. The job is to grow up.
But we resist. It is remarkable to me how often I hear people my age say, “kids today don’t want to work as hard as we did.” I do not believe this to be true. I believe they want to work just as hard as we wanted to when we were their age, which is to say—not very hard. Who wants to work hard when you’re in college or your early 20s? You’re young! You’re gorgeous! You have no responsibilities! If I had no one telling me I had to work hard, or no one telling me I’d never get anything I wanted if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have worked hard. Of course not!
And that’s what’s different. The difference is that we’re scared to tell them anything they don’t want to hear. Because that would mean that we are old, and uncool. We’re not really scared of them. We’re scared of what telling them what to do—of being a stick-in-the-mud authority figure, of become a figure of mockery, of turning into our parents—would say about us. This is why it’s so infuriating, by the way, for Gen Xers to be lumped in with Baby Boomers. Oh you hate Boomers, do you? We invented that. That’s our whole thing! We do not think of ourselves as having any sort of authority. We don’t want it. Deep down, we don’t think we deserve it—and we may even be right. So we’ve ceded it. And we have left nothing in its place. We have broken the chain.
That, I believe, is the problem my 40-something friends are always complaining about. The kids are not the problem, or at least not any more than they’ve ever been. They believe they are right about everything just like we did, like they always have. They’re mostly wrong, like they’ve always been. But if we do not tell them they are wrong, if we do not give them something to fight against, to have as a little voice in their head, driving them, pushing them, giving them a reason to rebel, well, then it’s no wonder they have different views of work, and drive, and responsibility, than we did, and our parents did, and their parents did.
Not all of this is bad. Maintaining a healthy suspicion of, even disdain of, corporate institutions that do not care about you or how hard you work, that will drop you in a half a second and never think twice about it, is important: The world they’re facing is different than the one we faced. But you still have to take part in it. You do not get to opt out. Because eventually those young people are going to be old people too. What will do when people stop listening to them? They’re not going to push back at the next generation of younger people—shoot, my kids—any more than we do. And eventually, even at the most altruistic non-profit on the planet, someone has to get all this work done. No one gets to stay young forever. Their lives are going to have stakes someday too. And we’re doing a shitty job of preparing them for it.
The problem is not that young people are wrong, and that older people are right. The problem is that older people, specifically those around my age, have abdicated their responsibility of giving something for young people to push back against—to push themselves. Are you tired of young people thinking they’re right about everything? Your parents felt the same way. But they at least did something about it. They weren’t too scared to say anything, that’s for damn sure.
Bob Reid, that ole prick, was willing to be the bad guy, to tell me something that he believed I needed to hear. I’m not sure if he was right. He might have been, he might not have been. That’s not the point. If he hadn’t said that to me, I would have continued walked around thinking I was hot shit, that I knew everything, even though I wasn’t and I didn’t. He made me desperately want to prove him wrong. It’s the best gift he could have given me. It’s a gift we’ve mostly stopped giving.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Ten Ways the CFP Committee Screwed Everything Up, New York. I find myself wanting to sort of take this college football playoff system off.
Ranking the Toughest Jobs For Managers in 2024, MLB.com. Good luck, Shildty.
Emma Stone Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Updated with Poor Things.
Grierson & Leitch, no show this week, but we’ve got three big ones coming up.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, Georgia lost, you might have heard, we dealt with it.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“Michael Stipe Is Writing His Next Act. Slowly,” Jon Mooallem, The New York Times Magazine. Forever the best, that guy.
Also, Mark Leibovich is frighteningly to the point here.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
This is your reminder that if you write me a letter and put it in the mail, I will respond to it with a letter of my own, and send that letter right to you! It really happens! Hundreds of satisfied customers!
Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Ripe,” Screaming Females. This is the song I decided sounded the most like the song I imagined in my head that Allie and Hotel Arizona, the fictional band in The Time Has Come, plays at the end of the book. I imagined in my head. It’s a good song to run to too.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
This newsletter comes to you early this morning because the two William Bryan Leitches and I are currently in Franklin, North Carolina, about to drive the two hours to Knoxville, Tennessee to watch our (maybe awesome?) Illini play the Tennessee Volunteers today. Noon CBS, look for the three Midwesterners dressed in orange.
Have a great weekend, all. Go Illini.