Look at The Man. Behold Him. The Man is Anguished- can you tell? He is so anguished, the Anguished Man. He holds his head, barely able to contain the affliction of his mighty intellect, for his is the Brain; The Biggest Brain. He speaks and you listen (we must all listen to Anguished Brain Big Man). You note the words coming out of his mouth. You register that he is speaking. It is very scary, what he is speaking like. His voice is scare, so we, too, must be scare. Then, perhaps, later, you listen to what he is actually saying, the content of his speech, its meaning. You dig through the noise vibration gently pummelling your eardrum, emanating from Big Man Brain. You hear- is it?- yes! Yes. It is. It is phone. Phone bad! he says. Phone is the big bad.
Why? No, no. No my friend. There is no time for that now. No ‘why’. Just bad- phone bad. Phone bad! Phone very bad.
Simon Sinek is, according to his Wikipedia page, a motivational speaker and organisational consultant. You’ve probably seen him flying across your social media feed like a malodorous streak of flatulence in one of those viral videos people share. You know the ones; you know the people. You’re not one of these people, if you’re reading this, unless you are. “THIS MAN NAILS WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE MODERN GENERATION”. Etc, etc.
One of his videos, entitled “Simon Sinek On Millennials in the Workplace” was particularly popular around a year ago. It’s an interesting, reasonably argued video, in which Sinek calmly puts forward his perspective on why millennials are bad (bad!), designed to be watched and consumed by anyone who isn’t a millennial.
Except it isn’t interesting or reasonably argued, it’s an irritating piece of pop-propaganda designed to lightly reassure employers, business owners, and anyone over forty that actually yes, it is the kids who are wrong. I hate it, and I hate it because unlike the usual millennial-bashing discourse, Sinek laces the mouldy corners of his argument with surface-level ‘reason’. He talks about how millennials are impatient, and selfish, yes, but he says it slowly and calmly and with pauses so we know when to agree with him.
And you watch it and you think, we want everything now, don’t we? We have no concept of ‘length and difficulty’. In Sinek’s toxic worldview, we want to get to the top of the mountain without having to climb it. He loves drug metaphors, too, blindly positing that we’re all going to become addicted to drugs. And dopamine! How I crave my dopamine, sat here in this coffee shop, twitching, like a sentient Burroughs novel. He talks in hushed tones about how doomed we all are, about how suicide will go up in future generation. He uses words like “epidemic” and “instant gratification”.
He talks, a lot, about how we’ve been dealt a ‘shitty hand’, but when he delivers these talks they are, often, to the people who have dealt us the shitty hands; employers, companies, businessmen. He doesn’t interrogate the causes, or offer any solutions. Capitalism, to him, is as natural as the air we breathe, and he would laugh in your face if you mentioned if as a critical factor. He just states his agenda as if it’s fact, and perpetuates the cycle of loathing towards the young.
The trouble with Sinek is, more broadly, the trouble with motivational speakers. He will, necessarily, only ever say what you want to hear. He does not exist, he is a phantom, a human-shaped space where a personality might reside. You hire him because he agrees you. His Linkedin profile talks about “bright futures” and “lasting impacts”; this means, of course, nothing. He means nothing. He stands for nothing and he signifies nothing. But because he says it calmly, and to people who already agree with the things they’ve paid him to say, he is popular. He’s nothing more than an advertisement for himself. And he is radically insincere. I mean, seriously, utterly, completely unconvincing. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t give a shit. He’s only in this for the money. He’s a modern-day Raffles the Gentleman Thug for the bizniz class, a cynical walking cash-grab.
He’s at the more respectable end of millennial-bashing, but it’s a spectrum not a binary, and it’s pernicious. But, y’know; people have bitched and moaned about young people since time began. Aristotle literally had a go at it. When mass-market paperbacks came in, there was a genuine worry that kids were becoming antisocial. The whole ‘TV will give you square eyes!” thing is a quaint way of dating modern media set in the 80’s. People even complained about chalkboards in the classroom.
It is one of the oldest traits going, the tendency of the old to criticise the young. And you’d think we’d know by now, to avoid it, to recognise it as a cliché, but here we are.
The particular trouble with Sinek is that he legitimises this bashing. Anti-millennial discourse is ten-a-penny, but Sinek is one of the only ones who makes you feel clever for listening to him (which is probably the secret to the success of his career). He alarms and reassures you over the spread of the same sentence.
Of course, this is not say that our era is immune from criticism, but it’s not only millennials living in this era, and arguments require more nuance than Sinek’s barely-warm watery-discourse-vomit. Stewart Lee, for example, lampooned both the ‘what if phones but too much’ brigade and raised genuine points about our over-reliance on phones, in his recent “Content Provider” tour. Aziz Ansari’s book “Modern Romance” was a witty, even-handed treatment of the ways we’ve succumbed to ‘paralysis of choice’ with dating apps, talking as much about their benefits as their negative points. Fuck, even the new Arctic Monkeys record made some salient points about modern technology and how we respond to it.
Kids have always taken drugs; they will always be enamoured with new technology; they will always create subcultures; they will always, in their way, lead the future. I’m reading Simon Reynolds’ “Rip It Up And Start Again” at the moment (one of the best books about music ever written, for my money), and almost every band he talks about was started by kids in their late teens. Last night Pete Shelley passed away, lead singer of the Buzzcocks, which was met with a flood of tributes; he started the band when he was 21! The youth are bad, until they’re not young, and then they’re legitimate, by which point they’ve probably stopped making art that’s interesting. This hypocrisy runs through our society like a river with piss in it.
The trouble is that simply saying “phones are bad” has replaced any semblance of discourse. And everyone uses phones; everyone. If you’re friends with even one older person on Facebook you’ll see that, if anything, they’re the ones we should be most concerned about, sharing racist memes and fake news articles, spamming the ‘H’ button, getting lost. But the olds are good, they have earned their right to exist un-interrogated. Old good; young bad.
Making points is fine, talking down is not. Starting a discussion is fine, assuming the superior position is not. Being informed is fine, pretending to be is not. Simon Sinek is guilty of all the above, and none of it, and oh how I loathe him.
The people sit, rapturous, in front of him. Say it again, they think, now that they have tuned in. Say it. “Phones” he says, “phones bad”. The harsh glow of the Ted sign behind him, illuminating his smug, bespectacled face. Everyone applauds. “Phones bad- phones bad! Millennials very bad! Old good, young bad! Screens, bad. It’s bad!” Everyone explodes in a cacophony of joyful noise, of glee. He has said the thing, and the thing was good! This is what they wanted, everyone, the thing, the words coming out of his mouth, the words they have paid him to say. Sinek surveys the audience in front of him, their eager eyes drinking in his words, his voice. He commands them like the conductor of an orchestra.
But how does Sinek feel? He draws a blank. He looks inside, at himself, at the flesh vessel he is currently inhabiting. What is there? He flinches, and recoils, instinctively, but then has another look, pushing away the urge to stop. An empty pit, a crevice filled with nothing. These words are received with such sincerity, such earnestness, but does he believe them?
He goes home, and opens his laptop, the warm glow of the screen illuminating the square outline of his face. He checks his bank account. He responds to an email. He feels better. Phones bad? Yes. But- no. Can he? No. Best not to. The fact that he might be wrong crosses his mind guiltily, like a mime running through a battlefield. Then it comes back, stronger this time. Maybe he is wrong. Maybe the only think making millennials feel bad is the systemic and prevalent discourse telling them that they are bad, simply for being.
A pang of guilt, as quick as a thief in the night, and the accompanying thought, scary and clear, unavoidable. As quick as a flash, he thinks;
What if I’m the problem?
Sinek sits back in his chair, and takes a sip from his perfectly chilled Voss water bottle. He mulls this thought over in his head, turning it over and over like an artefact, inspecting it.
What if he’s the problem?
I mean, it would make sense, thinks Sinek. Millennials are just like any other age group. They have good and bad points to them; sure, they are a little stubborn, but their hearts are in the right place. They are one of the first generations to actively put into practice the principle that everyone is equal. They’re big on gay rights, on stopping racism, on lifting up women in the workplace. They talk about these things a lot. As much as social media is used for cat memes, they do a lot of talking about politics. That’s good, right? And they interrogate their own values, too. They’re very conscious of everyone else. Caring too much is better than not caring at all?
And he, himself, he thinks; I sit there, and say about the phones, and the youngs, and the screens, and the fear. They are bad, I say, I think. I think? I do not think, he thinks. I do not know what I think, he thinks. I say about how bad these things are, but I do not offer any solutions, and me saying that they are bad makes them bad.
He thinks, I put these thoughts into people’s heads, and I perpetuate the badness. I say that millennials are being dealt a shit hand, but am I not the one dealing it, or at least arranging the deck? Phones- bad?
He carries these thoughts with him as he switches off his laptop, and brushes his teeth. He looks at himself in the silver-framed mirror in his bathroom, thinking. He gets into bed, and pulls his covers up over him, warm, cosy. He thinks about his future speaking engagements, the flight he’ll have to get tomorrow. Sleep begins to claim him, his mind drifting sporadically into that restful void, inching ever closer. And as he gets too close to avoid it, as his mind drifts into the REM highway, on the precipice of a deep and restful sleep, smiling into his pillow, he thinks to himself;
No. No. It is the kids who are wrong.