In today's society, the portrait of Millennials is not always pretty. At a time when many reality stars and young media figures have made being gainfully unemployed and stuck in a purgatory between adolescence and adulthood an enviable success in itself, 25-year-old 2010 U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist Evan Lysacek is a refreshing anomaly. The world-class figure skater and Dancing with the Stars finalist, who has just been nominated for Sports Illustrated's "Sportsman of the Year" award, is humble, self-effacing and doggedly determined.
"I love to work," Evan tells me with a sheepish laugh, almost as if he knows it sounds a little too prudish and straight-laced. But there's nothing insincere about Evan's life philosophy of always giving a 100 percent. He's someone who sacrificed his childhood to pursue an enormous goal, and accomplished it by 24.
It's 6 a.m. when I reach Evan by phone, and he's struggling through an airport subway in Las Vegas. Despite the hour, he sounds buoyant and engaging, apologizing profusely about the intermittent airline announcements and asking about my family. He's traveling to Cleveland, OH to perform in an ice show for cancer awareness orchestrated by his mentor, 1984 U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist Scott Hamilton. After his performance there, he'll re-join the venerable Smucker's Stars on Ice tour for the next five months.
These days, Evan can be in a different city every day. Adapting to a nomadic existence has been a difficult transition for a young man who meticulously planned out every day, week and month of his life around a structured framework developed to help him reach his dream of winning the Olympic gold medal in men's figure skating, a sport he began at age 8.
"I'm actually trying to be a little more 'Millennial' lately... I keep telling myself to live in the 'now' and savor each moment, instead of constantly worrying about what I'm going to do next. I'm so appreciative of being able to do what I love every day in this economy."
Call him a "Millennial-in-training." But despite already having accomplished the goal of a lifetime, Evan has a deep respect for his generation -- their nascent creativity and open-mindedness, as well as the daunting challenges many twenty-somethings face in a volatile job market. "Do you know there are only 60 jobs for every 4,000 business school graduates," Evan tells me.
This concern has propelled him to partner with Deloitte & Touche and the U.S. Olympic Committee to speak to students at the University of Michigan and Columbia University business school about the lessons he's learned.
Natalia Brzezinski: What kind of advice do you give young people?
Evan Lysacek: Creating your own niche and being irreplaceable is important. But nothing is more vital than being well-prepared. My life philosophy is to give 100 percent, every ounce of your existence to a goal. As a skater I wasn't deemed the most talented. People would say, 'you're not naturally gifted and you're not the best, but you do work hard' and that motivated me.
In 2009, I won the World Championships. It was the pinnacle of my career, and leading up to the 2010 U.S. Championships I felt great. I had had an amazing season and thought it'd be my big send-off, a walk in the park. It was a disaster. I skated horribly and all the self-doubt came flooding back. On top of it, there's a superstition that the reigning World Champion never wins the Olympic title so that was in my mind too. I was in an extremely fragile state.
The U.S. Figure Skating training program set up a little haven for the Olympic team for the first 7 days of the 30 days between the National Championships and the Olympic Games in Spokane, WA. They had everything an athlete could dream of--sports psychologists, trainers, nutritionists... but after my poor performance, I literally snuck out of the camp and got on the first plane to LA. I went straight to the rink from the airport. It wasn't even open and they had to turn on the lights for me. I was feeling utter panic. The Olympics were a month away and the enormity of it all was beginning to get to me.
I barely remember tying up my skates, but when I got on the ice and felt the wind slapping my face it was as if the world lit up again. My whole life -- all of the training, the early mornings, the successes and failures -- flashed through my mind. I skated for 6 hours that day, with only a fifteen minute break. I was so tired when I finished that I could barely take my skates off.
That's when I knew, this feeling, this was my 100 percent. And I'd give it every single day leading up to the Games. Looking back, that was my Olympic moment. Not hearing the roar of the crowds or feeling the weight of gold around my neck, but in a dark rink, alone, with no spectators, I found what I was made of. It's my proudest moment. This is what I want to express to my generation. When everything is looking bad, when you want to quit and are completely demoralized, give it all you've got and keep going.
What was unique about growing up as a Millennial?:
There was much more open-mindedness about career paths when we were growing up, and I attribute much of my success to that. In school, movies, really everywhere, the message to kids was, 'you can do anything if you put your mind to it.' I think if I'd grown up in my parents' generation, there may not have been as much acceptance or enthusiasm about my crazy pipe dream. I give a lot of credit to my parents and their generation. People say Millennials are dreamers, but our parents were the original dreamers. They laid the brick for us to strive.
Many opinion-makers today are giving a harsh critique of Millennials. In particular, some say they're unmotivated and unwilling to sacrifice instant gratification for future pay-off. Do you agree with that?
I don't agree with that. I see a lot of eagerness in Millennials. They're incredibly creative and industrious with big ideas and the guts to execute them, even if it means leaving school or failing the first or second time. I admire that many Millennials won't just sit around in a job they hated for years. They're activists. This may be something that sets the generations apart. I think the reason some older generations don't always understand us is because we embrace a very different mindset when it comes to career. We want to create our own jobs, have dynamic and diverse professional experiences... Millennials are always looking for their next career path. I'm looking for mine path right now too.
We are the Internet generation. The first group to come-of-age in a time ensconced in technology. I remember exactly where I was when AOL first came onto the scene (I was 11 and immediately tried to go into a chat room to my parents' horror) or when Facebook emerged (I was studying abroad in Copenhagen, DK and everyone was clamoring to become a member). But the Internet definitely has its ugly sides too, and increasingly young people are seeing that. What are your thoughts on the Internet and how it's shaping youth today?
Truthfully, I have a love-hate relationship with it. It's great when you want to be accessible, but when you want to disappear you can't. If you make the decision to be out there, you're really out there for good. There's nowhere to hide! I do Twitter, which I like. But when you only have 140 characters to express something, it can be misconstrued or taken out of context. You just have to hope people have trust in the person you are.
One of the sick things about the Internet is that people can really say whatever lie about you they want with very little reprobation. As you said, when it's out there it's out there. How do you deal with the publicity, especially the negative aspects?
It's important to ignore as much as possible. The unique thing about Millennials is that we aren't completely reliant on social media, unlike many people think, and actually distrust it a little. We didn't grow up only knowing a world with Internet. We like it, but don't base our entire identities in it. Knowing that gives me a much healthier perspective on the gossip.
But what about those kids growing up now who only know a cyber-world, do you worry about them?
I do worry. For Millennials, Facebook was something you did with friends you already had. But some teenagers now have a completely separate cyber social life, apart from reality. And sometimes that social life becomes more important or organic than their social life in the real world. When something bad happens, like we have tragically seen with the suicide at Rutgers University, their entire life falls apart.
Who do you look up to?
I've always admired athletes, like Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer. Their respectfulness strikes me; respect toward elders, respect toward the sport and themselves. That's something missing today. With the eagerness and big dreams in some Millennials, can also come arrogance. Sports taught me respect. Respect for the rules, for the history of the sport, and having respect pays off.
Do you ever feel like you missed out on a childhood by sacrificing so much of it to skating?
To some extent, there's a phase of life I completely missed... the carefree time. My entire life was built around structure. I put a lot of pressure on myself at an extremely young age. But ultimately, I feel fortunate to have been imbued with a strong sense of structure early on because if you don't get it as a child, you don't get it in your adult and professional life. That structure, and the goals and planning I put into it, are what got me my Olympic dream.
What do you see as something that's "so Millennial?"
The "get rich quick" or "famous overnight" mentality. In a way it's positive because your idea can be the next big thing. But if you get success too quickly you won't appreciate it.
Also, reality TV. That's so "Millennial"! I don't really relate to the voyeurism phenomenon. Why would you want to let cameras into your life? For what? What are people after? There's an obsession with fame out there, but the thing is when they achieve the money or fame, do they leave the reality TV spectrum? Not usually. I guess it's all part of the openness and opportunity in our society which is positive. There may be thousands of "Snooki's" in New Jersey, with a similar look or attitude, but one of them went for it and has made her crazy scheme successful. That's great.
Didn't you do a reality show? You were a finalist on Dancing with the Stars.
Yes, you're right. But I saw that as more of a competition. It was an amazing experience.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I can't answer that. It's a scary thought. I like to go through life feeling like I'm on a specific path; sometimes I feel like I've gone from an extremely exacting approach to life to waking up at 25 and finally being a true dreamer, a Millennial. I'm really thankful to be a Millennial because of the accepting and open attitudes of my generation. I don't know exactly where I'm going, but I have dreams. And that's okay. It's a great place to be.