Talking with A new voice for millennials: Adam Smiley Poswolsky

Name: Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky

Age: 30

City: San Francisco

Occupation: Author of the book “The Quarter-Life Breakthrough”

Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky               photo/Kara Brodgesell

J.: Where did you live before San Francisco?

Adam Poswolsky: I grew up in Cambridge, Mass., [then] went to college at Wesleyan and studied film. When I got out, I moved to New York and worked as a freelance location scout for films for a few years. Then I moved to Buenos Aires to work for a film festival; I wanted to travel and learn Spanish. And then I moved to a town east of Indianapolis to be a field organizer for the Obama campaign in 2008. After the campaign, a lot of people who worked on it decided to move to Washington, D.C., so I moved there, too, and got a job at the Peace Corps headquarters.

J.: But it turns out that wasn’t what you wanted to do. Would you say your book “The Quarter-Life Breakthrough,” due out in early 2014, is about your decision to leave and start over?

AP: In part, yes. It was a good job at a great organization, but I really wasn’t fulfilled by the work. I was 28, and I realized I had kind of just followed the dominoes to a career in D.C., but I hadn’t done a lot of introspection about “What do I really want? What am I good at? What makes me come alive?” So part of the book is about finding out what makes you come alive, what will help you make the impact you want to make on the world — no matter what your parents, or your friends, or anyone says.

So basically I moved to San Francisco, without any kind of plan. I wound up working at this program called the Bold Academy, which does coaching and leadership development for millennials. I started talking to people in their 20s and 30s about their journeys, collecting stories.

J.: What did you discover?

AP: I like to think of the book as a rebuttal to the current arguments about millennials, that we’re lazy, we’re entitled, we’re addicted to Facebook. Which may be true! (Laughs) I can be lazy, I can be addicted to Facebook, I’m in debt — all these things can be true, and yet they don’t define my life. What defines my life is a desire to find purpose and create value for others, and make an impact on the world around me, and I heard something similar from so many people.

J.: Why do you think your generation gets such a bad rap?

AP: I think a lot of older adults misunderstand millennials. Something like 50 percent of 20-somethings in the U.S. are unemployed or underemployed. There simply aren’t the number of jobs or the caliber of jobs that were available 20 or 30 years ago, and a different economy leads to a different set of priorities. Young people are living with roommates longer, not buying homes for longer. They’re not attached to jobs the way their parents might have been — like, this is your career, and it lets you own a house and two cars, and you progress through it and that’s that. We’re going to be going on these mini-journeys for our whole lives, and we need more playbooks for that.

J.: So is this a self-help book?

AP: In some ways. I read a ton of self-help books while I was writing it, just to know what was out there. A lot of times, with books like this, they’ll have case studies of billionaires: “Mark Zuckerberg did this, Bill Gates did that.” And I feel like a loser when I read those books! First of all, I don’t want to be Mark Zuckerberg. I’m probably not going to invent something like [a new technology]. So I wanted to interview people who were real, average, 20- and 30-somethings who had some successes, but who also failed here and there, who had screwed up at points. I was surprised that nearly everyone I talked to admitted to having gone through a complete 180, to having changed course multiple times throughout those years.

J.: You’ve been out here for a little over a year now. Do you think you’re a Californian for good?

AP: Honestly, I’m a neurotic East Coaster at heart. I love San Francisco and it’s good for my soul, but long-term I probably see myself back in New York or Boston. I miss the pace of life.

As for food, I’m a Second Avenue Deli man at heart. My grandma used to live nearby [in New York’s Greenwich Village], and getting takeout from the Second Avenue Deli was our Thanksgiving tradition. But while I’m here — Wise Sons does an excellent pastrami on rye.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.