With the emergence of technology on portable devices and social media, there is a new kind of relationship pattern emerging with students today. “Generation iY” (which makes up the second half of Gen. Y) faces a new dilemma. You might call it the “artificial relationship.”

photo credit: Billie Hara via photopin cc

photo credit: Billie Hara via photopin cc

Finding out that someone doesn’t love you anymore is hard—not hearing anything at all is even harder. Getting coffee at Starbucks to tell them you no longer want to see them is painful—but not responding to a text is tacky. Breaking up is difficult, but not really every breaking up is messing up a generation.

Sound familiar?

As I meet with high school and college students, I am discovering a pattern in their relationships. I ask them to think about their last relationship. Maybe it was just a hookup, or maybe it was something deeper, but I ask them to reflect on how it matured over time—how it began, progressed and ended. The response I get from students who saw connections just evaporate (with no real closure) was overwhelming. In fact, their emotional pain was greater than the students who began and ended dating relationships with clear communication.

The big question is: Is the relationship even real if no one says goodbye?

Lauren Martin (who is a journalist and a Millennial herself) writes graphically about this emerging challenge:

There’s no denying that we live in the age of the unformed relationship. There’s no denying that we’re dating in a shallow, text-based world. There’s no denying that our relationships aren’t relationships at all.

We’re dating over platforms before meeting in person and connecting over messaging machines rather than face to face. We’re entering half-assed relationships and ending them with even less attention. Most of our relationships are over before we can say we know what that person looked like.

We’re just not responding, not answering and not giving a ****. We’re throwing our hearts at the first person who direct messages us, then taking them back at the first sign of something better.

The problem with today’s dating culture is that there isn’t one. There’s a hook-up culture, and within that hook-up culture, there’s shallow, biased and surface feelings that we’re trying to use to get away from the real ones.

We’re guarding ourselves so that we never really have to face that inevitable heartbreak that almost always comes with every relationship. We’re refusing to enter real relationships, and we’re also refusing to officially end any of them.

By constantly keeping people on back burners, refusing to end things with real closure and never starting or stopping on any real terms is more damaging than experiencing the heart-wrenching pain of a real, honest breakup.

Because at least with the pain of a terrible and sad ending, there’s the hope of a fresh start.

Building Good Social Habits in Students

May I suggest something?

In times past, every generation of young adults had to learn how to handle the pain of initiating, cultivating and sometimes ending a serious relationship. (Think about it: if you dated ten people in college, you can only marry one, so you had at least ten breakups). The problem today is—we adults have never had to train kids to sustain relationships through a portable device. Kids are learning poor habits.

Let me suggest some tips to pass on to students about handling relationships:

  1. If a relationship begins online that you want to deepen, take the step to progress toward a face-to-face introduction as soon as possible.
  2. Never share emotion digitally. Texts and Facebook posts are for information, not for depth. Emotionally-filled communication should be face to face.
  3. Social media is great for updates on your life, but don’t consider all the people who “follow you” as friends. Friends are people who you actually see.
  4. Dating relationships can’t be authentic if they are only done online. You may disagree, but up till now, we’ve not been able to navigate true depth digitally. We are social creatures who were made for interpersonal relationships.
  5. Genuine relationships have beginnings; they involved two or more people working to cultivate the relationship by investing emotionally in it. And if need be, they end with an encounter that defines the relationship. Too many people are left wondering as they wander through their connections.

As Lauren Martin points out, “Without this ending, without ever getting that closure we need, we’re refusing to let ourselves ever enter into something without carrying along our past five ‘failed’, still open, never-ended ‘relationships.’”

What do you think about this trend?

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I just did one of the most clumsy, stupid things I’ve done in years. The night it happened, I experienced a combination of pain and embarrassment. I’m not sure if my body…or my ego…was more bruised.

My family and I were attending a wedding in Huntsville, Alabama. My wife Pam was coordinating the wedding, so she had the car. It was dinnertime, and my daughter, Bethany, and I were hungry, so we decided to walk a mile and a half to the nearest restaurant. So far, so good.

As you may know, however, by 5:30 pm in November, Alabama is dark, and as it was 6:00 pm when we started walking, the sun had already gone down. Fortunately, Bethany told me not to worry—she had a flashlight on her iPhone. So for the first ten minutes, we walked by the light of her phone. Still, so far, so good.

Near the end of our walk, we reached a busy boulevard we needed to cross. While this was a wide parkway with lots of cars speeding by, I was confident both Bethany and I could run across and meet up safely on the other side. I would be fine without her phone—and her help. Fixing my eyes on the destination, I spotted a gap in the traffic and took off in a sprint.

That’s when the night got painful.

Racing across the parkway, my eyes still fixed on the end goal, I suddenly felt my legs come out from beneath me… and before I could blink, my face slammed into the cold, hard ground. I felt like I’d been tackled in a football game with no pads or helmet on. What I had failed to notice was the large, ravine-like depression in the middle of the median, between the lanes of the parkway. With adrenaline rushing through my body, I yelled back to warn Bethany, picked myself up, and limped to the other side of the road.

photo credit: Browns Pond 2011 via photopin cc

photo credit: Browns Pond 2011 via photopin cc

When Bethany reached the other side and looked at me, she didn’t know whether to laugh or gasp. My forehead, nose and cheek were bleeding, and pain was shooting through my arm, hands and face. Bethany ran to grab paper towels from a nearby car wash and was soon nursing me back to independence. Needless to say, that little accident became the source of laughter, chiding and acute pain for the next several days. I even had to wear make up for the video shoots and speaking events I did the following week. Ugh. What a bonehead.

What Was My Problem?

What happened on that boulevard was a vivid reminder of the lessons I need in my life as a leader:

  1. I was so completely focused on the end goal, I missed the ravine along the way. I firmly believe leaders must see the big picture and help people concentrate on the target they shoot for as a team. The mistake I can make, however, is to become so focused on the goal, I miss both ravines and rewards along the way. Effective leaders find a way to fix their eyes on both the destination and the details along the way. This means learning to pause and celebrate when appropriate, calibrate when needed, and coordinate their team’s effort to make progress.
  2. I was so certain I could cross that parkway without any light or help that I became blind to the challenges I would face. I needed light, and I needed to collaborate with my daughter who held the light in her hand. But my self-assured ego can get in the way—not only on dark nights, but also on dark and challenging days at work. Lasting leaders must learn to combine both confidence and humility, acknowledging when they need others to shed some light on the path to help reach the goal. Healthy leaders must be “humbitious”—both humble and ambitious.
  3. I was so ready to run toward the goal that I didn’t think through the price of my journey. I took off before Bethany did, who calmly waited for more cars to pass and for a time she could insure her phone was ready to light the road along the way. The night was just as dark for her, but she navigated it far better by preparing a bit more before taking off on the journey. Just like a wise traveler asks the taxi cab driver how much the ride will cost before getting into the cab, good leaders count the cost before embarking on the journey.

Simple lessons from a painful evening crossing a simple street. May my pain help you avoid pain and embarrassment on your path. Don’t miss what’s in front of you.

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Oregon quarterback, Marcus Mariota, is one of the nicest college athletes you’ll ever meet. His talent is unquestioned, as this year’s winner of the Heisman trophy. His teammates talk, however, about how restrained he is; how he picks up his own and other people’s trash on the ground; how he hands out food to homeless guys on the streets; how he encourages people; and how he volunteers at a Boys and Girls Club each week. He has a habit of holding the door open for strangers. Stories of his graciousness are ubiquitous. He thanks fans for appreciating him every single game. And to top it all off, when he gets sacked in a game, he often gets up and pats his tackler on the shoulder, saying, “Nice hit.”

photo credit: mikemac29 via photopin cc

photo credit: mikemac29 via photopin cc

These character traits have scouts and others questioning whether Marcus has the “killer” instinct to play in the NFL. One anonymous pro scout even suggested in Sports Illustrated last month that Mariota might be “too nice.”

All of this leads to a very important question: All talent being equal, is a killer instinct the most important trait an athlete can possess?

What’s More Important Than a Competitive Spirit or “Killer Instinct”?

Please understand that I get the importance of a competitive spirit— or what some call the “killer instinct.” I realize it can give one player an emotional edge over another who doesn’t have it. And let’s face it:. emotions play a huge role, especially in college athletics. They can work for you or against you.

Which is exactly my point here.

I believe Marcus Mariota might possess something even more important than an emotional killer instinct. If you watch him, you have no doubt he’s a competitor. In fact, at one point this season, when he felt his teammates were not playing up to the standard of excellence they agreed upon, he got in their faces and challenged them in an unmistakably vocal way.

But Marcus possesses something more valuable than a killer instinct: control.

In a world where few can control their emotions (and often become slaves to them), Mariota seems to have mastered his, which allows him to both pick up trash others have left on the ground, or stay poised late in the fourth quarter after he’s been sacked and go on to throw a perfect touchdown pass. To master oneself is of utmost importance. Self-control in all situations is what Marines and Navy Seals teach their members. It’s level-headed self-leadership at its finest, to keep your head in every circumstance. Consider this: to play with emotion can boost drive and performance, but it can also lead to behavior that’s out of control. It’s a crapshoot. The killer instinct can lead to scores—or it can lead to penalties, injuries, conflict, misbehavior and even crime.

So a controlled spirit is more valuable than a competitive spirit. It can fight and win… or it can contain itself when needed. Psychologists call it emotional intelligence—the ability to manage one’s emotions. You see it in so many great athletes: Tim Duncan in the NBA, Peyton Manning in the NFL, and Derek Jeter in the MLB, who retired this year having never been ejected from a game. Each one of these players has the respect of teammates and opponents alike.

The Four Ingredients in a Controlled Spirit

Athletes who develop a controlled spirit possess these four traits:

  1. Self-discipline
    They can do what they must, even when they don’t feel like it.
  1. Emotional Security
    They’re inwardly secure and don’t need to compare or get defensive.
  1. Core Values or Principles
    They live by a set of timeless principles that helps them make decisions easier.
  1. Clear Identity
    They have a strong sense of identity and know their strengths and weakness.

I have no doubt Marcus Mariota has a competitive spirit. You can’t be ranked in the top five football teams in the country (or win the Heisman Trophy) without having one. I just believe his controlled spirit is what makes him most valuable.


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A college instructor (who is also a mom) recently reminded me of an interesting change she’s made in her communication habits. Four years ago, she shifted from emailing her students to communicating via Facebook. She also admitted that instead of calling them, she began texting them. She smiled as she acknowledged the latest shift she’s made. She now uses Instagram to contact students on campus, since fewer are on Facebook these days. Students are a moving target, and she’s attempting to keep up.

So what do these shifts mean to us, as we attempt to lead them?

photo credit: Simon Bramwell via photopin cc

photo credit: Simon Bramwell via photopin cc

First of all, you should know that recent research from Baylor University indicates students are spending close to half their waking hours on their smart phones. Texting was, by far, the activity students said they spend the most time doing, and although guys and girls send about the same number of texts, females spend more time reading and writing them. E-mailing from their phones was next, followed by Facebook (or another social networking site), browsing the Internet, and listening to music.

Baylor researchers found that women average more time on social media and on communication in general. Women dominate Pinterest in particular and say they use it about 26 minutes a day, compared to men’s one minute. Women also spent three times as long using Instagram, but men spent almost twice as much time playing games.

Second, research has shown that all this screen time is likely to take a toll on their health. A 2013 study from Kent State University showed that students who spent the most time on their cell phones tended to be the least physically active and performed the worst on treadmill exertion tests.

These kinds of studies emerge on a regular basis, and continue to confirm our concerns for our students. As technology expands, their people skills, social intelligence, resilience, patience and perseverance decline. Although we are convinced students have it in them to grow strong in each of these disciplines, technology makes it increasingly difficult.

The Law of Reciprocals

You remember studying reciprocals in math class, don’t you? They are simply inverted numbers (or upside down fractions). Similarly, reciprocal behavior occurs when someone chooses to do the opposite of what they’ve previously done — a sort of reversal of conduct, if they didn’t achieve their desired results. So, here’s an exercise you can do with students ages 12 to 24. Start a conversation about their current REALITY, the undesirable RESULTS, and then what a RECIPROCAL behavior could be to change the outcome. For example:

REALITY: Female college students report using them an average of 10 hours a day. Male students reported nearly eight hours of daily use.

RESULT: Talk about how using their phone for half their waking hours affects them, positively or negatively. Do they notice what all the hours on a screen are doing to their relational skills, their patience, or their soft skills?

RECIPROCAL: Now discuss: How could they engage in the opposite behavior to achieve a different result? For instance, what if they intentionally set up meetings with their friends face-to-face? What if they took a “technology fast” for an entire day?

Here’s another example:

REALITY: College women said they spent an average of 105 minutes texting each day, making it the most time-intensive activity. Men averaged 84 minutes. Both genders spent about half as much time e-mailing from their phones.

RESULT: Talk about how our social skills seem to be declining—people break up with girlfriends or boyfriends with a text message, or have emotional conversations on a screen instead of face to face. Have they experienced this type of behavior or seen how this affects their friends?

RECIPROCAL: Now discuss: What if they limited themselves to a set number of hours on a screen? Or what if they balanced screen time with in-person time?

You get the idea. The more students understand these principles now, the better equipped they’ll be to balance technology as they grow up.

Are there any other REALITIES you can think of that students need to discuss?

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Yesterday, I alluded to the fact that adults today put pressure on kids… but often in the wrong places. Students feel pushed to keep score on academics, sports and social media—none of which are evil, but all of which are impractical areas for youth to be pressured. As a child enters their teen years, they actually have it in them to accomplish significant, real-world outcomes. Just look at teens a hundred years ago, or more: Thomas Edison was managing a telegraph office at 15; Mother Teresa began serving the poor at 19; Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Italy at 26; and Thomas Jefferson was still a young man when crafting the Declaration of Independence. The challenges were real-life, meaningful and important.

Consider this. As adolescents mature, their desire expands to demonstrate:

  • Autonomy – “I want to do this independently. I am my own person.”
  • Abstract Thinking – “I want to think outside of the concrete box.”
  • Ability – “I want to try my hand at new things to test my strengths.”

Sadly, it seems that all we give to millions of students today are virtual ways to experience these things…

  • Middle- and upper-middle class homes give teens autonomy without proportionate responsibility, creating brats as they enter adulthood. (Many get cars, clothes and gadgets without learning to pay for them.)
  • Their abstract thinking, which begins expanding during adolescence, has no good place to go to express itself. We dumb down the tasks to insure a happy kid with good self-esteem.
  • We fear for their safety, so we often don’t give them a chance to explore their abilities in projects that really matter. We give them contrived projects in a classroom.

It’s no wonder so many teens experience such confusion and angst as they age. We have created a virtual world for them that doesn’t sufficiently enable them to mature in a healthy way.

And the worst part is that this trend has been growing for nearly three decades.

What Negative Pressure Does

A 1988 study reported that although the under-18 population declined from 1980 to 1984, adolescent admissions to private psychiatric hospitals in that time period increased by 450 percent! What’s more, the study suggests three realities: First, a growing sense of negative emotions in teens; second, a staggering cultural tendency for applying mental health care to any problem life presents; and third, a rise in negative feelings toward adolescence—we began to consider students’ struggle a disease.

It is my belief that young adults want to solve problems, but if our culture only offers them virtual outlets to do this—like video games, social media, sports or classroom projects—they often become adrenaline junkies. (Please understand—I don’t believe these outlets are bad, just facsimiles of the real world).

The bottom line? If we don’t call out the best in students, they frequently wander into trouble, negative emotions, or narcissism.

Pressure in the Right Place


The answer, of course, is not to remove all pressure from our adolescents. With no pressure, people become weak, lazy and often lack ambition. Instead, I believe the answer is to right-size the pressure and place it appropriately. When a young adult is given a meaningful and genuine (real world) problem to solve, they come alive. When that problem aligns with the gifts they possess, they become passionate, and suddenly, their incentive to listen to lectures or read books that enable them to solve the problem goes up. Their application of autonomy, abstract thinking and abilities forms a positive pressure instead of a negative one. So what do we do?

  1. Talk this issue over with your students.
    Discuss positive and negative pressure and what it does to them emotionally.
  1. Help them remove negative, self-imposed pressures.
    List items that create destructive emotion or angst and help them cut what they can.
  1. Ask them to take a week and study the problems our world faces today.
    Have them watch the news or go on-line and get familiar with current events.
  1. Challenge them to identify one real-world problem that intrigues them.
    Help them spot a problem that matches their passions and gifts. Talk about it.
  1. Ask them: If you were in charge of solving this problem, what would you do?
    Encourage them to take this on as a project and see what becomes of it.

Over the years, I have met teachers, leaders, coaches and youth workers who’ve helped students transfer their attention from negative to positive pressure. As a result, not only are those students rescued from the wasting time on irrelevant pursuits, but they come alive as they apply autonomy, abstract thinking and abilities to something that matters.

What are your thoughts on negative and positive pressure?

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