I’ve drawn a conclusion. Because our young adults today are growing up in such a different world than the one their parents or employers did, we often see only the downside, rather than the upside of those differences. We can too easily spot how they’ve drifted from a good work ethic, good values and good social skills.
It’s easy for me to do as well.
When youth, however, are engaged in something “real” and “important,” our research tells us that young people—even adolescents—can be stunningly innovative. That’s when they develop the skills they need: when the challenge pulls it out of them.
Did you know that . . .
- Explorer Marco Polo was only 17 years old when he sailed for Asia?
- Mother Teresa was a mere 19 years old when she began her work in India?
- Albert Einstein first penned his theory of relativity at age 19?
- Steven Spielberg was only 16 when he directed his first Indie film?
- Joan of Arc led 3,000 French knights into battle at age 17?
- Louie Braille created an alphabet for the blind at the ripe age of 15?
- Bill Gates started a business at 15, and launched Microsoft at age 20?
Every one of these teenagers embraced a challenge that called out the best in them.
Too often, I meet students today who feel their school classroom is “fake.” It doesn’t feel like anything they plan to grow into as an adult—for a career, a hobby or a problem they hope to solve. I actually heard a very smart college senior tell me he’s not motivated for school because it’s “phony.” It’s not real.
So How Must We Inspire Students?
We’ve got to offer them something real. When I attempt to sift through what was timeless in those young influencers on my list above, I find some skill sets we must replicate today. Our students and young employees will engage when, and perhaps only when, we choose to build these elements into our work with them:
- Crucial ideas.
Perhaps every generation of young adults wants to pursue something they believe is very important and almost impossible. When all we have to offer them is a lecture on an algebraic equation (while it is an important topic), we may lose them. They want to engage with a problem that’s not hypothetical, superficial or artificial if you want their best effort. They need to grapple with important issues.
- Calculated risk.
The adolescent brain is still developing. The portion that registers consequences for poor decisions is still under-developed, but the portion connected to rewards for risky decisions is in full bloom. Youth require the pursuit of a risky goal with no guarantee of its success in order to aid in the healthy development of their brains. This means we must let them fail or fumble along the way. If they’re taking risks over important issues, they usually mature to the challenge.
- Critical thinking.
Every one of those young pioneers in the list above not only took risks, but they were forced to do some critical thinking about their goal. They had to process why their first attempt at solutions didn’t work and what had to happen to meet the challenge. We must push students to evaluate and to scrutinize their own theories and behavior, and not simply buy into the first idea or solution that comes along. They must think deeply.
- Careful planning.
Finally, young people will realize the best version of themselves when they’re forced to step back and plan carefully. We live in a day of impetuous social media posts and short-term thinking. Few people even know how to prepare for the long haul. This is a sacred exercise we can help students with and one that will pay dividends in their future. They must have projects big enough to require deep thinking and planning.
Today’s world of Netflix, Instagram and Snapchat has the potential to keep them on the “surface,” not allowing them to think deeply. Let’s lead them well. Who knows, you may have the next great influencer in front of you this fall.
Looking to develop leadership skills in your students? Check out
Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes
Habitudes helps students and young team members:
- Break out of the herd mentality to influence others in positive ways.
- Take initiative and set the pace for other teammates.
- Overcome complex problems through creative persistence.
- Capitalize on personal strengths to be career-ready upon graduation.