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What to Do with a Distracted Generation

Eleven years ago, I remember speaking to a large auditorium of university students. Social media had just arrived on the scene, so students were becoming distracted by their smart phones. As I stood to the side of the auditorium, I observed students reading magazines, staring down at their phones, or relaxed with their eyes closed and earbuds in—appearing completely apathetic about my topic that day.

My topic was about leadership.

What I recall most was what took place afterward. Those seemingly distant college students approached me, one by one, wanting to talk about leadership. They had somehow heard me, even though I would’ve never guessed it from their faces.

Take Heart

Every parent, teacher or coach has interacted with students who appeared completely preoccupied with their own little world. For centuries, mothers have repeated instructions to their children only to have those kids fail to follow through on what they were asked to do. Students today are truly a part of a “distracted generation.”

For those of you who are disheartened by this—I have a reminder.

When you teach a concept to students repeatedly, you are establishing a “file” in their minds. In fact, all of our past experiences, especially when young, inform our model of the world through these files. When they’re repeated, neuroscientists remind us they form neuropathways in our brains. In his book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, former professor Leonard Mlodinow, confirms this fact, suggesting that constant input even dictates our memories. Our memory of a particular situation is colored by how our neuropathways are set up, from selecting perpetrators in a criminal line up to what happened at the family picnic last summer.

In his article, How You Know, Paul Graham reminds us, “Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.”

Haven’t we all found ourselves doing or saying something, and then realized: I guess I do that because my mom always did that when I was growing up?

How Should This Inform Our Leadership?

1.  This encourages me to not lose heart.

Don’t give up on teaching important concepts to the next generation of kids. Even when it appears to you that they’re not “getting it,” the input is being filed away inside of them. When it’s repeated, a neuropathway is likely created.

2. This reminds me I must take advantage of early conditioning.

The younger a student is, the more deeply they will be impressed by good conditioning and habits of thought. During their K-12 years, we must double check in making sure they learn social, emotional learning and life skills.

3. This teaches me to leverage epiphanies as I communicate.

While you are teaching or parenting kids, choose a topic once in a while that could be an epiphany for them—a new idea that could change the way they view life. Make it memorable by using images and creative experiences.

4. This motivates me to repeat what’s most important.

Repeated experiences at home or school become “norms” for students. That’s why we must be intentional about what models we help them create. What gets reinforced gets repeated in their behavior and vocabulary.

This is why I don’t lose heart.

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What to Do with a Distracted Generation