Boy, were we ever wrong. I'm sorry to report that for years now we've been misleading our kids, as well as the young adults who work for us, about certain attitudes, ideas, and life skills we've assumed were effective and reliable, and written, like gospel, in stone. But decades of nonstop, self-congratulatory conferences, unending TED and TEDx lectures, the entrepreneurial liturgy, the adulatory business press, and, of course, celebratory films, TV shows, and other media have led all of us -- employers, parents, and kids -- woefully astray.
Or maybe it's just that the world has changed so quickly and radically that we haven't been able to keep up because we've been squandering what little attention we can spare with our noses collectively stuck in our phones following social media and cheap, crooked, and performative politics.
We need to admit that it's the next generation or two, both at home and at work, who are likely to pay a heavy price for our misplaced certainty that all tech advances are terrific, and the moral obliviousness that tech is simply an innocent and neutral tool.
We're engaged in a mindshare battle and we're losing, because none of our educational, industrial, or governmental entities is properly equipped, philosophically prepared, or adequately incented to fight for our kids.
Unless we as parents, managers, and business owners start taking some aggressive steps to change the valueless messaging that floods every online channel and update the role models ceaselessly flaunted before our children, we will lose all control of the relevant conversations.
We'll simply be passive and impotent observers who completely surrender our kids' futures to the omnipresent and utterly uncontrolled cancer of algorithmic manipulation driven solely by greed and commercial considerations.
We need to move immediately to reenter the conversations around three primary ideas.
(1) Self-Confidence Versus Resilience
We've told the world that the most critical capability we need to nurture in our kids is abundant and unflinching confidence. That talent and hard work are no substitutes for self-confidence. It's the pervasive power of positive thinking. We set up systems so that the kids are all winners all the time. Trophies for Tommy and Tammy. And, if things took a little longer to develop than planned, well then you just fake it till you make it.
But we weren't launching our offspring on life's journey with a genuine grounding, some serious values, and a firm foundation. We were building in levels of delusion, a belief system based on shortcuts and side deals, along with eggshell fragility and emotional rigidity that risked making millions of them wholly incapable of dealing with the inevitable setbacks and disappointments, which are just as important to maturity, growth, and ultimate success as winning.
Instead of constantly pitching confidence, we should have been preaching persistence, perseverance, and, above all, resilience. Getting up, getting over things, getting on with it, and getting back into the game. In a word, G.R.I.T.: guts, resilience, initiative, and tenacity.
(2) Single-Mindedness Versus Optionality
We also taught that everything was about a narrow and powerful focus -- a single-mindedness and unstinting effort addressed to an identified goal, which was make-or-break, and which had every bit as much to do with your own self-worth as it did with the prospects of the business. It's a winner-take-all world and almost any means justifies the end as long as you win.
But we know now that fierce focus can be too much of a good thing. Blinders, shortsightedness, ignorance of collateral damage and secondary effects, a constant pressure to be bigger rather than better, moving recklessly and too quickly, and taking things so personally that you lost sight of far too many other things of equal or greater importance.
What we need to be telling the teens and the teams today is that it's all about optionality, choices, alternative plans, and widening the consideration sets rather than doubling down and putting all your eggs (as well as your own self-esteem) in one basket. We can't have our kids fold up and collapse at the first hiccup because they weren't prepared practically and emotionally to roll with the punches and to quickly and seamlessly move on to Plan B or C.
The best advice today is not to fall in love with your plan, your vision, or your numbers -- at least until the market and the customers join the party and demonstrate a willingness to stick around. Building and constantly maintaining a basketful of options, working on several alternative approaches at the same time, and having the courage and the discipline to slow down, consider all the possible options, look carefully and continually at the real numbers, and be willing to change directions when necessary is the very best way to prepare for the unavoidable and inevitable failure of some of the very best laid plans. This lets young people learn to bend effectively with changes rather than breaking abruptly as soon as things don't go their way.
(3) DIY Versus Help Wanted
In the old John Wayne world and in today's Marvel Universe, it's always about the solitary hero -- the one-man band -- who gets the job done and single-handedly saves the world or whatever. Even in the most precarious and dire of straits, we don't show our kids that it's smart for the hero to ask for help. It's always a last resort rather than top of mind, and that may be great storytelling, but it's a stupid real-world strategy. And, worse yet, since our kids have never been permitted to "fail," they're unprepared, ill-equipped, and basically unable to ask for assistance even when they desperately need it. And don't think for a minute that it's not the same situation in most of our businesses.
We're told that asking for help is a hindrance and a sign of weakness, and that unfortunate message is everywhere. Sara Bareilles says she's "broken but won't ask for help," and of course we see the peer stigma and parental denial and their direct impact on growing teenage mental issues and suicides. Kids don't share their fears and concerns today -- at least, they don't tell their parents or other adults. They don't even cry out loud -- they just die. Employees see plenty, but they're reluctant or afraid to speak up even when we ask. In every case, the fear of embarrassment and the peer pressure issues are simply too much to overcome.
Here again, what needs to be done is no mystery. We tell our business teams that there are only two kinds of failures that are unrecoverable: failing to ask for help and failing to help when asked. We need to tell our teens the same thing. We can't help everyone, but everyone can help someone. The best entrepreneurs know that asking for help isn't giving up or giving in -- it's refusing to give up. And, frankly, if we really want to equip our kids and our young employees with the tools to succeed, we need to teach them to ask for help early and often, and that there's no shame in the asking because these days nobody succeeds by themself.
It takes strength and courage to ask for help. You need to be realistic, face the facts, and stop kidding yourself. You need to put your ego and pride aside. You need to forget about what friends and family will think. And you need to understand that "I need help" may actually be the bravest words that anyone can say.