I honestly try, for substantial periods of time, to remain calm; to be a good sport and, where necessary, to even bite my tongue as young entrepreneurs and their often younger employees lecture me in a painfully patronizing fashion on a multitude of subjects in which they lack expertise, experience, and, most of all, the slightest bit of empathy. These deficiencies do not stand in their way. They're so sure of themselves and their positions that they don't have the patience to consider any other views, approaches, or opinions. I now inhabit an upside-down world, where the ignorant are certain and those with open minds and the willingness to study and learn are unsure of what the future holds. Often wrong, but never in doubt.
Having built more than a dozen successful startups over five decades, I've had thousands of employees of every size and shape. And I've had too many conversations to count where I've told key team members to slow down, prioritize their efforts, and even to get out of the office for a couple of days until people can stand to be around them again. I'm not a work-life balance guy -- I think there's no real separation, and that if you're happy at work, you'll be happy at home and vice versa. But I do often remind my best players that there's always more work, and that you've only got one family and it requires as much attention as anything else you're doing.
Today, I miss those issues. Because I've never encountered such a wave of entitled "workers" who want to talk about feelings and philosophy and do anything but work. Interviews these days are like Alice in Wonderland fantasy sessions where the questions are all about whether your workplace is right for the new hires. Whether it's a sufficiently warm and cuddly place for them to make a nice nest for themselves. And don't get me started on whether your politics and values live up to their grand expectations. Or if your perks and benefits are on par with the guy down the street and the ones they've read about in all the tech porn magazines.
And, just to be clear, it's not exclusively their fault. You don't turn out a generation of arrogant know-nothings like these kids without substantial effort on the part of their parents and their professors. Aided and abetted by helicopter moms and dads and teachers afraid to constructively criticize or confront these tender little darlings, we're foisting these fraudulent phenoms on unsuspecting employers. The only serious question is, how long before the game is up? If they were merely incompetent, we might be able to remedy their deficiencies -- given half a chance. But it's the fact that they're so insufferably convinced of what they're spouting that's becoming intolerable.
Of course, their unchecked arrogance is in large part because no one has yet had the courage and the willingness to tell them that they're both wrong and way out of line. The "everyone's a winner" philosophy is manufacturing mediocrity in our schools at a frightful rate. The idea that there are no indisputable truths (both basic and universal) and that every idiot gets to decide and declare the truths that are right for them is hollowing out the very heart of the rigorous education we'll need more of to compete in the increasingly global economy. Yet we continue to lose ground. I'm not sure what they're learning in college these days, but the curriculum sure seems pretty far afield from what's required to succeed once they get out. In some ways, a random mugger might be a better mentor than some of the so-called scholars, because at least you'll remember the mugging and maybe be a little more aware of your location and circumstances in the future.
These same unfortunate attitudes and entitlements are now starting to appear, at scale, in the workplace. We call it "work," not "fun," for a reason. But apparently this somewhat sobering idea is an unreasonable expectation, an insensitive posture when you're dealing with the snowflakes and precious little princes and princesses who are much more attuned to their own desires and feelings. They're great at articulating their needs and requirements, but a lot less attentive, objective, and honest about their abilities and qualifications. If it's not working for them, it's not working, and it's not worth whatever modest effort they were investing. The grass is always greener somewhere else for these folks, who never comprehend that the people with the greener grass work harder and take better care of it.
We're doing our kids a grave disservice by spending our time trying to prepare the path for them instead of urging them to prepare themselves for the path ahead. When they finally and inevitably wake up (and grow up) and discover that they're not qualified for much of anything, it's going to be a most unpleasant and rude awakening. Many of them will boomerang back to their untouched and painstakingly preserved bedroom/museums to once again squat amidst the splendor, tokens, and trophies of their youth.
Make no mistake, I'm not simply talking about the rich, flawed fools in Hollywood who paid small fortunes to have their kids fraudulently admitted to schools they weren't qualified to attend. These parental morons clearly have more money than brains and we already knew that they had no morals to begin with. Hollywood has always been high school -- just with better-looking people. I'm more concerned about this year's graduates, who are poised to start looking for a dream job at an ideal company with a great paycheck and demonstrable values that the Dalai Lama would love. Cue the annual graduation speeches and the parade of tired clichés and pious platitudes that we've come to expect. But the times are different, and our messages should be redirected as well if they're going to impart any value.
I can't guarantee that the kids will listen (however old they may be), but that reality doesn't relieve us of the obligation to try to set them off in the right direction -- as unpopular as some of the old ideas may be. If you're not willing to make the effort, you're no better than the worst of them, stuck in the world of "whatever."
So, if and when you have the chance, here are a few things that I'd suggest you share.
- Tell them what's expected of them and what sacrifices they'll have to make to meet and/or beat those expectations. The startup world is a lot more grinding than grateful. The startup world is all about doing the work. Snowflakes melt when the heat rises.
- Tell them the truth about what they have and what they lack in the way of strengths, skills, and smarts -- even if it hurts. Better that they leave before they start than having them sitting around sulking because they're under-appreciated and grossly misunderstood.
- Thank them for their actual contributions, not their unending conversations, corrections, and criticisms. Talk is still cheap and doesn't build the business or pay the bills. The way to get things done is to stop talking and start doing.
- And, lastly, tell them that you earn the right to do things your own way only after you've shown that you've learned how to do things really well the way we asked you to do them. Following the rules and getting things done takes so much less time than arguing about changing the rules and doing things your way.
Bottom line: Employers have to pay you fairly and regularly, but they don't have to thank you daily. Sincere gratitude should be earned, not expected.