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Drawing Commitment From Generation iY

August 4th, 2010

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I have a friend whose son made the varsity basketball team his freshman year of high school. He worked hard to make the team, so we were all proud of him. Because he was a first year student, however, he didn’t get a lot of playing time, and approached his dad with an idea. “Dad, I’m sitting on the bench most of the time. I think I’m going to quit the team and do something else. The varsity team isn’t as fun as I thought it would be.”

My friend’s response was amazing. He sat down with his son and replied, “I know you’d hoped to get lots of playing time this year, and I am sorry you’re watching most games from the bench. It’s tough when you’d rather be having fun on the court. But, son, I can’t let you quit the team. Several other boys wanted the spot you won, and I am not going to let you flake now just because it isn’t fun. You made a commitment to be on this team and I want you to keep it to the end of the season. Next year, if you don’t want to risk sitting on the bench, it’s OK. Don’t try out.”

These words, spoken with grace are exactly what students need to hear today—especially if they are going to be leaders. Commitment comes with the territory. One psychologist said it this way: “The ability to keep a long term commitment is one true sign of maturity.”

If you’re like me, you’ve moaned under your breath: where is the long-term commitment in this generation of kids?  Why do so many seem like they’re ADHD? Their attentions spans last two minutes! The sad truth was summed up by a friend of mine who works at a college. “These kids talk about changing the world—but they won’t stay committed long enough to even change their campus.” One dean asked, “Will students change the world or change their minds instead?”

This is the paradox of being part of the Millennial generation. Students have a strong belief that they can transform society, but find it difficult to stick to an idea once the novelty of that idea wears off. It is easier to return to the comfort of their iPods and cell phones. According to The Weekly Reader’s Insider’s Survey, half of students (ages 6-18 years old) believe one kid can change the world. Unfortunately, only 31% are actually doing any volunteer work that aligns with that belief. In other words, their optimism doesn’t always equal action.

Let’s face it. We should have predicted this. Many of them grew up being affirmed for every step they took, winning trophies, ribbons, prizes and pats on the back for anything—even finishing in 9th place. Parents clapped for everything. Few learned anything about perseverance. If a child failed, parents often swept them away before it could hurt their self-esteem. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. As an adult, work isn’t always that rewarding. Projects can be hard and slow. And when colleagues don’t continue to affirm a commitment, it’s difficult to sustain that commitment.

I’d like to launch a conversation about this issue. If adults don’t figure out how to cultivate long-term commitment in the next generation, we may begin to see:

  • Five year marriage contracts
  • Careers built completely on temporary, contractual work
  • An inability to think long and hard on issues that lose their novelty.

When Convenience Eclipses Commitment
Let me summarize what I believe has happened, then suggest how commitment works with students. We live in a world of convenience. Kids today have been called the “disposable” generation because everything can be thrown away when they’re finished with it. No commitment has to last too long. This can create problems morally and spiritually. For instance, during the summer following 9/11, France lost thousands of people in a heat wave. It was awful—but the worst part about it all came after the deaths. When the heat wave struck, 15,000 elderly people died in nursing homes and hospitals. Unfortunately, it was August and most French people were on vacation. The children of those elders didn’t even leave the beaches to come back and take care of their bodies. Institutions had to scramble to find enough refrigeration units to hold the corpses until family members finally came to claim them.

The loss of life was five times bigger than the terrorist attack of 9/11, yet it didn’t trigger any change in French society. Why? Because keeping mom and dad alive is costly and inconvenient.

Convenience has eclipsed commitment. Sticking to what we believe to be right is hard because change is normal today—and because few are able to endure what is inconvenient. We complain about traffic lights being too long. We fill out a card if the service is sub-par at a restaurant. We even pace in front of our microwave, waiting for our snack! And this is more true for today’s students than anyone else.

Involved But Not Committed
I describe most students today with this phrase: Involved but not committed. It’s a Habitude, from Book One of our series: Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes. It is called, “The Half-Hearted Kamikaze.” The syndrome is illustrated by the kamikaze pilot who flew in World War II for the Japanese Air Force. He was still alive after fifty missions! A journalist finally cornered him and asked: “Aren’t you an oxymoron? How do you explain the fact that you’ve been on fifty missions but you call yourself a kamikaze pilot?”

“Well it’s like this,” the pilot responded. “I was very involved…not very committed, but very involved!” I always smile when I think of this story. A true kamikaze flies on one mission. He gives his life for it. There’s no such thing as a half-hearted kamikaze. Commitment comes with the territory. The same is true of successful people today, especially leaders. Sadly, we want one without the other. Students today are active. They are more involved than ever. That’s the strange thing about this dilemma. It isn’t that they are isolated from each other or from good causes. It’s simply that they want to keep all their options open. They want involvement without commitment.

The earlier version of Generation Y were called “activists” because they jumped into causes and began transforming the world with such issues as clean water, the sex trade in Asia, and the AIDS pandemic. Today, it seems students are more accurately called: “slactivists.”  They want to change the world, but don’t want much sacrifice. They are activists and slackers. All they want is to sign a petition on a website and get a wrist band for it.  

How Commitment Works

Let me ask you a question. How long did your New Year’s Resolution last? Or, based on past failures, did you even make one this year?  Most of us fail to keep commitments because we don’t realize how commitment works. We want to move from a “wish” to a “lifestyle” overnight—and it usually doesn’t work that way. The following are phrases we generally experience as we build commitment into our lives. Remember: students must begin with an idea and move to a conviction:

  1. Ideas – We perceive an issue by the way we think about it. This involves our minds.
  2. Opinions – We begin to express our preferences on that issue. This involves our emotions.
  3. Beliefs – We conclude where we stand on the issue. This involves both mind and emotions.
  4. Commitments – We begin to act on our belief. This involves our mind, emotions and will.
  5. Convictions – We are ready to give our lives for our commitment. It’s now a passion in our lives.

Let me try to summarize how this generation often thinks. They are sometimes called The Mosaics. They don’t think in a linear manner but like a computer would store information. It is a mosaic menu in their minds. They can live with contradictions; they are overloaded with information and are making decisions earlier than previous generations. Sometimes they are not emotionally ready to make some of these decisions. The vast majority thinks about their future weekly and is trying to figure out their purpose in life. Parents are the greatest influence, over peers, teachers or youth pastors. Many have been pampered and their optimism may make you sick. Their number one goal is education, and they believe one person can make a difference in the world. Almost half are the Influencing style on the DISC test. They want to invest their life in people and change the world.  

Steps You Can Take to Help Students with Commitment…

I have been musing over the last three blog posts about how difficult it is for this emerging generation to make and keep commitments. Especially long term commitments. Our organization, Growing Leaders, is in front of about 50,000 students and staff each year. We see it everywhere we go. Passionate students only work when the cause is “fashionate.”

So, how do we work with this generation who forgets the last commitment they made yesterday, and has dozens of options in front of them today? What are some steps we can take to draw a more firm commitment from them?  Let me suggest some ideas below.

  1. Listen to them and affirm their dreams and goals.
  2. Provide them a sense of big-picture purpose as they perform menial tasks.
  3. Give them short-term commitments they can keep, and put wins under their belts.
  4. Offer them realistic steps to their often over-optimistic goals. Help them prioritize.
  5. Work with them to focus on one, meaningful objective and pull it off.
  6. Encourage them to simplify their life, and remove some self-imposed pressure.
  7. Discuss personal values with them and help them to become value-driven.

I trust you will model commitment and develop committed students under your leadership!

What do you think?

  1. What elements in our culture today have led to an inability to make long-term commitments?
  2. Do you know students who are committed individuals? What enables them to be committed?

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