Fifteen year ago, David Brooks described a specific kind of young people in an essay titled “The Organization Kid”. They were the highest achievers of American top universities. In his words,
“their [schedules] sounded like a session of Future Workaholics of America: crew practice at dawn, classes in the morning, resident-adviser duty, lunch, study groups, classes in the afternoon, tutoring disadvantaged kids in Trenton, a cappella practice, dinner, study, science lab, prayer session, hit the StairMaster, study a few hours more… […]
They are goal-oriented. An activity — whether it is studying, hitting the treadmill, drama group, community service, or one of the student groups they found and join in great numbers — is rarely an end in itself. It is a means for self-improvement, résumé-building, and enrichment. College is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement, and they are always aware that they must get to the next step (law school, medical school, whatever) so that they can progress up the steps after that…
Kids of all stripes [today] lead lives that are structured, supervised, and stuffed with enrichment […] In short, at the top of the meritocratic ladder we have in America a generation of students who are extraordinarily bright, morally earnest, and incredibly industrious. They like to study and socialize in groups. They create and join organizations with great enthusiasm. They are responsible, safety-conscious, and mature.”
Much of that still resonates today, as I have seen in the college journeys of myself and many of my friends. We feel good about the kind of life we are going to lead, the skills we are improving daily and the promise of a better future. We work hard, sometimes too hard to the point of breaking down. We are then forced to decide what matters to us. We realize many pursuits don’t matter, and even for those that do, we have our limits. Then we learn self-care and rein in our commitments. We take yoga classes and exercise regularly to achieve work life balance, because being a professional student is demanding. We have to learn to seek and accept help.
Being in college is an incredible opportunity that we want to make the most of by starting with the end in mind. Yet it is not as simple as it seems: Anyone who has travelled knows we cannot jam everything in our bag. We want to pack the essentials and leave enough room for surprise. What we picture as “ends” may change quicker than we think.
Fifteen year later from David Brook’s article, I’m starting to see a shift. My college is still a place for high-achievers, but what counts as “achievement” has changed. Many are looking to do meaningful work and achieve organizational success. Asking people in college “What do you care about?” and you will find a wide range of answers. Asking “What does it look like in your life?” and you will soon admire many of these young people for their energy and dedication to the causes they pursue.
The questions we ask ourselves have changed from “What’s next?” to “What do I really want?” It is heartening to see more generation Y asking these questions. Many are questioning the existing structures, skipping what is the traditional menu and choosing the create-your-own-future path — the entrepreneurial journey.
In many higher education institutions, we see an explosion of many Entrepreneurial Leadership Study programs, business competitions, incubators and venture funds to support students pursuing this path. For the young people from elite universities, entrepreneurship is indeed the new black. On this, Peter Drucker remarks “The popular picture of innovators — half pop-psychology, half Hollywood — makes them look like a cross between Superman and the Knights of the Round Table.” While much has been said about this image, I think it does make a point: what Superman and Knights of the Round Table do have in common is that they are deeply engaged in their worlds. They are everything but bystanders.
There have always been entrepreneurs; those who look critically at current realities and act on the opportunities they see. But these were more exceptions than norms. As Peter Drucker in his essay “Principles of Innovation” said, if we want to make entrepreneurship an integral life-sustaining activity for organizations and society, we need to create the environment where it becomes a sustained practice. We need to shift the collective perception of entrepreneurship from desirable to necessary, for “giving people what they want isn’t nearly as powerful as teaching people what they need” as Seth Godin, the marketing guru, once mentioned. Not everyone wants to start her own endeavour, yet the entrepreneurial mindset has to be cultivated.
What does it mean for the individual, especially young ones like me?
One insight that Peter Drucker considers to be obvious but often ignored is that innovation is “hard, focused, purposeful work making very great demands on diligence, on persistence and on commitment.” As such, the making of the “Organizational Kid” is an important prerequisite for the “Entrepreneur Kid” for two reasons. Organization Kids are relentlessly goal-oriented, have high expectations, high performance and result. This drive makes them willing and able to do the work. Behind the glamorous image of Silicon Valley startups is the messiness of the entrepreneurial journey — the infamous “startup grind”. It is slow. It is work. And it is disciplined.
Where Organization Kids may fall short, however, is the ability to adapt, not so much because they can’t but rather because they haven’t allowed themselves to learn that while structure is crucial, it has to be fluid in order to respond to the needs and opportunities arising in the moment. An example I’ve seen it in me and others is the temptation to schedule everything to the minute, and then wonder why creativity has gone missing in our lives. It took me a while to learn to create space for more spontaneity in my overbooked schedule. I never look back, for this new way of life has allowed me the space to explore so many previously invisible opportunities.
If day to day plans can change so much, imagine how hard it is when people ask me about my goals, let alone a specific plan, for the next 5 years. I don’t know, and I don’t want to pretend to know. It is far more engaging and likely to yield results to stay in the Now. By definition, innovation is an inefficient process because we do not know where we are going. Yet instead of getting frustrated, we can choose to embrace its messiness while keeping our eye on the original Why.
The Organizational Kids will have to embrace some spontaneity over planning so they can learn to see and think for themselves. This might be the most challenging yet important skill to learn, and they will need the help of more experienced journeymen. It is too tempting to get lost in the doing, especially when the formula has always been proven to work. Yet it is worth remembering that the best thing about habits and practices is that they give us time in our otherwise messy lives. We use that time to connect to the truly new. Drucker again has warned us, “all that one can think and do in a short time is to think what one already knows and do as one has always done”. While I am in favour of the entrepreneurial “bias towards action”, maybe we also want to preamble it with a “bias toward perception”. How can we first see more clearly with ourselves and with others so that we can do what needs to be done?
I’m part of an exciting transition. The Organization Kid is still here, doing well, being more prepared than ever in history. And he is also evolving.
To paraphrase Peter Drucker’s question, will his successor be the Entrepreneurial Kid?
About the author:
Khuyen Bui won the Drucker Challenge 2015, and is a current senior at Tufts University. He is interested in organizational learning and development – how do people and groups come together, learn and evolve as well as how technology can help or harm that process.