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Same Kids, Different World

There’s this thing that I call the Gee-Whiz Syndrome. A possible corruption of the decidedly outdated, “geewhillikins,” or euphemism for “Jesus” expressed as an invective, “gee whiz” is often used nowadays as an adjective to describe the naïve wonder attached to something new or unheard of, like gee-whiz technology, to characterize the latest gadgetry. The syndrome, however, occurs in people who have newly discovered what has actually been around for a long time. It’s cute in the case of toddlers and puppies who get a pass when they express wide-eyed astonishment in the presence of the already-known. It’s less excusable in 20- and 30-somethings who simply haven’t taken the time to do the right kind of research.

Passion & Purpose, by three best and brightest Harvard MBAs, John Coleman, Daniel Gulati, and W. Oliver Segovia, has a good dose of the Gee-Whiz Syndrome in its exuberant celebration of young business leaders and their aspirations. The compendium of stories, advice, and observations by newly minted MBAs examines globalization, sustainability, diversity, and the blurring lines between for profit, nonprofit, and public sectors to explore what young leaders think and what they will face as they forge their futures.

Today’s young leaders, according to the authors, are “passionate and purposeful.” As they grow up, they are seeking business careers that offer “a way of translating a meaningful personal purpose into work that impacts the world in a positive way.” Young people today also recognize the value of global experiences. In a survey conducted by the authors, a majority of MBA student respondents agree that “working in different countries has helped me learn more about myself and what I plan to do in the future.”  The reader also discovers that a defining characteristic of this generation is “that we want to be recognized as individuals – not anonymous cogs forced to think, act, and dress in the same way.” Sound familiar? Gee whiz!

That’s not to say that there isn’t great merit in knowing what tomorrow’s leaders think. The authors provide data from over 500 current and recent MBAs from top business schools, personal stories of 20 young business leaders who have made a difference throughout their careers, and advice from established luminaries in private/public/academic fields. As an inspirational almanac, it works well. It is refreshing and encouraging to read about young people who retain optimism despite the ever-elusive light at the end of the tunnel.  Today’s world is different, in so many ways, than the one that previous generations knew. Shooting for the stars and aspiring to live one’s ideals is never a bad thing. Reading real-life accounts of individuals lucky enough to achieve those goals may be just the prompt a young person needs to dream her own dreams. Advice from seasoned and successful professionals also has value for up-and-comers of any generation.

But are the fresh-faced leaders of today really different? Previous generations have also desired lives of passion and purpose – before the harsh realities of compromise, diminished opportunity, and forced conformity kick in later in life. Young elites have always traveled in pursuit of life-changing experiences. Non-elite youth traveled as well – as migrants, by going off to war, or simply through ingenuity and the many cheap youth hostels dotted across our globe. And even if aging hippies of today seem like preposterous relics of a laughable decade, we can thank their youthful selves for shattering many codes of conformity.

Given that the authors limit their research to today’s young MBAs, and only those fortunate enough to attend the best business schools, it would be interesting to survey the many who are not so fortunate. My suspicion is that they hold the same ideals, but are also painfully aware of the now herculean challenges that stand in their way.

While that might sound discouraging, I, too, have faith in today’s youth and their capacity to transform our world. Young people, elite and poor, Ivy League and uneducated, committed capitalist and dedicated altruist continue to astound. They draw inspiration from each other, teachers, role models, the world around them, and even the books they read to achieve amazing and revolutionary things. That should elicit a “gee-whiz,” even in the face of the harshest realities. FBN

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