Decisions for the Next Generation

Some time ago, I heard an interview with Ted Koppel, once the host of “Nightline.” He was very pessimistic about the state of the world, but yet, he said, “My hope rises when I have a chance to meet the young people of today.” Indeed, I understand how he feels.

A few years ago, my brother, a partner in my company, said, “I wonder what our lives would have been like if we had known to set goals the way we teach executives.” I’ve thought about that a lot since then. My goals were unwritten, but pretty simple: get my engineering degree in four years. Get a job where I can support myself.

At that point, I had never met a practicing engineer. Sure, I’d read about them, seen the glowing descriptions in the guidance brochures, but I had no idea where engineering would lead. I read a lot, watched a little TV, listened to the radio, but my vision was limited.

If you know what you’d like to do in life, be a world class swimmer, be governor of Virginia, be a CEO, be a darn good carpenter, then, you can begin laying out plans for getting there. But, most people I meet are not that definitive about their ultimate goals.

Setting long range goals at this point in your life is like shooting a rocket to the moon without knowing the angle to tilt the rocket. And, darn. Guess what? While you’re aiming, the moon moves. You’d better have a rocket designed for mid course correction. We’re told that the average person will have seven or more careers in a lifetime, and, further, that most of the jobs twenty years out are not even invented yet. So, what’s a rational career planner to do?

With these challenges, you need to make some important decisions.In our twelve week coaching process, we tell the participant, “Over the next twelve weeks, you will make at least three decisions that will change the rest of your life.” Today, I’m going to ask you to make five decisions in the next twelve minutes.

Decision 1: I will become an expert at learning.

To thrive over seven careers, you must continue to learn. Learning is a process that varies from person to person. Study that process, find out what works for you, and practice it over and over. Learn to read, listen, think critically and communicate, write (yes, longer than 140 characters), speak and debate. For almost ten years, I was on the faculty of the University of Phoenix, teaching courses in the doctorate program. The courses were all online, so students needed good reading and writing ability. I had many students who could not process the materials and could not write a decent paragraph.

It takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. That’s 3 hours a day for ten years. But, that’s not just 10,000 hours, it’s 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice means trying something, analyzing what worked and what didn’t work, fixging it, then tryging again. Keep doing this over and over. This means learning to face challenges, even failure, and keeping an open mind to criticism, from both self and others. Examine athletes, scientists, executives…any successful person and you will find someone who is continually using deliberate practice. So become an expert in learning. 10,000 hours could also mean 6 hours a day for 5 years. Heck, in four years of college, you can be 80% on your way.

There are debates today about the value of college, some people arguing that we need to train students for specific work skills. I believe the real value of college is learning how to learn and developing human relations skills. These are the skills that will propel you through all the career and life challenges over the years. If you don’t go to college, you can still lean these skills, but be deliberate about it. Become a human learning machine.

Decision 2: I will develop good mentors.

Notice that I’ve used the plural here. Develop relations with people you can learn from, people with a variety of backgrounds, and life styles. Learn to accept their feedback. Researchers who have studied deliberate practice find that we are not good at analyzing our own performance. We need good critics, expert observers who can take us to the next level. Think of good tennis players, always working to improve their game, practicing six hours a day under the watchful eye of their coach. Think of good scientists, researchers who go down hundreds of blind alleys before finding a breakthrough. Think of sales people who have to talk to ten people before getting a sale. To experts, failure and criticism are the paths to perfection. People who cannot stand the heat of criticism or failure cannot work in the kitchen.

Decision 3: I will develop a growth mindset.

Carol Dweck, in her book, “Mindset, the New Psychology of Success,” said that it’s not inherent talent that determines success, but it’s the way we face the challenges. The closed mindset says, I can’t do this because I don’t have the talent, whereas the growth mindsets says, if I keep trying, I can do it. In the past, we called this factor “attitude.” Research continues to find that the way we were brought up has a lot to do with it. Did you hear mostly positive messages or mostly negative messages as a child? Does your inner mind say, “You can’t do this?” when you’re met with a challenge. The good news is that you can change the voices with practice and good guidance. Just try reading yourself three positive statements about yourself multiple times every day and you’ll find out it works.

A growth mindset means accepting and learning from setbacks, even failures. The greatest learning happens during the most difficult challenges.

When we’re trying to develop new ideas, we often talk about thinking outside the box. What is this box we’re referring to? It’s the box defined by our education, our ethnic background, our nationality, our ideology, our biases. What is the size of your box? If your box is too small or has too rigid walls, you will close out possibilities for learning. Yes, learn your values and stick to them, but be open to new ideas and the people who bring them. You can have strong values, yet still be open to the views of others. Rigidity sinks ships and breaks down bridges. Don’t let it happen to you.

Decision 4: I will aim high.

Whatever you decide to do, do it well. Aim to be an expert in your core skill. If you’re going to have seven careers over a 35 year work career, that’s five years a job. That means that your goal setting should logically look at a five year horizon. So…set some five year goals that stretch your imagination and your skills and go to it.

I found the five year goal setting worked for me. Starting out, I’d never met an engineer, but I wanted to be a manager just like Dad, who worked in a textile factory. I saw him helping people, and I thought that was important. Yet, my vision was limited by my small town culture. When I went to work for IBM, even then, the most I could imagine was being a first line manager. But, five years after joining the company, I was heading a group of two hundred people. Wow! What a surprise. I got to that spot in spite of my lowly goal.

At that point, I asked myself several questions: Why am I here instead of many other people who could possibly do this job? Is this the path I want to be on? What are the possibilities for the next five years? Over my career, this every five year personal review became a regular happening in my life.

So, let me tell you my answer to the first question, “Why am I here?” an answer that became a constant every five years. It was my experience at the furniture store. During high school and college, I worked at the G.A. Waugh Furniture store in Orange where I worked with the greatest manager and mentor I ever met. He taught me how to work and interact with people of all ages and backgrounds, helping me create a sensitivity to them and their feelings. Yes, I accumulated a few degrees over the years, but my 10,000 hours has been devoted to developing human relations skills. It is a basic skill necessary for all my different jobs in the USA and Europe.

I remember the days of Jack and Robert Kennedy when we were literally shooting for the moon.

Robert Kennedy said in one of his speeches:

“A young monk began the Protestant Reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal.”Kennedy then stated, ‘Give me a place to stand,’ said Archimedes, ‘and I will move the world.’ These (persons) moved the world, and so can we all.”

All of us need to shoot higher.

Decision 5. I will choose my partners carefully.

Notice I use the plural here. A partner can be your life partner, your business partner, your study partner. When you choose, each partner should know what they’re signing up for. If you are going to West Point to be a career military officer, your partner needs to be ready for overseas assignments and deployments. If you want to be in a small business in a small town, make sure your partner is not a Metropolitan Opera fan. Partners can either support and encourage each other, or, they can limit each other’s growth. Of all the decisions you make today, this may be the most important.

A few years ago, as we were discussing strategy planning in my company, my partners told me, “Grant, your specialty is helping people decide.” They gave me a sweatshirt. “Decide Dammit!” because that is what I try to get leaders to do.

So, today, I’ve asked you to decide:

  1. Become an expert at learning

2. Develop good mentors

3. Develop a growth mindset

4. Aim high

5. Choose you partners carefully

After you do this, we can give you a tee shirt that my wife suggested as more appropriate for general audiences: Instead of “Decide, Dammit:, the new tee shirt will say, “I’ve decided.”

In another speech, Robert Kennedy summed up the needs of his time and of today:

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black… Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Thank you.

Thanks to Joe Colletti, PhD, for the RFK quotes




Grant Tate is an author, thought leader, confidential advisor, and idea explorer in Charlottesville, VA. His latest book, “Hand on the Shoulder” is out soon.

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Grant Tate is an author, thought leader, confidential advisor, and idea explorer in Charlottesville, VA. His latest book, “Hand on the Shoulder” is out soon.

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