Forbes.com contributor Kyle Smith posted a provocative editorial today, which I thought deserved some commentary:
He does have a point, and it’s a point that I’m willing to concede: that asking the very rich for advice on how to run your life is probably not very helpful or realistic. They will tell you a story of their personal adversity, about how they stuck with it, about how the odds were stacked against them, and how they ultimately prevailed.
Of course, you don’t hear the stories of the millions who also followed their dreams, and yet still ended up living in their parents basement.
Steve was bold, brash and talented. He had a real vision. And he was also lucky. When we listen to stories of successful people (in politics, in business, in music, in sports) we often are told these kind of character lessons. We believe that if we emulate these successful people, we’ll be successful too. We ignore the (substantial) role that circumstances and luck play in success.
So I urge people to be cautious about drawing too many life lessons from the writings of the rich and successful.
But Kyle Smith swings way far in the other direction, and in a way that is perhaps predictably cynical, given the industry into which is article is targeted. He relates the story of a Gretchen Neels, who informs a group of prospective employees that the way their employers describe them is “entitled”. This is a common enough complaint (particularly among the WSJ and Forbes target audience), but I would submit two things for your consideration:
- Young people are entitled to a better world than the one we are giving them. Our current political and financial institutions are failing them in a huge way. We’ve sold them on the idea that acquiring debt to become educated will pay off. That the things that are keeping them back is due to government meddling in their affairs, and the taxes and regulations that their employers have to pay. That’s not just wrong, it’s a lie, and young people are entitled to better from the world that they inherited. My grandparents and parents both thought their kids were entitled to a better life because that is what they worked for. The nation and its political institutions have failed everyone, but perhaps have disproportionately failed young people.
- We should remember that there are two sides of this perception. Maybe the kids do feel they are entitled, but it’s also convenient for businesses to characterize their workers that way. It is an easy excuse for doing things to your employees that might otherwise give you pause. You end up saying things like, “hey, you aren’t entitled to a living wage” or “you aren’t entitled to respect or honesty in dealing with our business”. It’s just another way that employers have been dehumanizing their employees.
Smith is right about one thing: Jobs made a bad choice in not pursuing evidence-based treatment for his cancer. It is a tragedy that even the smartest among us often have some crazy ideas, and pursue them even at a very high cost to ourselves. Sadly, many of these ideas are quite pervasive, such as the idea that lowering tax rates creates jobs, or that immunizing young women for HPV increases sexual activity among teens. Jobs’ particular arrogance was at least primarily directed in his own private life, and while I do view it as tragic, I’m not particularly appalled by it, nor does it invalidate the many great things that Jobs created, and to the philosophy that he expressed via his public speaking (such as the often cited Stanford commencement address).
Many in the business world don’t seem to like the Stanford Address very much, and I suspect that it’s because they don’t actually understand it. It’s not intended as a recipe to make the next great CEO: it’s intended to challenge young people to make the world better. His message is different than the message sent by the WSJ and Forbes. His message was that if you want to change the world, you can only do it by doing what you love. It’s not a recipe for business success: it’s a recipe for happiness. Watch that video again: here’s a guy who was battling pancreatic cancer, and yet who was also experiencing perhaps the greatest period of creativity and success in his life. He was doing what he loved, and I think he was pretty damned happy about it.
If there is one overriding perception of the millennial generation, it’s that these young people have great — and sometimes outlandish — expectations. Employers realize the millennials are their future work force, but they are concerned about this generation’s desire to shape their jobs to fit their lives rather than adapt their lives to the workplace.
Frankly, I hope that the so-called millennials will prevail. The business, political and financial world have been telling young people that they have too high expectations, and in my view, it’s mostly to justify their own thievery of the future from our young people. We’re asking them to do more for less. That they aren’t entitled to better. That as individuals they aren’t important enough, so as individuals we are okay with letting them fail.
I hope I live long enough to see the world swing to a different view.