On Failure

I was catching up on my reading this summer and dug out a few recent issues of the Harvard Business Review.  I have always thought HBR is a trailing indicator of the currency of ideas in the workplace.  I am still a faithful reader but am also aware that my subscription is more likely to provide insight on what is already happening rather than foresight as to what might happen next.

So, when the May, 2016, issue arrived with a cover story entitled, “How to Really Learn from Failure,” I knew our conversation about failure had gone mainstream.  (In keeping with HBR’s ability to spot a trend after it has fully matured into a routine daily reality, the very next issue in June carried a cover story entitled, “Managing the 24/7 Workplace.”)  A quick search on Amazon confirmed the buzz around failure.  Multiple books suggest it is the key to success and one even tells us that it is a “gift” that parents can give their children.

“XBox for your birthday?  How about failure instead?”

I suspect few people predicted that “failure” would become a 21st century buzzword.  Somewhere along the path to a fully digital and globalized economy, we moved from failure being a function of miscalculation and mistake – and therefore an opportunity to correct defects the next time around – to failure serving as evidence of a healthy attitude toward risk.  In a world that demands a nimble approach to change, risk avoidance suddenly has all the appealing qualities of a terminal disease.  Experiment, iterate, innovate – success will belong not to the technocrat but to the mad scientist masquerading as a humble manager.

The failure phenomenon is an interesting instance of a business buzzword with a conflicted relationship to the subtle and overt messages parents hear daily.  The technological revolution that accelerated the development of our globalized economy also put parents on notice: your kid is competing with every other smart kid in the world now.  We are conditioned to believe that our children’s margin for error is thinner than ours ever was and that his or her vulnerability to missing out on a plus-sized version of the American Dream is real.  The message: Don’t mess this up.  Hone your child’s competitive instincts in those unassigned minutes of each day.  Be clear that the best choices are those that provide access to more of the best choices.  Stay focused on outcomes rather than process.  See threat before opportunity and value a script over improvisation.  Do your research and be ready to advocate.  Risk-taking may be a mandate for your professional life but it has no place in childrearing.

The problem with this relentless pressure on parents is not only that it runs counter to the failure movement, but it also conflicts with the current most-favored ideas from the parenting advice business.  Its all about developing resilience, grit, hardiness, and perseverance for today’s kids.  The last decade has seen a barrage of research and writing across all of these dimensions of how humans develop the ability to bounce back and adapt in the face of adversity.  Perspectives range from understanding these capacities as functions of character to more biological explanations of how neural networks in the brain respond to and recover from setbacks.  But make no mistake: in every theory, resilience takes root in the valley, not on the mountaintop.  Kids who are protected from falling down will not learn how to get back up.

Despite the buzz around failure and resilience, parents often surrender to the pressure to engineer their kids’ lives.  The “threat” end of the “threat/opportunity” continuum is often what we filter for in our news and in the stories of our children’s peers, whether their friends or cautionary tales from afar.  The pattern is sufficiently well-established to have its own handles.  Helicopter parenting is the most common, Black Hawk parenting a step beyond, with Fighter Jet Escort parenting being a special category.  It is surely no coincidence that the rise of this model for raising children corresponds to the epidemic of anxiety and depression that has rampaged through achievement-oriented American neighborhoods.

There is no question that parents are caught in a dilemma.  The competition does, in fact, seem stiffer and the world generally less forgiving.  And the peer pressure from fellow parents – relentless.  There are no easy answers or secret formulas but it can be helpful to find and keep a centering thought.  And for that, we turn from business and psychology to philosophy.

In the middle of the 19th century, Soren Kierkegaard, a Christian Dane considered to be the first existentialist philosopher, wrote Fear and Trembling, a meditation on the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac from the Book of Genesis.  In the midst of imagining the inner – but unwritten – experience of this father and son, Kierkegaard observed the following:

“Whatever the one generation may learn from the other, that which is genuinely human no generation learns from the foregoing…Thus no generation has learned from another to love, no generation begins at any other point than at the beginning, no generation has a shorter task assigned to it than had the previous generation.”

We don’t find Kierkegaard quoted too often in HBR or parenting advice bestsellers but he illuminates a truth worthy of reflection.  On the matters that matter – “that which is genuinely human” – there is nowhere to begin but at the beginning.  No accelerated classes, no skipping to the main point.  “No generation learns the essentially human from a previous one.”  Being a good parent is one of these essentially human experiences and Kierkegaard is right – there is nowhere to begin to sort out its conundrums and mysteries but at the beginning.

Kierkegaard’s wisdom also leads us to sort out the difference between the “essentially human” and “everything else” when we think about our children.  Assigning the overwhelming portion of our interest and concern to the former rather than the latter is our mandate.  Like us, our children begin at the beginning building those virtues that are not easily learned on a tight schedule: empathy, integrity, being a good friend, serving something larger than oneself.  The challenge of our times is to be there with them; not to build a resume but to find a path – from the beginning – to purpose and fulfillment.  Perhaps then, failure and resilience and the ambient anxiety that characterizes life in 2016, will give way to something more deeply satisfying.



Feeling a Bit Brittle

First, an update on my last post: The saga of the Affluenza Teen has unfolded in predictable and unpredictable ways in 2016.  Ethan Couch was eventually arrested in Mexico and returned to the United States where he is currently held in the Lon Evans (no relation…) Correction Center in Texas.  We learned from the local sheriff, whose derivative celebrity landed him on a national talk show, that Ethan is being held in an isolation cell “for his own safety.”  Here, his only form of diversion is watching old Richard Simmons exercise videos through the chute in his cell door.  Given the overwhelming research into the toxic mental health effects of isolation, it is ironic that a form of imprisonment reserved for the most dangerous inmates would be understood as in his best interest.  Perhaps “tough on crime” translates to “tough on affluenza” in this case.

Ethan Couch came to mind recently as I listened to a thoughtful and persuasive defense of a liberal arts education in the 21st century offered by John McCardell, the Vice Chancellor of The University of the South.  Vice Chancellor McCardell spoke to the way that a liberal arts education offers more than vocational training to get a good job.  It builds inner resources of resilience and personal capacity to lead a purposeful life, come what may.  I thought of Couch (and others) when McCardell noted, “Nothing indemnifies people from the things that make life hard.” Truer words were never spoken.

The presidential election cycle seems to have our country hyper-focused on the “things that make life hard.”   Our most successful candidates on either side have channeled and cultivated the grievances of the electorate across the spectrum.  Playing by the rules turned out to be a flimsy indemnification strategy.  Our real and perceived trials – underemployment, stagnant wages, discrimination, immigration, diminished global leadership, changing social mores, you name it – quickly transmute disappointment into anger.  Indeed, the mood of the country is most often described as angry and that anger is a bludgeon wielded by both candidates against each other and by the electorate against the status quo.

Anger, and the breathless “top this” solutions it inspires – from carpet bombing ISIS to converting to a socialist state – are more than political phenomena; they have many features of a social contagion as well.  The idea that human behavior could be contagious dates back to the foundations of modern psychology in the late 1800’s.  The theory goes that individuals in a group fear rejection if they act outside the norms of the group.  “Reduction of restraints” occurs when a norm is openly violated or modified and fear of rejection is thereby lessened.  The open expression of anger, in some cases over previously taboo topics, reduces social restraints and can lead to generalizing emotion well beyond the original subjects at hand.  So does the Affluenza Teen end up in isolation as a result of a not-going-to-take-it-anymore contagion?  Maybe.  Or do a group of men in Oregon enact an armed take over of a remote fish and game building because the norms restraining this kind of behavior have been reduced?  Possibly.  Social contagions are known to exist but identifying and proving them is neither simple nor easy.

We may not agree on what is or is not a social contagion, but we likely could agree that it’s hard to be happy and angry at the same time.  Vice Chancellor McCardell put his finger on something important in his assertion that a complete education is aimed at something more than just the skills or knowledge to make a living.  Our national impulse in challenging economic times has been to demand increasing return on investment out of schools, colleges and universities.  And, over time, that ROI has been defined more and more narrowly.  So public K-12 education is driven by standardized testing that suffocates curiosity and creativity.  Higher education, guilty as charged of ratcheting up tuition and saddling students with high debt, is increasingly evaluated in terms of the starting salaries and lifetime earnings of its graduates.

Not a single American student, however, will be indemnified from the things that make life hard by the mastery of facts on a test or a big salary.  Difficulties come our way from both personal circumstances and the inevitable unfairness of an imperfect society.  If contagious, radioactive anger is our best or only resource to tap in the face of adversity, what does that mean for the future not just of our democracy, but our institutions and quality of life?  By almost any definition, the United States has seen tougher circumstances than these, yet we seem a bit brittle.  Our current national mood may be revealing something missing in our educational agenda – the cultivation of wisdom, judgment, grace – once inspired by the liberal arts and now replaced by things seemingly more serviceable but far less ambitious.


Return of the Affluenza Teen

“I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, and they are there for me.  And that’s a broken system.”

Donald Trump, Republican Presidential Debate, August 6, 2015

The end of 2015 has witnessed the unfortunate reintroduction of “affluenza” into the headlines. This mash-up of influenza and affluence has been around since the 50’s but gained wider usage in the early 2000’s as various researchers found a correlation between general unhappiness and the relentless pursuit of “more.”  More stuff, more debt, more waste – affluenza commanded attention around the time of the tech stock bubble and an era of conspicuous consumption.  Like the flu, it has hung around long enough to mutate and infect new victims.

Enter Ethan Couch, the Texas teenager who at age 16 killed four people in a drunk driving crash.  Couch’s attorney’s successfully argued that he suffered from affluenza as the financial privilege of his youth had kept him from understanding that actions have consequences.  He avoided 20 years in jail and got probation instead – and an uproar.  Couch, now 18, recently fled the country after he was featured in a party video violating the conditions of his probation.  We would have been fine to have forgotten the case of the Affluenza Teen but, no, he’s back in the headlines and probably due for some well-deserved time behind bars.

One particularly notable part of the story is that Couch checked out to Mexico with his mother.  Thus, the affluenza virus was genetically modified by its encounter with helicopter parenting – a related pathogen – creating a sort of super virus. This strain ups the ante on affluenza offering “whatever it takes” permission from an authority figure for avoiding personal accountability.  It seems likely that Ms. Couch will spend some time in the Big House as well.

The story captures headlines and mindspace because it provides the “see, I told you so” moment for all the suspicions that The System – loosely defined but all-inclusive –  is rigged and unjust.  Fair or not, Couch’s narrative has been reduced to a single, outrageous idea: “I was just too rich and spoiled to be held responsible for killing those people.”  Further, even with a second chance, Couch apparently proved that his super strain of affluenza is highly resistant to intervention.  It’s not just that he cannot be held responsible, he has not even learned to be responsible.  The disease appears to disable the conscience.

Couch’s story is troubling enough by itself but its toxicity spreads as Affluenza Teen headlines connect to the anger currently coursing through our national conversation.  He is this moment’s bleary eyed and vacant poster child for a perception that business as usual means a personally tailored set of rules based on undeserved advantages – or disadvantages.  A large part of the population is having none of it.  One way or another, the gravitational force of this belief may be the deciding factor in 2016’s presidential campaign.

The pitfalls of affluenza seem obvious enough and likewise the remedies have been around since the dawn of civilization: clean up your messes, play fair, keep your hands to yourself, don’t take other people’s stuff, tell the truth, etc.  The cynicism encouraged by the Affluenza Teen and his counterparts among sports dopers, finance scammers, political operators, and many others doesn’t make these timeless truths any less valid.  For most people, behaving honorably rests on the fragile assumption that everyone else holds roughly similar values.  Doing the right thing as a sucker’s bet is hard to sustain over time.

Yet, the alternative is something far worse.  People from virtually every background and walk of life claim a variety of injustices and many of these claims have some validity.  Our worst instincts lead us to respond to the unfairness of everyday life by seeing what the system will let us get away with, embracing our status as victims, or retreating deeper into our alienation.  Some dignity is lost along the way as well as the personal possibilities offered by a more grace-filled, morally courageous path.  Perhaps more consequential than even these sacrifices, we run the risk of bequeathing a world to our children sure to become only meaner in time.  We can be certain they are watching and listening as always, looking for hints of what is to come.


Singular Deliverances and Blessings

…And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

Abraham Lincoln, from the original Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1863.

Happy Thanksgiving!  Cicero is often quoted as saying, “Gratitude is the parent of all virtues.”  If that is true, then Thanksgiving is a great holiday for more than just the turkey and football.  Its about giving thanks, shuffling fully gorged from the table to a comfortable chair for a nap in front of the TV, and then waking up a better person. That’s a pretty good deal.

I have been a less productive writer than I would have liked over these past months.  In addition to some significant professional projects, we have a new address and have conducted another thinning of our family inventory of memorabilia, unread books, and one-off objects of all kinds that can no longer even win a place in our basement.  Owning less stuff is on my Thanksgiving list this year.  So is having a chance to write.

If you consume too much news out of this phase of American presidential politics, you can end up a bit discouraged.  For better or worse, the early action in each party has little to do with leading and unifying the country and is more focused on a divide and conquer strategy.  So candidates create a world where rich and poor, citizen and immigrant, militant and pacifist, young and old engage in a zero sum conflict of catastrophic potential consequences.

Emphasizing differences and pitting one demographic against another is how our political parties “mobilize the base” and engage passionate voters early in the primary season.  Of course, later in the process one of these same politicians will be President and then shift course to “unite the country.”  You don’t have to be a pundit or a fortuneteller to know how that is going to work out.  Its a pretty crazy system.

It is also a dynamic in our politics that runs counter to the rhetoric around the skills that 21st century workers need to be globally competitive.  Just Google “CEO survey of 21st century skills” and you will see broad agreement around a short list that includes some version of the 4 C’s: critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration.  Its this last one – collaboration – that is perceived as essential to solving problems in a complex, interconnected world, yet seems to emerge from a different civilization than the one described by our candidates and their friends in elected office.

Why the disconnect between our politics and American corporate culture that is all about “silo-busting?” Not-for-profits that rise and fall based on their capacity to unite their communities behind a cause? Schools and colleges that increasingly are putting desks in a circle, rather than rows, both physically and virtually?

Any glib answer to this question is almost certainly wrong – and there are a lot of glib answers out there.  Perhaps the most important truth is that we are defining future success across virtually every sector of society in a way that exposes our political culture as a failure.  Ugh.

So, now for a more upbeat discovery.  I ran across a kind of antivenom to this divisiveness recently that is worth a few moments of reflection.  In 2003, Yann Arthus-Bertrand launched the 7 Billion Others project inspired by the supportive response from some villagers in Mali in a moment of travel crisis.  The website describes the project as follows: “From a Brazilian fisherman to a Chinese shopkeeper, from a German performer to an Afghan farmer, all answered the same questions about their fears, dreams, ordeals, hopes: What have you learnt from your parents? What do you want to pass on to your children? What difficult circumstances have you been through? What does love mean to you?”

Over 6000 interviews were completed with the results loaded into a website and also forming the material for an international traveling exhibit.  In a political season of sometimes manufactured discord, but on a day of gratitude and aspirational unity, browsing through the site offers an inspirational perspective through the lens of what we share in common. Take a look: http://www.7billionothers.org/

So maybe Thanksgiving, a national tradition proclaimed by a president who held the country together through a civil war, often celebrated by a collaboratively created family feast, and rooted in a catalyst for virtue, is the ultimate 21st century holiday.  Enjoy and give thanks.



“The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.”
Tim O’BrienThe Things They Carried

Fresh off a trip for a meeting in Amsterdam followed by a vacation in Norway, below are a few souvenirs from the journey:

I had a few books along on the trip for the time in captivity on the over and back flights. For the trip there, I had tucked The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien into my carry-on. Widely praised as one of the greatest war novels of the 20th century, it moves in and out of Vietnam and does not spare the reader any of the physical or spiritual horror of that conflict. It is also remarkable for its powerful and elegant writing which was my motive for bringing it along.

As much as the war, O’Brien’s masterwork is about stories and truth.   O’Brien captures the poignancy and resonance of the moments in stories where a truth beyond the “the things that happened” is revealed. In the first chapter, O’Brien writes that it is true that the things they carried included, “P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent” and the like. They also carried things less real but no less true: “the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.” This book stays with you long after you turn the last page.


One of the interesting after-effects of O’Brien’s work was that I found myself looking for similarly evocative writing in the days that followed in Amsterdam. A visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was predictably rewarding for the paintings in the galleries but also offered the unexpected news that Van Gogh was a prolific writer. He wrote scores of letters narrating his inner life and creative process to family and fellow artists. In the following excerpt, contained in a letter to his brother in 1889, Van Gogh captures the daily struggle that ultimately produced masterpieces:

“I end up resigning myself by saying, it’s experience and each day’s little bit of work alone that in the long run matures and enables one to do things that are more complete or more right. So slow long work is the only road and all ambition set on doing well, false. For one must spoil as many canvasses as one succeeds with when one mounts the breech each morning.”

To be reminded that “one must spoil many canvasses” while surrounded by Van Gogh’s work lends perspective on the hard work of genius. Failing first, fast, forward, often, up, heroically, in big moves and small bets is a fashionable topic du jour in a world where embracing risk is considered a 21st century skill. Amazon.com alone contains over 7000 titles on the topic of failing and some industries – notably Silicon Valley – are even thought to have a “failure fetish.” Fetish or not, in 1889 Van Gogh knew that, “slow long work is the only road.” The path to mastery has always run through failure. I suspect that Tim O’Brien spoiled a few canvasses too.


Norway is hard to describe. We saw over 1200 miles of it by car, several more by foot and some by boat. The scenery is as dramatic as anything I have seen and the people radiate gracefulness that reflects their status as the fourth happiest country in the world in 2015. (They commanded first place in 2013 and 2014.) It is a wealthy country that seems to enjoy a uniformly high standard of living. Every business, house, and farm looks freshly painted and the well-marked and maintained roads are lined with stunning multicolored wildflowers. Virtually everyone is fluent in English and the only signs of any kind along the scenic roadways suggest that you slow down. Norwegians live in their landscapes and love hiking and skiing so much they even have a word, “friluftsliv,” that translates as “outdoor life.” And yes, there is always symphonic music playing in the background…

Mark Twain is famous for writing, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” You can hardly be susceptible to prejudice or bigotry in Norway. Envy, yes, and covetousness, absolutely, but developing a charitable perspective on such a place? That happens the minute you cross the border.

So in between slack-jawed voyages through the fjords and rugged hikes through evergreen forests, I tried to get some insight into how this country happened. How has it come to pass that a country of 5 million decided to stash away their North Sea oil profits in a sovereign wealth fund that is now approaching $1 trillion. Or, that in 2014, Norwegian police fired their guns only twice – but did not injure anyone. (By way of comparison, at least 514 people have been shot and killed by police officers in the United States in the first half of 2015 – 31 in the first week of July alone.) Or, that 37% of Norwegians have completed postsecondary education making Norway the best-educated country in Europe? Or, that Norwegians eat more frozen pizza per capita than anyone in the world?

I am sure that interpreting Norway is complicated but at the risk of oversimplification, I uncovered one cultural touchpoint that seems to explain a lot. In 1933, Aksel Sandemose, an author of both Danish and Norwegian background, wrote A Fugitive Covers his Tracks, a novel about a small Danish town named Jante that lived by ten rules. The ten rules were understood to express something quintessential about the Scandinavian psyche and are sometimes described as forming the “Jante’s Shield” of the Scandinavian people. Each law is an elaboration of Sandemose’s singular formulation: “This is Jante: each little soul’s struggle for coequality and recognition, never without consciousness that all the others are greater than he.” Or, said more plainly, “You are not to think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us.”

The rules read as follows:

You are not to think you are anything special.

You are not to think you are as good as we are.

You are not to think you are smarter than we are.

You are not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.

You are not to think you know more than we do.

You are not to think that you are more important than we are.

You are not to think that you are good at anything.

You are not to laugh at us.

You are not to think anyone cares about you.

You are not to think you can teach us anything.

And an eleventh rule for good measure:

Don’t think there aren’t a few things we know about you.

Sandemose’s satire remains a source of torment in Scandinavia. In modern, urban centers it is dismissed as an expression of a vanishing village culture that developed due to isolation and the demands of survival in a tough environment. Yet when challenged, city dwellers reluctantly concede that maybe it still characterizes social life in some ways even in globalized Scandinavian cities.

I have not seen the rest of Scandinavia, but in Norway, once you are introduced to Jante’s Law, you see it everywhere. Norwegians exhibit a palpable – and appealing – egalitarianism that can veer off into stifling social conformity at the extreme. It is a wealthy welfare state where the standard of living is exceptionally high and income and wealth inequality exceptionally low. It is also a country where houses are painted one of three colors and only two, red and gold, are considered to be appropriately modest. White is showing off.

Norway is nearly perfect in at least one way – as a vantage point to watch the emergence of Donald Trump as a leading presidential candidate, the grace of South Carolina in the face of tragedy, and the phenomenon of Go Set a Watchman. There may be no better place for an American to consider the mysteries of national character.


The flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam included a screaming baby across the aisle so I bought noise-cancelling headphones for the trip home. I am late to the party on the miracle of this technology so I’ll only add my voice to the chorus of, “How did I ever live without them?”

My book for this last leg of the journey was a risky choice as it started out as a TEDx talk.   Simon Sinek’s explanation about knowing your WHY has been viewed 23 million times and even gets traction with professional friends in the field of strategy and communication. So I picked up the book fully prepared to be disappointed that Sinek had merely taken an 18 minute talk and packed it into 248 pages.

While it was not quite like that, I should start by saying that this is not a great piece of literature. It is not especially well-written and it appears that the editor gave up at about page 152. When it is not redundant it is repetitive and Sinek’s real life examples of his concepts seem to keep coming back to Southwest Airlines and Apple. Nevertheless, if you can forgive him for these sins and others, it is actually an engaging and challenging read. And while the repetitive redundancy is not intentional, it actually helps nail down a message that can be a bit slippery.

Sinek’s central point is that organizations either get our attention through manipulation or inspiration. Manipulation comes in many forms (discounts, fear, peer pressure, etc) and tends to cultivate a transactional, superficial relationship. Inspiration happens when we feel we are part of a cause (challenging the status quo by purchasing an Apple product for example) and cultivates loyalty. Inspiration clearly is what we all want and Sinek does a good job of describing how this happens and how organizations that were once inspirational (WalMart cited here) can lose their way. No surprise, its all about the power of WHY.

While Sinek’s ability to assemble a book leaves some room for improvement, he can deliver a clever critique that makes a point at the same time:

“If you are curious as to how Colgate finds itself with thirty-two different types of toothpaste today, it is because every day its people come to work to develop a better toothpaste and not, for example, to look for ways to help people to feel more confident about themselves.”

He can also decode our complicated relationships with the things that become part of our identities:

“Products are not just symbols of what the company believes, they also serve as symbols of what the loyal buyers believe.”

Throughout the book, he scatters insights that keep you reading:

“Value, by definition, is the transference of trust.”

“Charisma has nothing to do with energy; it comes from a clarity of WHY. It comes from absolute conviction in an ideal bigger than oneself. Energy, by contrast, comes from a good night’s sleep or lots of caffeine.”

“A simple claim of better, even with the rational evidence to back it up, can create desire and even motivate a decision to buy, but it does not create loyalty…It is the cause that is represented by the company, brand, product or person that inspires loyalty.”

So read this book. You can get through it in a few hours and if you are good at prospecting, you will find some nuggets in it that will reward the effort.


We landed a few hours late in Atlanta due to some weather. Despite about 11 hours on the plane and body and brain that thought it was 3:00 am, we took both boys out for dinner to a local Mexican dive. We told them about the farms and fjords; they reported in on work and plans for the future. And I was reminded of O’Brien again, “Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are…”












The Aspiration Gap

Complaining about the younger generation has a long and noble history dating back to the ancient Greeks. Ever since Aristotle got us started, it has been hard to stop:

“They (young people) have exalted notions, because they have not yet been humbled by life or learnt its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things — and that means having exalted notions… They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it; this, in fact, is why they overdo everything.”

Rhetoric, Book II, Chapter 12

The dynamic that makes this complaining especially fun is that the game is rigged so young people can never win. If they are big dreamers, then they are subject to being dismissed as naïve idealists. If, on the other hand, they do not aim high enough, then they threaten to bring down civilization with their self-centered carelessness.

We seem to be in the second phase of this cycle now as formerly naïve and idealistic Baby Boomers – no strangers to youthful utopian visions – have discovered and named The Aspiration Gap in the generation they birthed. Millennials, born between the late 80’s and early 2000’s, apparently are not interested in taking the reins of the world their parents created.

A recent study conducted by Saba, “a leader in cloud-based intelligent talent management solutions” was reduced to this above-the-fold headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Study: Millennials don’t want top jobs.” Behind the headline is Saba’s Global Workforce Leadership Survey that found that “just” 31% of Millennials aspire to senior jobs in their organizations with “only” 11% aiming for the corner office. Conclusion: We have an Aspiration Gap on our hands. Consider this breathless quote from Emily He, Chief Marketing Officer at Saba:

What’s concerning here is that, quite literally, the future leadership at some critical global organizations is at risk…”

If nothing else, all that training in critical thinking I endured as a liberal arts major tuned my antenna to marketing professionals touting research results. And this data is particularly relevant to those of us working in schools, colleges, or universities whose missions include developing leadership. So let’s pose a few questions of Saba’s study, Ms. He’s conclusion, and the implications of the headline crisis du jour among our younger generation:

  • Given the vast array of jobs across organizations of all kinds and the relative scarcity of senior level and CEO positions, wouldn’t it be true that these numbers actually point to a whole bunch of unfulfilled dreams? If fully a third of Millennials want a senior role some day, but a much smaller percentage of jobs in any organization would be described as “senior,” then do we actually have a surplus of aspiration? I am not persuaded that the survey indicates “critical global organizations at risk” as much as it provides a useful starting point for thinking about young people in the workplace.  How can we distribute leadership in a way that they remain engaged even if they never reach the top rungs of the ladder?
  • At what point in anyone’s professional life should we expect an aspiration to organizational leadership to develop? Given highly complex, scaled up and fast-paced work environments, is it reasonable to anticipate that a 27-year-old, with perhaps only five years of serious work experience, would say, “Yeah, I’m planning to take a turn at the wheel of this place someday.”
  • The study locates the-problem-to-solve as an ambition shortage in the younger generation and leads us quickly to the conclusion that better and more thorough leadership development for young employees is needed. It would be hard to disagree with that idea under any circumstance. There is another data point, however, that did not make the article and frames a different problem. Only 36% of Millennials named “leadership” as a strength in their organization. Ouch. To the extent that strong mentors and role models are critical to young leaders, 64% of Millennials are apparently less than impressed by their bosses. An observation often attributed to Albert Einstein comes to mind: “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”

In addition to the above, other studies indicate that Millennials believe their organization’s leadership is much more concerned with personal rewards than the wellbeing of employees. Millennial ambivalence about rising though the ranks – to the extent it even exists – is likely rooted in perceptions of both competence and values and begs the question:

Do we have an Aspiration Gap or an Inspiration Gap?

Why is all of this important? Tomorrow is going to be another day at the office and, for many of us, we will interact in some meaningful way with younger colleagues whose careers are in an earlier stage than our own. If nothing else, it would be a useful exercise to personalize the Global Workforce Leadership Survey with their names and faces. On average, two thirds of those young colleagues do not aspire to organizational leadership positions and another two thirds – or maybe the same ones – don’t see much to emulate when they interact with the leadership in place.  Is that a problem?  That question is worth replacing business-as-usual on the agenda this week.






“Africa, in a second, grew endlessly big, and Denys and I, standing upon it, infinitely small.” Isak Dineson

From Nairobi to Nyeri, wooden signs are everywhere, mostly painted by hand, pointing to schools. Schools of all kinds – colleges, technical schools, secondary boarding schools, small primary schools, religious and proprietary, public and private – are mixed in among the small shops, modest homes and open air markets that dot the countryside of Kenya. In a nation new to democracy and largely dependent on tourism as an economic engine, the signs and the schools they represent send a powerful message to a visitor. Kenyans know what will raise their standard of living, bring them more fully into the global economy and cement in place their political reforms and economic stability – education. The ubiquitous signs say it all.

I found myself on the road from Nairobi to Nyeri on a special mission to visit Mount Kenya Academy. MKA is one of these schools but is unique in its mission and origins. The school’s relationship to Westminster goes back to its founding and an alum and his wife whose adventure in Kenya began in 1972 and eventually led to a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” – more on that later.

Over the past decade, the Westminster/MKA partnership has taken life through the participation of over 250 students, teachers, trustees, and parents in a dynamic exchange program characterized by passion and devotion among members of both school communities. As much as anything, understanding the story – and stories – behind these deep ties was the purpose of my visit. What follows is just that – not a travelogue or an annotated agenda of our visit – but encounters, stories and bits of history. Taken together, these explain the abiding affection between two communities and illustrate how we are our best selves when we see beyond our differences to the aspirations that we all hold in common.

Charity Mwangi

The guiding light of Mount Kenya Academy is Charity Mwangi, who at age 71 continues to energize and inspire the school she founded. Charity is the embodiment of grace and serves as a welcoming presence on campus. Before I ever arrived, she wrote the following in an email to me:

“Westminster is truly a sister school. Together we have come a long way and strengthened one another in many areas. Mount Kenya Academy has benefited greatly from this relationship and we feel privileged to enjoy such friendships.”

In many instances, a school only grows only to the scale of the founder’s vision. In the case of great schools, the founder spurs the imagination of others and the school grows beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. These are the schools that end up making a mark in the lives of their students and communities. MKA is one of these schools. It began decades ago as a small primary school and stands today as an impressive K-12 institution with a mission to develop leaders for the future of East Africa. Charity has been there from the beginning, welcoming the talents and gifts of many to continually expand the vision for MKA. The school’s history and growth have a lot to teach us all.


In recent years, MKA has developed and managed a feeding program for two local elementary schools. The schools serve the children of workers in the coffee plantations and many of them would go hungry without the breakfast and lunch that is provided through this effort.

We visited both schools at lunchtime and were immediately struck by the contrast between young children and heaping bowls of nutritious food. In order to attend a public school in Kenya, students must have a uniform so all of the children were dressed alike although not all of the uniforms were in good condition. The buildings and furnishings were austere but the students were familiar – eager to welcome visitors, bright eyes and smiles – no different than young children anywhere taking a break from the classroom for some social time at lunch. The one big difference was that many of them had brought their preschool age brothers and sisters as the school represented a source of nourishment for these children as well.

As one first grader exited the room past me, he stopped, looked me in the eye and stuck out his hand for a handshake. I responded and we made a proper farewell. As he turned to the door, he studied his hand carefully, brought it to his nose, sniffed it, and then went outside to play. I am pretty sure I represented something new and different in his experience.

Susan and Scott Hawkins

Susan and Scott were our traveling companions – along with Scott’s childhood friend Scott Crook – and are longtime supporters and champions of both Westminster and MKA. Their relationship to MKA goes back fifteen years and the evidence of their generosity surrounds any visitor to the campus. More than just benefactors, Susan and Scott love the faculty and students of MKA. They know them by name and not one escaped their company without an enthusiastic greeting and an encouraging word. Sustaining a relationship across time, space, cultures and life changes is not easy. Susan and Scott have stayed the course and the result is a school that has already created a cadre of young leaders for Kenya.

Chance Encounters

One purpose of our visit was to dedicate a new multipurpose building in Susan’s honor. At the luncheon afterward, I sat next to a Presbyterian minister whose parish included the school. She exuded an unmistakable grace and joy even as she described the challenges of serving six local congregations by herself. In spite of the demands of her ministry, she hoped we would be in town over the weekend so she could host us for tea.

The Minister of Education attended the dedication ceremony. An impressive speaker and former dentist, he and his sizable entourage took a tour of the school. Upon arriving at the Principal Ian Stamp’s new house on campus, the tour proceeded right through the living areas downstairs to the bedrooms upstairs. As the group descended the stairs and left through the front door, Ian breathed a sigh of relief that he had, in fact, made his bed that morning.

On our second day, an impressive young woman showed up in the reception area with her fiancé. She was an alumna of MKA now in med school and was back for a visit. A few minutes of conversation convinced me that this school is doing something special to produce graduates of her caliber.

Randy Whitfield

Late one afternoon, Westminster alum Randy Whitfield came by the hotel for a drink. Randy is an opthamologist who traveled to Africa by ship in 1972 with his wife. He ended up in Kenya where his wife met Charity and became an important part of MKA’s founding. Randy crisscrossed Kenya eventually training nurses and other medical personnel to perform cataract surgery. The initiative had such a profound impact that he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant for his work. The Whitfields never left Kenya and have seen the country through the dramatic changes in population, politics and culture of the past four decades. People like Randy don’t come along very often. Our conversation was fascinating.

Two Meetings

The highlight of our visit to MKA was a chance to meet the delegation of students who will be traveling to Westminster in April immediately followed by those who participated in the exchange last year. The first group was all enthusiasm and questions. They hold high hopes of making important intercontinental friendships and, for most of them, seeing a foreign country for the first time. The second group – now experienced veterans – was reflective and composed.

The exchange experience had done exactly what it was designed to do – broaden perspectives, make connections, instill confidence. These students demonstrated all that and more and reminded me of their counterparts back home on the other end of the exchange. It was not hard to imagine them in the vanguard of Kenya’s emerging generation of leaders and even to hear in their comments a sense of purpose and responsibility to their homeland. To have a chance to be their partner and friend is indeed a privilege.