In The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks thoughtfully examines society’s emphasis on what he calls “résumé virtues” – characteristics that advance careers but nevertheless lack depth.
Reflecting on his own life, and through reference to the lives of Dwight Eisenhower, George Eliot and Samuel Johnson, Brooks remarks on a society “that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life”. Paradoxically, this focus on career advancement and external validation leads to situations where individuals “spend a lot of time cultivating professional skills” but nevertheless prevent a person understanding which “career path will be highest and best”.
The Big Me
Specifically, Brooks describes what can only be one of the impetuses for the book: a “broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might call the Big Me”. Using Gallup Poll data to illustrate his point, he remarks that in 1950, high-school seniors were asked if they considered themselves to be very important people. At the time, just 12% said yes; in 2005, 80% gave this answer.
In a similar fashion, “fame” as a life goal has jumped from low on young people’s priority lists to being one of their most important. In commencement speeches, phrases such as “trust yourself” and “follow your passions” are commonplace.
I’ve been fortunate to work with young leaders from across Canada, the United States and most recently, Britain. Indeed, what is promising – and an improvement on how young people have been perceived in the past – is that society increasingly recognizes the value that this generation brings to society. Rather than spend years working in large corporations before they earn the right to an opinion, young people feel they have the choice to improve the state of the world through their own organizations. Additionally, both governments and businesses are investing in “intrapreneurship” programmes, where their young employees are provided with space to innovate and make use of their own talents.
The cult of busyness
Networks such as the Global Shapers are merging “old power” with new, as described by University of Cambridge Social Innovation Fellow Noa Gafni in her July 2015 briefing, entitled “Creating Conscious Movements for Social Impact”, at the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation.
Taking into account what research and anecdotal experiences indicate, work is becoming increasingly individualized. Indeed, companies are paying attention to the wants, needs, desires and aspirations of their employees – specifically in the millennial demographic. The upside here is that companies that better engage this demographic will benefit through unlocked potential in the short-term, as well as the development of future organizational leaders well into the future. The downside – and here I agree with Brooks – is that this generation forgets that career success will never lead to true satisfaction, and that the cultivation of character requires that we quiet the self; something that can only be achieved by distancing oneself from the cult of busyness.
What I feel is necessary, in order to benefit from society’s increasing confidence and investment in young leaders, is something said by the Bank of England Governor Mark Carney in a 2014 speech entitled “Inclusive Capitalism: Creating a Sense of the Systemic”. Delivered at the first annual Conference on Inclusive Capitalism, which took place in late June 2015, Carney remarks: “We need to recognize the tension between pure free market capitalism, which reinforces the primacy of the individual at the expense of the system, and social capital, which requires from individuals a broader sense of responsibility for the system.”
A life worth living
Thoughtfully, Carney asks what is the role of finance, why do banks exist and, ultimately, how these individuals and institutions can ensure that capitalism serves as an “engine of broadly shared prosperity”. In short, we must do better at asking simple yet critical questions: “What is wealth for?”, “Why pursue economic growth?” and “What kinds of lives are worth living?”
It is a positive innovation in the history of work that companies are embracing the potential of their young employees – even if they have just recently joined an organization. There are still too many young leaders who are not provided with opportunities to succeed both inside and outside of organizations. However, in order for this engagement to be of real meaning and value, young people must understand that success requires self-examination, struggle and responsibility towards a purpose beyond the self.
Like Brooks, I’m concerned that society is losing this crucial vocabulary. Companies and their young people are in a tremendous position to improve the state of the world. But we will only achieve our potential by pursuing callings – not careers. By reconciling, as Carney writes, the self with the systemic.
Author: Emerson Csorba is a Director of Gen Y Inc. and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.
Image: A business man rides an escalator in the financial district of Pudong in Shanghai September 21, 2011. REUTERS/Aly Song