That was University President Lawrence H. Summers in The New York Times a week ago Sunday, capping a piece that described us, the Class of 2004 nationwide, as uniquely pragmatic and single-mindedly careerist in our outlook. We volunteered strategically, angled for the ideal credential-crafting experiences and assiduously researched potential employers.
Sunning myself on a beach 75 miles from Cambridge and shifting my eyes lazily between the equally relaxing Times and the deep blue Cape Cod Bay, the quote seemed a bit off the mark (as well as out of character for the achievement-driven Summers). On the other hand, it was Senior Week—hardly a representative time in my college career—and I did have recommendations to round up and essays to write for medical school, as well as a final heap of Crimson work that was sure to cut short any further rose-smelling.
But whether Summers was right or not, the arguments he and others advanced about our class are part of a pervasive literature that defines our generation as one of consummate over-achievers. Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 counseled the class below us to slow down and to eschew quantity for quality in education. The Crimson profiled the obsessive “joiners” among our ranks, describing students who just can’t say no when it comes to involvement in extracurricular activities.
And in an oft-cited 2001 piece in the Atlantic Monthly, David Brooks offered a sweeping analysis of our generation of up-and-coming elites, dubbing us “Organization Kids.”
Brooks argued that societal and historical factors have conditioned us to enjoy and equipped us to excel within our increasingly structured, meritocratic society. We don’t rebel; rather, we set goals and obsess about achievement. We don’t do things (like join groups) as an end in and of themselves, but as a means to some future end. We nearly kill ourselves to succeed. Brooks’ is a particularly useful rubric because it encapsulates or explains many of the other criticisms of our generation (such as that we’re too career-focused, or overcommitted). For his part, Brooks likes the Organization Kid a great deal, saying that we’re interesting and will make good leaders when our time comes—his biggest wish is that we had a stronger commitment to character.
Brooks’ arguments make sense, and his general observations do square with my experience of the last four years. Harvard is full of incredibly talented, driven individuals. We do play by the rules of the game, and we are winning. And the goal of “winning” (however that is defined) is often a prime motivation. To cite the occasional exceptions to these trends—the counterculture rebel, the pure genius or the unquestionable saint—doesn’t undercut Brooks’ stereotype, which only seeks to describe the average student.
I would suggest, however, that this stereotype ignores a key nuance, a nuance that made going to school with other Organization Kids so rewarding. In fact, I believe the development of this nuance may have been Harvard’s most important educational legacy for me.
The most impressive characteristic of my classmates at Harvard was their ability to combine the best of the Organization Kid with other simpler values like friendship, compelling conversation and fun. They were interesting, hard-working and on the path to success, but, crucially, many of them knew how to transform back into the normal, albeit nerdy, kid who did things because they were enjoyable and at key moments, took time to smell the roses. Having lived, worked and studied with these protean creatures for four years now, I have to hope that their sense of balance has rubbed off on me.
This spring I played JV baseball, and the experience illustrates my point well. Somewhere in excess of 45 guys signed up for the team, which played over a dozen games in under a month. One of the varsity coaches told us at the beginning of the season that the top player from JV every year has a chance to try out for varsity the next fall. Scanning the crowd, I didn’t see many eyes glimmering with excitement and anticipation at this great carrot being offered up. None of us were there with such a goal in mind. I was not thinking about how JV baseball on my resume was sure to help distract medical schools from the somewhat problematic lack of a hard science recommendation. We were there because we loved baseball and enjoyed the institution that is the baseball team. And I, at least, was not disappointed. I heard the raunchy jokes of the Rhodes Scholar/stand-up comic/first baseman; I bonded with fellow “spot players” over a bench-side radio smuggled in to listen to the Sox game; I made friends with the veteran who boasts of 18 different hairstyles over the course of the last four years. And then after the game, we all went back across the river to study our organic chemistry, achieve tremendous goals—or, in the one player’s case, get ready for Oxford.
Off the baseball diamond, Harvard students’ ability to bend the Organization Kid stereotype often presented itself in everyday college life. There was the spacey mid-Westerner roommate, with hours of video game playing under his belt and a summa cum laude thesis under a pile of clothes. There was the group of friends that said “work be damned” and lingered for an hour in the dining hall “marinating” post-meal. There was the universe-probing late-night conversation held over a double-decker or a courtyard-imbibed bottle of Two-Buck Chuck. These are not the kids of David Brooks’ world—except that at other times they are precisely.
I don’t know what it means for society that the “elite” of our generation is as I say it is. That we can break the Organization Kid mold on occasion doesn’t diminish the concerns outlined in the New York Times article and doesn’t begin to address Brooks’ criticism about character building and moral discourse. But I do think this flexibility to be something other than purely goal-driven success machines is one that will serve us well in the future.
David H. Gellis ’04, a government concentrator in Dunster House, was The Crimson’s managing editor in 2003.
The Coming of the Entrepreneurial Kid
Reflection on high achieving young people
Fifteen year ago, David Brooks described a specific kind of young people in an essay titled “The Organization Kid”. They were the highest achievers of American top universities. In his words,
“their [schedules] sounded like a session of Future Workaholics of America: crew practice at dawn, classes in the morning, resident-adviser duty, lunch, study groups, classes in the afternoon, tutoring disadvantaged kids in Trenton, a cappella practice, dinner, study, science lab, prayer session, hit the StairMaster, study a few hours more… […]
They are goal-oriented. An activity — whether it is studying, hitting the treadmill, drama group, community service, or one of the student groups they found and join in great numbers — is rarely an end in itself. It is a means for self-improvement, résumé-building, and enrichment. College is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement, and they are always aware that they must get to the next step (law school, medical school, whatever) so that they can progress up the steps after that…
Kids of all stripes [today] lead lives that are structured, supervised, and stuffed with enrichment […] In short, at the top of the meritocratic ladder we have in America a generation of students who are extraordinarily bright, morally earnest, and incredibly industrious. They like to study and socialize in groups. They create and join organizations with great enthusiasm. They are responsible, safety-conscious, and mature.”
Much of that still resonates today, as I have seen in the college journeys of myself and many of my friends. We feel good about the kind of life we are going to lead, the skills we are improving daily and the promise of a better future. We work hard, sometimes too hard to the point of breaking down. We are then forced to decide what matters to us. We realize many pursuits don’t matter, and even for those that do, we have our limits. Then we learn self-care and rein in our commitments. We take yoga classes and exercise regularly to achieve work life balance, because being a professional student is demanding. We have to learn to seek and accept help.
Being in college is an incredible opportunity that we want to make the most of by starting with the end goal in mind. Yet it is not as simple as it seems: Anyone who has traveled knows we cannot jam everything in our bag. We want to pack the essentials and leave enough room for surprise. What we picture as “ends” may change quicker than we think.
Fifteen year later from David Brook’s article, I’m starting to see a shift. My college is still a place for high-achievers, but what counts as “achievement” has changed. Many are looking to do meaningful work and achieve organizational success. Asking people in college “What do you care about?” and you will find a wide range of inspiring answers. Moreover, it is not only lip service: if you look at what these young people do, you will soon admire them for the energy and dedication to the causes they pursue.
The questions we ask ourselves have changed from “What’s next?” to “What do I really want?” It is heartening to see more generation Y asking these questions. Many are questioning the existing structures, skipping what is on the traditional menu and going for the ala carte create-your-own-future dish.
In many higher education institutions, we see an explosion of many Entrepreneurial Leadership Study programs, business competitions, incubators and venture funds to support students pursuing this path. For the young people from elite universities, entrepreneurship is indeed the new black. Even this Atlantic article which disagrees with the rising statistics of millennial entrepreneur yields that it still is a vision worth striving for. On this, Peter Drucker remarks “The popular picture of innovators — half pop-psychology, half Hollywood — makes them look like a cross between Superman and the Knights of the Round Table.” While much has been said about this image, I think it does make a point: what Superman and Knights of the Round Table do have in common is that they are deeply engaged in their worlds. They are anything but bystanders.
There have always been entrepreneurs; those who look critically at current realities and act on the opportunities they see. But these were more exceptions than norms. As Peter Drucker in his essay “Principles of Innovation” said, if we want to make entrepreneurship an integral life-sustaining activity for organizations and society, we need to create the environment where it becomes a sustained practice. We need to shift the collective perception of entrepreneurship from desirable to necessary, for “giving people what they want isn’t nearly as powerful as teaching people what they need” as Seth Godin, the marketing guru, once mentioned. Not everyone wants to start her own endeavour, yet the entrepreneurial mindset has to be cultivated from young.
What does it mean for the individual, especially young ones like me?
One insight that Peter Drucker considers to be obvious but often ignored is that innovation is “hard, focused, purposeful work making very great demands on diligence, on persistence and on commitment.” As such, the making of the “Organizational Kid” is an important prerequisite for the “Entrepreneur Kid” for two reasons. Organization Kids are relentlessly goal-oriented, have high expectations, high performance and result. This drive makes them willingand able to do the work. Behind the glamorous image of Silicon Valley startups is the messiness of the entrepreneurial journey — the infamous “startup grind”. It is slow. It is work. And it is disciplined.
Where Organization Kids may fall short, however, is the ability to adapt, not so much because they can’t but rather because they haven’t allowed themselves to learn that while structure is crucial, it has to be fluid in order to respond to the needs and opportunities arising in the moment. An example I’ve seen it in me and others is the temptation to schedule everything to the minute, and then wonder why creativity has gone missing in our lives. It took me a while to learn to create space for more spontaneity in my overbooked schedule. Since then, I never look back, for this new way of life has allowed me the space to explore so many previously invisible opportunities.
If day to day plans can change so much, imagine how hard it is when people ask me about my goals, let alone a specific plan, for the next 5 years. I don’t know, and I don’t want to pretend to know. It is far more engaging and arguably yield better results to stay in the Now. By definition, innovation is an inefficient process because we do not know where we are going. Yet instead of getting frustrated, we can choose to embrace its messiness while keeping our eye on the original Why.
The Organizational Kids will have to embrace some spontaneity over planning so they can learn to see and think for themselves — to discern. This might be the most challenging yet important skill to learn, and they will need the help of more experienced journeymen. It is challenging because of the temptation to get lost in the doing, especially when the formula has always been proven to work.
On this note, I find it helpful to remember that the best thing about habits and practices is that they give us time in our otherwise messy lives. We use that time to discover and create the truly new. Drucker again has warned us, “all that one can think and do in a short time is to think what one already knows and do as one has always done”. While I am in favour of the entrepreneurial “bias towards action”, perhaps we also want to preamble it with a “bias toward perception”. How can we first see more clearly with ourselves and with others so that we can do what needs to be done?
I’m part of an exciting transition. The Organization Kid is still here, doing well, being more prepared than ever in history. And he is also evolving.
To paraphrase Peter Drucker’s question, will his successor be the Entrepreneurial Kid?