|There is a declaration of psychological independence rising among the emergent generation, symbolic of a deep divide between 20th and 21st century ideals. It involves a seismic shift in values more relevant to the evolution of prosperity than immigration policy, health insurance law, or the reconstruction of credit. This generational assertion of freedom includes the right to ignore the complex, impersonal schemes that have traditionally supported prosperity. It’s an attitude that is the pulse of what’s called “failure to launch,” although “failure” does not capture the intentionality of this revolution. The resistance and inertia that blithely rule adolescent life are far from a coordinated effort, but they are hardly an accident. Our huge mistake in trying to “save” the coming generation is to assume they want to be just like us.
This rebellion of ideals portends a change in the basic premises of a successful life. The uniqueness of this shift has to do with the collision of mind and socioeconomic circumstances. More specifically, the next generation is making work subordinate to the tone and tempo of mind. The real sway of this transformation is pushed by a generational reflex to privatize the mind’s focus. It’s post-ADHD. What appears to be disorder to those in midlife is the new normal for those under twenty-five. From the perch of adolescence, the real disorder lies in antiquated systems of thinking and working. In fifty years, our progeny will wonder why we were so willing to consign ourselves to an agenda of upward mobility, just as we might wonder how our own parents could have found so much pleasure in black and white TV.
A Problem of Inspiration
No matter how it might be intended, motivation is ultimately a desire to co-opt someone else’s personal priorities. It is unavoidably contentious because it pits one person’s will against another’s. It’s easier to appreciate the necessity of motivation when thinking about contexts like military service or sports, where vigorous compliance is essential to victory. Yet motivating someone to “grow up” is considerably more complicated because adults and adolescents don’t necessarily agree on where effort is warranted. This dilemma underscores how supremely difficult it is to make someone want what they don’t already desire.
But is the resistance to being motivated really a problem, or simply a testament to human resilience? Might this resistance even be a prized aspect of our political identity? For example, how can we rationalize advocating a cultural ethos of freedom, and then look askance at an individual’s assertion of autonomy – even if that reflex is exercised in the interest of remaining idle?
Freedom of Mind
It’s no secret that appropriated ideas are second nature to a generation that grew up surfing information online, a circuit with no defined beginning or end. What is less understood is how that sort of cultivated distraction implicitly devalues an attitude of goal-directedness, especially relative to the cognitive buoyancy of floating from one moment to the next. Those moments may be informed by images, sounds, or text, but the content is created with an expectation of impermanence; whatever truth they hold is only temporary. The effect of this development poses a unique challenge: how do we motivate a generation whose perception of momentum is more circuitous than linear?
Young people are increasingly savvy about using passivity as a means of shielding themselves from unwanted enthusiasm. Teenagers have a sixth sense for coercion no matter how well it is disguised; they know when emotion is being used to ensnare them in a reality that is not of their own making. The evolutionary roots of this ability are probably linked to physical survival: the essence of knowing whom to trust in life or death situations. Now, however, these perceptions are more fundamental to psychological survival, and especially the ability to maintain a sovereign mind in response to persistent attempts to persuade. Before being irritated, we should realize how logical this is for a generation that market research tells us is exposed to 5000 ads per day.
The overtures of adults fail because we don’t see how motivation is an emotional transaction; effortful behavior is exchanged for an outcome teenagers expect will make them feel more like their true selves. A person may become compliant when they get worn down, but they only agree to be motivated when the change in question promises to deliver a more congruent life.
The best teachers and therapists consistently tap into congruence as a means of cultivating productive emotional alliances. Congruence is inner harmony; actions reflect values in a coordinated effort of self-determination. Desire for congruence is why athletes submit to half-time pep talks, and why CEOs are stirred by the words of an executive coach; the person being motivated has faith that the advice will yield apersonally desirable outcome. As a result, apprehension is disarmed, and a person’s simultaneous need for protection and open-mindedness can amiably comingle. This is good because we can no more live happily without occasionally being motivated than we can without sometimes feeling curious or confident. Feeling motivated is a way of belonging to the world, and its benefits always exceed the value of whatever it might produce. The awareness of acceleration and purpose to which motivation refers is itself a coveted destination. Try to imagine being motivated without also feeling optimistic or capable.
As the pace of daily life accelerates, the image we hold for the able-bodied teen looks much more like mania than it does relaxed poise. In America, we’re infatuated by people who exude energy; they instill confidence, perhaps because they seem to project a “can do” attitude. We rarely think about how our infatuation with energy is compensation for unspoken fears. First, there is the fear of being left behind socially and economically. Our subconscious defense against this possibility is boundless enthusiasm and frantic attention to detail. The seeds of this mania may be sown as early as preschool. Second, in the absence of any larger life purpose, perpetual energy is an attractive substitute for meaning. Energized people personify notions of success, and where energy can be translated into prosperity, the need for purpose is likely to go unattended. Don’t many of us anticipate a reflective search for self and meaning in retirement – once all the big money has been made, and upward mobility has lost all sense of urgency?
In this light, we tend to feel good about teens who are busy and “invested” in something, without asking ourselves or them if the activity is congruent with a purposeful life. What a person pursues, within reasonable limits, has become a less significant marker of wellbeing than the presence of pursuit itself. Even if that energy is simply directed at going to college, it is a sign that the basic algorithm of prosperity is intact. Yet there is a suddenness to that anticipation that contrasts sharply with our ideals about the prior phase of childhood.
As an example, there is surely no critique of early childhood more ubiquitous than the notion that kids are busy beyond reason. Railing against such busyness is a way of expressing identification with wholesome values, even as we’re burdened by guilt about the manic ambitions we secretly hold for our kids. But if our guilt compels us to “let children be children,” we’re not about to extend the same latitude to adolescents. Those who feel obligated to defend the absolute freedom of childhood are unlikely to have their own languishing, ear-budded teenagers in mind when they do so.
With the onset of adolescence it’s even harder to stay the course. For example, a bad report card laying ominously on the kitchen table has a way of suffocating relaxation and playfulness. Report cards and IQ scores have insidiously become symbols of a person’s worth, and by pre-adolescence it’s nearly impossible to get out from underneath this cloud.
It’s misleading to suggest that young people fully understand the worry and conflicts that occupy those who raise them, but it’s not as though they don’t feel the effects of those concerns. The stress implicit in being a 21st century teenager is enormous, and it often has a paradoxical effect on teen behavior. Instead of boosting productive activity, it contributes to paralysis and withdrawal; a mental space that inhibits the very actions by which the young might help themselves. The resulting slowdown is a kind of developmental inertia. Like a depressed economy, it doesn’t necessarily imply sadness, but it does suggest stagnation.
Inertia is also entangled with the epidemic of insufficient focus. The relationship between inertia and focus reflects the untreatable aspects of what is routinely called ADHD. There are no medical cures for a young person who finds school or entry-level jobs intolerably dull. For the inert, the subtext of distraction is an unwillingness to sit attentively in classrooms and jump through hoops of accomplishment that have been defined by someone else. If you’re thinking these terms apply only to the few, I humbly ask you to consult your nearest high school.
Inertia amplifies the natural ambivalence of youth, making it that much more difficult to know what’s worth doing. We’ve raised the current generation to believe that every dream is a distinct possibility, but have fallen short in teaching them how to build a life that places authenticity before success. Pursuit of an authentic life makes self-knowledge the highest priority; it values exploration and understanding over novelty and drama. Finding authenticity is hard work, and is made even more difficult by the fog of social networking. It’s pretty difficult to find yourself when you can alter your persona with the click of a button.
Congruity and Authenticity
Most young people turn to their friends in times of doubt, and so they develop a somewhat myopic, peer-based perspective of authenticity. A few find themselves in a therapist’s office, but the person facing them may still feel alien to their own generation. With respect to this conundrum, the search for authenticity can’t be reduced to the strict behaviorism favored by much of academic psychology. Searching for authenticity is a different type of endeavor than the management of unwanted feelings or behaviors. It is of particular importance as young people work their way through university programs in hopes of finding a congruent career.
Annually, a small army of new college graduates marches forward with the hope that their work life will, in some meaningful way, reflect their educational choices. In many cases, these choices are far more personal than opportunistic: they represent the soul of a person’s hope for him or herself, a way to transcend the drudgery of merely working to live. For decades we have accepted that English majors are not entitled to jobs as writers. Are we now ready to assume the corollary of those studying computer science, education, and civil engineering?
Pursuit of a congruent life expresses belief in the capacity of work to be transcendent. We work not only to live, but to fulfill our potential for creative industry. In that work we find reason and reward – a way out of inertia and toward bliss. This is an equation at odds with modern ideas about success and the path to prosperity.
Opposing this approach is a half-century of social science research concluding that a fire ignited from within burns longer than one sparked by external rewards. Yet the most common approaches to motivating the young are organized around contingency systems emphasizing rewards for “good” behavior. The liability here lies in positioning “good” as an outcome for a set of actions that may be absent any degree of authorship. What message do we send adolescents and young adults when we reinforce behavior that is void of any investment of self? Isn’t the resulting message that compliance trumps expression? Can this approach conceivably yield happiness or true motivation?
This is the essential problem of receiving a report card in school. As adults, we may view grades as a marker of socioeconomic potential, but that conception is an abstraction for students – it has little immediate gravitas. The next generation is graduating to a new vision of school as a place of perpetual self-discovery. And this is not a shift exclusive to the best and brightest; it’s a generational shift prompted by the surfing of circuits, and which now flavors everyone’s Red Bull.
The most dramatic changes will occur because adolescents do not feel tethered to the dream of prosperity created by their parents and grandparents. The new ecology of adolescence and early adulthood calls into question the very values upon which ideas of success have traditionally been based. Indeed, our best hope for a prosperous future may paradoxically be pinned to the young being successful in making the inclinations of their psyches economically viable.
Habits of mind, including the structure and tempo of thought, are less likely to be constrained by moral imperatives handed down from previous generations. Whatever trail to prosperity the next generation blazes, it will have to accommodate those habits of mind because they have grown too strong to be suppressed by human will. Many young people have already come to grips with this transformation and are searching for ways to deepen the experience of who they are. In this regard, one might wonder if taking medication to improve attention will soon become a form of nostalgia. The next generation seems more likely to engage ways of getting into distraction, than trying to figure out how to control it.
The current intersection of mind and economy invites both caution and wonder. Young people interest us as a generation, as much as they worry us as our progeny. It’s difficult to imagine any social circumstance which would cause us to abate our desire to nurture them in our own image, but that hasn’t stopped the next generation from sensing that there are new rules governing happiness and work.
Embedded in the changing face of prosperity is a softer fusion of life and work; an ideal that identity, values, and behavior do not have to be falsely compartmentalized. It’s more than a trivial wish; it’s a belief in the possibility of belonging without compromise. Inside that hope, the world’s indifference and hardness are manageable.
Copyright Adam Cox, 2011
|EQ Leads to Better Grades
A recent study appearing in Child Development found that school success requires a combination of social, emotional, and academic competencies. The study examined more than 200 school-based social and emotional learning programs, and found that those programs improve students’ attitudes and behaviors, and in some cases, boost academic performance.Social and emotional learning programs aim to promote students’ abilities in one or more areas, including recognizing and managing emotions, establishing and maintaining positive relationships, setting and achieving positive goals, making responsible decisions, and constructively handling interpersonal situations. The programs examined included classroom-based instruction by teachers, classroom-based instruction by others (such as university researchers), and comprehensive programs featuring a combination of classroom-based teaching with additional programming at school or in families.
Researchers found that, compared to students in the studies’ control groups, students in the programs that were considered showed significantly improved social and emotional skills, caring attitudes, and positive social behaviors. In addition, students’ disruptive behavior and emotional distress declined. In the small group of studies that examined academics, the researchers found that students performed better on achievement tests, tantamount to an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement. Programs were effective for students of all ages and from different ethnic groups, regardless of whether their schools were in urban, suburban, or rural areas. Researchers found better results in programs that followed recommended practices for training school personnel in promoting skills among children than in those that didn’t follow these practices.
|Ask Dr. Cox|
Q. My 25 year-old son has many of the problems you discuss in Boys of Few Words. Is it too late for me to help him? He’s doing great at his university, except that he has almost no friends, and never tells me anything. I don’t see him wanting to change and I don’t know what to do.
Esperanza C., Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Q. I love the suggestions you make in No Mind Left Behind, but are they too advanced for my four year-old? I don’t want to push him too hard, but I’m also concerned about letting him get away with bad habits.
Adrienne V., Saybrook, CT
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