Millennials paralyzed by choice
A crowd at the interactive festival at the Austin Convention Center from the 2010 South by Southwest Conference held in Austin, Texas.
March 8th, 2012
06:30 PM ET

Millennials paralyzed by choice

Editor’s Note: Priya Parker, an expert-in-residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab, is the founder of Thrive Labs, a visioning and strategy advisory firm based in Brooklyn, New York. You can follow Priya on Twitter  @priyaparker.

By Priya Parker - Special to CNN

If January is when the old guard gathers in Davos, Switzerland, March is when the new guard descends on Austin, Texas. At a time of crisis in America, Europe, the Middle East and beyond, a group of tech-savvy do-gooders meets, greets and tweets at South By Southwest.

The conference has experienced a surge in popularity in recent years, exploring questions well beyond the sphere of technology. The several hundred panels and featured sessions for this year’s SXSW Interactive tend to reflect the current concerns of the rising elite. In this post, I’d like to add one concern to their list: Can the avid, accomplished doers at SXSW show the way for a rising generation of Millennials who are all too often afraid to fulfill their potential as leaders?

I run an advisory firm that works with leaders young and old to conceive and implement bold, authentic visions. As part of that work, I recently completed a year-long study of the values and behaviors of the world’s next generation of leaders – the most talented, educated, capable Millennials. I was curious about how this rising cohort of leaders makes decisions and plots the future. I concentrated on dual degrees, or graduates of elite master’s degree programs in both business and public policy.

These are people in their late twenties and early thirties who have usually worked in both the public and private sectors, lived in multiple countries, and passed through some of the most prestigious organizations on earth (the Gates Foundation, McKinsey & Co., offices of prime ministers and presidents).

What I found was a rising generation of elite leaders who bring wonderful new gifts to the table – more empathy than their predecessors, more worldliness, more pragmatism for an angry, ideological age. But I also found my generation of young leaders paralyzed, hesitant, and unwilling stick their necks out and lead on the big questions of our time: how to build a more equitable and sustainable capitalism, how to manage the transition to a post-Western world, how to extend prosperity to developing countries without pushing the planet over the brink.

This generation is distinct from its predecessors in demonstrating new ways of leading: less top down and more lateral; less by command than by catalysis. Its members tend to believe that change is made by bringing out the best in others. It is also less ideological and dogmatic, and more empirical and pragmatic than the generation now in power. Its religion is not party or, frankly, religion, but rather “impact.”

This generation feels pressure to make a difference in the world, and is comfortable using the levers of business, public policy and civil society to do so. And they tend not to be satisfied with small, everyday impact. “For my Dad, it would be his patients,” one child of a doctor told me, when asked about definitions of impact. “For me, it’s providing health care to benefit the largest amount of people.”

But strange anxieties are getting in the way of these ambitions – none more prominently than something called FOMO. It is the “fear of missing out,” and it has been written about by others (including in an article about SXSW last year) as a phenomenon caused by social media. These media show them all the cool places they could be and cool things they could be doing, which always seem better than where they now are. However, my research shows that FOMO is leaking out of the technology realm and becoming a defining ethic of a new generation.

“Am I setting up my adult life to be the way that it could optimally be?” one of my subjects asked aloud, speaking of her general approach to life decisions. This subject explained how FOMO could even invade the pursuit of a spouse: “On the personal side, there’s this fear of ‘Am I committing to the right person?’”

More and more, particularly among those who have yet to make those big life decisions (whom to marry, what kind of job to commit to, where to live), FOMO and FOBO – the “fear of better options” – are causing these young leaders to stand still rather than act. “The way I think about it metaphorically is choosing one door to walk through means all the other doors close, and there’s no ability to return back to that path,” one subject told me. “And so rather than actually go through any doorway, it’s better to stand in the atrium and gaze.”

Those with the most options in this generation have a tendency to choose the option that keeps the most options open. Wrap your head around that for a second. It’s one of the reasons that management consulting has become so popular among today’s young elites.

As one subject explained to me, “Frankly, a lot of people end up defaulting to consulting as a compromise, because they look at it to get the best of both worlds, because it not only passes the airplane test, and you don’t have to sacrifice your social status, you can engage in all the activities, you’re never left out of anything, because it’s the 70 percent solution.”

A current consultant told me, “For me personally, it was lack of clarity.” He added: I knew the types of jobs I wanted, but there wasn’t something specific out there calling me.” A number of other subjects said that they didn’t feel “ready” to take on the problems that most interested them. They wanted to linger and dabble and “learn” for a while longer.

As a result, the North Star of this cohort has become what many of its members call “optionality.” There is great worry that they’re going to choose the “wrong” option. In the last year, I’ve run over 100 Visioning Labs with individuals and groups of young leaders to help them identify their values and passions, and build visions that reflect what they want to do in the world.

In one exercise, I ask people to imagine a year away from their present work and cares, with unlimited time and resources. People speak of doing things like “write a book,” “launch a venture,” “spend time with my grandparents,” “produce a film.” I then have them circle the top three options and reflect on them. Fear and practicality are the most commonly cited reasons for not doing such things in real life. And when they begin to think about what they want to do in the future, many look at their immediate next step as the one that will keep the most doors open so that they can have a Pocket Year much, much later.

Many of us watch the choices of our peers and predecessors with a blend of admiration and anxiety. What seems to afflict this cohort – more than the political strivings or existential angst that defined earlier generations of elites – is a persistent anxiety about their might-have-been lives, about the ones that got away. Life for this group is diminished by the presence of so many options one click, one job switch, one social connection away. Though many of these young people described themselves and their cohort with words such as “passionate,” a commonly cited fear was “not having my idealism match my choices” and “being too afraid to take the leap.”

A number of subjects talked about risk aversion rising with success. One subject said, “I’m probably unhealthily obsessed with making the right choices.” He added: “I think it comes from a fear of missing out on something bigger and better in whatever you do. So I like to think of myself as someone who has made good choices up until now and I have enjoyed the kind of outcomes that I’ve been able to get from making those kind of choices.

“I think when you feel like you’ve made all the right choices and don’t feel like you’ve had any major failures, that kind of track record makes you always cautious about continuing to make good choices, and improving outcomes – whatever that means for you.”

Over the next two weeks, I will write a series of posts on sharing what I’ve found to be the obstacles blocking our generation of Millennials from thriving, as well as some of the activities that I’ve observed lead people to thrive again. This week’s gathering in Austin attracts the most adventurous and risk-seeking members of the Millennial cohort. But as they gather to discuss and debate and design the future, I hope they will help think about how to get the rest of us to think bigger, think bolder – and to do.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Priya Parker.

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Topics: Innovation • Technology • Youth

soundoff (61 Responses)
  1. matt a

    Visionaries usually have good intentions for their far reaching effects on the global condition. When its occurs domestically, we have depressions every seventy-five to eighty years.

    These individuals must not assume that government will fund their every whim.

    March 8, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Reply
  2. Lisa F

    This quote pops out at me:

    “I think when you feel like you’ve made all the right choices and don’t feel like you’ve had any major failures, that kind of track record makes you always cautious about continuing to make good choices, and improving outcomes – whatever that means for you.”

    Do you think it's possible that the people you chose as leaders - due to their prestigious jobs, their ability to dabble across the globe (but ability to absorb their surroundings is not listed), and other achievements based on some standard pedigree we have set up for ourselves as a culture - do you think this is faulty? After all, the ability to take risks is admirable and courageous. But with risk comes the possibility of failure. Failure, in and of itself, is not bad. It is simply an outcome. Would not the ability to press on in the face of failure - or through it, after the fact - be a defining quality of leadership?

    If I could briefly posit that the culture we have created - first, the culture of shallow pedigree, and secondly, the culture of "everyone's a winner, everyone gets a trophy, don't keep score in little league games" - has created that fear of failure. We should let kids fail. It is not bad. Failure tempers you for success. It makes men out of boys (or, women out of girls [I won't look this over on International Women's Day!]).

    March 8, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Reply
    • Lisa F

      I should have watched the video first. You provide excellent solutions to this! I'm looking forward to your coming posts.

      March 8, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    I don't understand why the generation of people born between the years 1977 and 1994 are called millennials. They were born in a period that shaped the course of GLOBALISATION. They should be globalists and shrug off parochial views.

    March 9, 2012 at 4:46 am | Reply
  4. J. Collard

    I think there are some underlying beliefs behind Millennials' paralysis.

    * The more choices I have, the happier I will be. Therefore, I must maximize the number of choices that I have. Making a choices (or closing a door) would mean a lack of choice, and therefore, a lack of happiness.
    * If I fail at some type of endeavor, then I am a failure. It is not acceptable for me to be a failure, therefore, I must not take a risk at an edeavor where I could fail.
    * Happiness lies in the amount of control I have over my life. More choices means more control. Committing to something means that there is a risk of unhappiness. To make sure that I maintain my current happiness, I will not commit to anything, but rather, will continue to review my options.

    Perhaps these are just my views, rather than the views of an entire generation. But I wonder if Millennials do have these thought patterns.

    P.S. I have to say that while I do think these underlying beliefs could govern millennials approach to chocies, these beliefs have some intrinsic flaws.

    March 9, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  5. deniz boro

    So this is almost the problem I have been suffereing in Turkey for almost 8 years. Even BBC was calling my "SPECIES"

    March 9, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  6. deniz boro

    So this is almost the problem I have been suffereing in Turkey for almost 8 years. Even BBC was calling my "SPECIES" elite just because we valued knowledge. I never felt elite for being more knowladgable. Than there was a name given to our kind by Turkish Newsmen which was equal to WASP. Which was so out of the way because I was not Protestant. Only lack of knowledge leads to paranoid thoughts. And only lack of knowledge can bring this gap about. What is named "elite" are only people who are interested in KNOWING. Is there a threat in knowing? Sorry thats my nature. And I will not be DISCRIMINATED BECAUSE I CHOOSE TO KNOW.

    March 9, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Reply
    • deniz boro

      Please analys the social facttors behind the song named "Self Control" which was a representative song of the times. But also is repeated in our day among youth who seek aplace in an "off reality place". The current condition of the youngesters is not a new situation; you just have to decyfer the conditions in parallel with the handicaps of the youngesters.

      April 30, 2012 at 2:25 am | Reply
      • deniz boro

        If you can not be a part of the solution do not be a part of the problem.

        May 26, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
  7. deniz boro

    People naturaly think it is hard to climb up the ledder. What of those people who have a different vision, who know a shortcut?. These people are naturally shunned, abused and naturally feared. They are a threat to so many set social structures...They have a diffirent vision. It is not a different religion or a political view... But believe me these lot of people have a more difficult life in becoming part of society. They are usually margianilized and treated as "a kind'o circus animal". But well what Turkey along with BBC called this "species" was enlighting. Yep This is the ELITE

    March 9, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  8. M. T.

    I have seen a lot of what is discussed in the article and video in my generation, but I have also seen a lot of people who are continually turned away from where they want to go because they don't have "enough experience". Many of my peers were forced to take consulting jobs after finishing their BAs and MAs simply because they couldn't find jobs elsewhere and student debts required them to have an income. I wonder how that plays into this analysis and what it means for those who have a passion but constantly find themselves hitting brick walls.

    March 10, 2012 at 8:06 am | Reply
    • Vikas

      MarineMom79I may be a little beasid, since I have an amazingly strong and fulfilling marriage (that happens to be interracial), but in my opinion race and ethnicity aren't the issues. What matters is that couples have shared values and goals. If there are known hurdles, such as religious differences, then they need to have plan before they wed on how they will raise their children, etc. They need to be aware that once they wed, outside family concerns and pressure take a back seat to spousal support and unity. Couples, regardless of race, that begin with a shared foundation and common goals are far more likely to succeed than thise without.

      April 23, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Reply
  9. Just a cowboy...

    It's rather funny that even though SXSW takes place here in Texas, you seem to focus your attention only on the Ivy league elite. There are many of us who are actually intelligent, educated, and worldly but lack the resources to meet your criteria for being "leaders". I worked my way through college and couldn't afford to fly around the world. I don't suffer from too many options, I suffer from too few. As you struggle to understand why your vaunted millennial leadership can't devise new solutions, consider that you aren't asking the people who actually comprise the majority (Nothing, by the way, develops empathy quite like being poor). You ask the children of privilege to change the world, but why would they? Just like their parents, they benefit the most from maintaining the status quo. If you want progress, you'll have to include the rest of us in the formation of policy. Someday, I hope we collectively can judge ideas on their merit and not on one's inherited privilege. Until then, I'm sorry for my insolence, and will promptly return to my peasant duties.

    March 10, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Reply
  10. deniz boro

    Just a Cowboy, you are perfectly right. It is just that old and set rules and customes are hard to change – and maybe they should not be changed- But this article brings forward those who did double majors. And most probably have +110 IQ. Only IQ DOES NOT MAKE GOOD LEADERS. It also takes EQ. What realy affected me deeply in this article was perhaps a specific local case in Turkey. My age group-namely those born in the 80's – where a new generation of Turks who opened up Turkey to free market and export-import are now generally called the ELITTE. And are shunned and even under the hammer. This may form a realy good example for these coming new generations who hesitate to take any action. So dear cowboy, the only frontiers are left in the field of social balance. I am a veteran of that and do not carry a medal. How can you expect the new generation to embark on an odyseus which will bring unsustainable results. Times changes as this I am but North-North West Group speculates.

    March 12, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  11. deniz boro

    In general. The word elitte" came to mean a kind of "undesirable troublemaker" in this part of the world. And to be an Ellite is hence equal to be disliked and almost treated like a villian. Can you blame other for taking the mediocre choice.

    March 12, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Reply
  12. 15 usa soldiers ra pe 2 afgani women before killing them

    the afgani investigation and the international lab proved now that 15 usa soldiers was involved of killing more than 16 children and women, and that 15 soldiers ra pe 2 afgani ladies young ladies ra pe them repeatdley and then shot them dead and burned there bodies , exactley as it happened in iraq when usa soldiers ra ped 14 years old girl then shot her and shot her parents and brothers and burned there bodies ...usa did that in vitnam ,korea and many other places they are murderous thugs ra piest killers and OBAMA say soyy all the time!!?/while leaving evil iranians and evil syrian bashar al asad killing more civilians obama is a cowered president if obama want to fix this problem he must attack syria now and remove bashar al asad to show to the muslim world that he mean it, remove the evil in syria now and prove your point OBAMA.......why you are silent...SILENCE IS A CRIME.

    March 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  13. Maturi

    Jason“Asian. White. Black. Hispanic. Do race and ethnicity mteatr when it comes to marriage?”Well, yes and no.Yes, it does mteatr.Some people aren’t attracted to their own ethnicity, so they seek someone they are attracted to. For my friend who is from India, he’s attracted to Caucasian women, so that’s the “pond” he’s fishing from. For a lot of people, though, it may be that either (1) they aren't attracted to other ethnicities, or (2) they're not comfortable with the perceived stigma from being in an interracial relationship even though they are attracted to someone from another race, so they refrain from it.No, it doesn't mteatr.As a Christian man who desires to be in an interracial marriage, I’m aware that we are all created in the same image that of the Trinity. We bear God’s resemblance in our masculine and feminine hearts, not our skin tone.It is the heart underneath the skin that truly makes the person.But, like I mentioned above, some people are attracted to certain ethnicities.

    April 23, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Reply
  14. deniz boro

    uups again, High tides.

    April 30, 2012 at 2:42 am | Reply
  15. deniz boro

    Refering back to knowledge, we had a syber attack in Turkey last Friday. It was soon after a governor declares alchohol prohibition in the city of Afyon. My internet was cut off for 3 hours in a city like Istanbul. The call centers of the servise provider were broken down for 3 hours. None of the local chanels gave any news on what was going on. When I was able to reach the call center the explanation I got was that their was a technical problem in my area (Which is the European coast of Istanbul- that adds up to 10 million people) The official statement made the day after was that it was an infrastructure fault. Other news were that it was a united hacker group attack on some ministries. Which went so far that the web servers had to pull the plug in many major cities. Imagine leaving 10 million people out of internet. But this was all hush hush.

    May 1, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Reply
    • deniz boro

      Who wants to be treated like this or who wants to resort to such outlets? Be like the rest of them and stay safe and happy.

      May 1, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  16. deniz boro

    There was this toy I bought to my nephew when he was 3 or four. there was this gameboard and a hammer. Some head would come out of the gameboard and the child was supposed to use the hammer to hit on its head to get it back in the gameboard. Very educating on possitioning.

    May 1, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Reply
  17. Maritesx Hikarir

    You could definitely see your skills in the paintings you write. The sector hopes for more passionate writers such as you who aren't afraid to mention how they believe. Always go after your heart. "If you feel yourself falling, let go and glide." by Steffen Francisco.

    June 10, 2012 at 4:17 am | Reply
  18. deniz boro

    Tha Maritesx. After I realy am sure on the newest censor protocoles of my vicinity. But the IT protocoles are new and rather shaky here. Frankly they are not much wise or versed. There is no knowing what they will dislike. Untill than I may cherp like a bird on meaningless lines so that I may still have an operating internet line.

    July 22, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Reply
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