Millennials prioritizing productivity over purpose
March 19th, 2012
08:00 AM ET

Millennials prioritizing productivity over purpose

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

In the last few weeks alone, we’ve heard this rising generation called everything from the Go-Nowhere Generation and the MacGyver and DIY Generation to Generation Stuck and Generation Flux. In recent years, the generation most commonly known as the Millennials has also been described as Generation Me, Generation We, the Trophy Kids, the Boomerang Generation and the Dumbest Generation. (Ouch).

If one theme runs through these different pieces, it’s that people really like to name this generation. (I am guilty of injecting my own label into the mix last week, when I wrote a piece on the Global Public Square casting my cohort as Generation FOMO. We are held together, I argued, by a shared tendency to make decisions based on the fear of missing out on something around the corner.)

As part of my job, I work with talented Millennials on building alternative future strategies. They often come to me feeling burned out and unsure how to make their mark in the world. We work together to think strategically and soulfully - yes, you can do both! - about the kind of future they wish to build.

In this work, I’ve found that, whatever you call them, many Millennials are inhibited by anxieties peculiar to our time. I’ve already spoken of the FOMO problem. In this post, I want to share some of the other blockages that Millennials tell me afflict them. Next week, I will share techniques that I’ve found helpful in overcoming FOMO and these other inhibitors of building, creating and doing.

Read: Millennials paralyzed by choice.

1. The GTD syndrome. David Allen’s famous book “Getting Things Done” has become a productivity Bible for this cohort. Similarly, productivity apps like Evernote, Things, TaskPaper and Producteev all help us do what we’re already doing faster or more efficiently. But there’s a tendency among those I work with to forget to ask why they are doing it in the first place. We often prioritize productivity over purpose.

At leading graduate schools around the country, the conversation about purpose and the why (rather than how) is a sideshow. In those moments that seem made for reflection, such as spring or winter break, there is a culture of “doing more,” with students signing up for “treks” to China, India, South Korea and the like. But these are treks not to climb mountains or even hills. They are treks to meet with the executives they might one day work for, the bureaucrats who may one day regulate them, the charities they may one day give to.

One week of spring break has become another opportunity to pack in even more. Gone is the thought of sitting and spending time asking what we actually want and how to build and create a life that represents those values. Initiatives like Bill George’s True North groups and talks by Clayton Christenson have been the rare exceptions.

2. Prioritizing success over mastery. Mastery is out. Serial dabbling is in. With the rise of personal branding and an increased ability to get your message out sooner, the networking mentality of “it’s who you know” has all but replaced “it’s what you know.” Perhaps because of the rapid expansion of social networks and the flattening effects of the Internet, many of the people I’ve studied and work with estimate that they allocate more of their time to deepening their networks through coffee meetings and phone calls and such than to spending time alone developing an actual skill or craft - something they can strive to do better than anyone else alive. As one talented artist recently told me, every budding artist who asks for help wants to know how they can get recognized rather than how they can become a better artist.

3. The reactive day. Many of the people I work with speak of approaching each day defensively. The question that drives their work is “What do I need to respond to?” rather than “What should I create today?” They swat back emails that fly at them, sit in meetings that they unthinkingly agreed to two months earlier, take phone calls seeking their approval or advice. But they don’t build. They don’t sit and think. They don’t ask: "How could I redefine and reinvent what this job is?"

We’ve heard about the perils of multi-tasking and continuous partial attention. But, rather than finding ways to focus and own their own days, many of the most talented Millennials resist leading. Instead, they react to whatever’s in front of them at that moment. In my Visioning Labs, one exercise I use is to have people write down all of the activities they perform over the course of a typical day. Then I ask them to go back through and classify the activities as either “intake” - information they are taking in - or “output”  - ideas or products they are actually putting out in the world. The majority of those I work with are “intaking” at much higher rates than they are creating. Most doers and entrepreneurs are the opposite.

4. Maintenance over courage. The Harvard Kennedy School has an excellent program that seeks to get more women into elected office. It’s called From Harvard Square to the Oval Office. One of the things the trainers tell women to do is to send an email, a handwritten card or a postcard every six months to everyone they know (!) so that their name crosses those eyes with some frequency. You never know whom you’re going to need, or when. You are taught to “water your armies” over decades in preparation for running for office one day. It is something seasoned politicians know and do regularly, and perhaps worthy advice.

However, when it came to advising us on policy ideas, the only real advice was not to put anything controversial in writing. It was not to be bold or think freshly. It was to crouch. This approach has spilled well beyond those people considering an office run. It has crept into the mindset of many Millennials, so that we are effectively encouraged to run personal, perpetual campaigns. The theory is that, one day, when we’re finally ready to cash in those chips and build, we’ll have an army behind us. But many of us spend more time writing emails and staying in touch than developing daring, imaginative, controversial ideas and testing those notions in the real world.

These are some of the blockages that Millennials tell me afflict them. Next week, I will share techniques that I’ve found helpful in overcoming these other inhibitors of building, creating and doing. Check back here.

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Topics: Culture • Innovation • Strategy

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Sanity

    Today we're living with the "me" generation. America's young tend to put themselves first and formost and feel that they're superior to people in other countries. This however, is not quite true as evidenced by our high crime rate and the evergrowing membership of the Tea Party Movement.

    March 19, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Reply
    • deep blue

      Every generation whines about the next one. Tablets thousands of years old have been found complaining about the vices of the youngsters. You say America's youth think they are superior to people in other countries, but look at our adults. Look at our media. Americans, on average, are Amerocentric, and I don't think this is more true for the youth demographic than for older people.

      March 19, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
      • Brett

        I agree with Deep Blue. Every generation thinks that the next generation is lazy and ineffectual, yet the world keeps chugging on. Actually, we are forgetting the Gen Xer's in this conversation. When I look to either side of me (generationally speaking) I see two very different groups of people and both of them whine constantly, or at least it seems that way. I think of it more as a function of age and having nothing better to do than some grand phenomenon.

        March 20, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  2. Sboo

    by the way, crime rate is low today compared to the past.

    March 20, 2012 at 1:08 am | Reply
  3. Sboo

    hey, we didn't cause the great recession by buying houses we can't afford or giant cars to impress others and soil the earth.
    following the latest iphone or ipad is silly but it's not bankrupting our country or causing climate change.

    March 20, 2012 at 1:11 am | Reply
  4. Norris

    The problem lies in the breakdown of traditional morality. Previous generations defined their purpose through careers and social roles whose value to society had been honed and refined for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. Now that all of that has been thrown out the window, the only noble purposes out there (as we are told by Hollywood) are all defined through the lens of social justice- which is an ephemeral and impractical ideal for the vast majority of people. Millenials, like previous generations, need to combine practical career and social paths with a greater purpose- which can never be achieved only through social justice.

    March 20, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  5. dropping mcknowledge

    The "generation _" paradigm is obsolete, which is why there is no consensus about what to name the latest generation. The rate of cultural evolution is increasing, to the point where cultural differences are too large between people born even 5 years apart to group them into a single category linked by birth date. Let alone the dinosauric 2-decade cultural subdivisions of the past.

    @Sboo the "great recession" wasn't caused by house or car purchases. It was caused by investment bankers being allowed to profit off of loan defaults, in other words a self-created incentive for banks to create loans designed to fail. Read the Levin Report.

    As the Greeks say, "ideology kills." If you have an ideology, all "answers" are found in orthodoxy – so whats the point of having a brain?

    March 20, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  6. laprofe63

    I have been teaching college for the last, wow, almost 20 years and I'm seeing some of what this article talks about, and some other things. On the positive note, I think that this, or any, generation of young people can bring fresh ideas to the mix–the problem is getting the "old folks" to listen and take them seriously. Some of the most inspiring people I've met in these past 20 years have been young activists–a lot of Dream Act activists to be precise, and they are amazing, courageous and willing to risk everything for a just cause. However, on the negative side, I see a lot of cowardice and general superficiality too. The "text me" generation is increasingly incapable of handling difficult but necessary confrontations, face to face...so I'm not too hopeful that they will be the ones to move us forward on the difficult issues of our times. The superficiality may be nothing too new–a lack of interest in what's happening politically or economically, having a preference for the latest celebrity gossip is as old as pop culture itself. But, I wonder if they know that having your head in the sand gets you nothing but an ass bite.

    March 20, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    Yes, networking is important. Reading the right that stimulates the intellect is even mor important.

    March 21, 2012 at 4:18 am | Reply
  8. Sean B.

    As a millenial who works with other millenials on their future strategies as well, I respectfully disagree that productivity is a priority when considering our generation as a whole. While you work with talented millenials, I work with markedly untalented millenials in a job service in Montana. They exhibit no signs of "FOMO." I think this is a symptom of the demographic you likely work with- wealthy individuals in urban settings. Basically, no one cares out here- they just want to survive. The same is likely true of the untalented millenials who make up the majority of our generation by rule of the definition of "talented."

    I think the best label you can put on our generation is "just like any other," or JLAO, if you're so inclined, (I work in government and hate acronyms, FYI... LOL). There is nothing special or particular about us, just like there is nothing new about older generations seeing the worst in themselves reflected in the youth of society and branding them negatively because of it.

    I certainly agree with you about the "serial dabbling" of our generation, although- and I find your writing very informative of the small percentage of successful millenials.

    March 21, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
  9. maine man

    As a teacher of world Geography in Public School I have students read " a letter from an Egyptian father to his son'. long story short the son is in trouble at school, chasing girls, fighting and drinking. The son replies that he would like to go in the army. The father ends with stick to your studies because your life will be better. The students are always amazed that the story takes places 4000 + years ago. Many things dont change.
    I swore that I would never be like my father yet now that I have children I respect his ways and teachings and lessons in a way that I never thought I would when I was 19.

    March 21, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Reply
  10. Citizen_76

    I am going to toss something out and maybe it will stick...Millennials are the greatest generation since WWII. These bright men and women came to America's aid when she was attacked during 9/11. They fought two wars, brought about the end to several dictators and even captured the most wanted terriosts the world has ever seen. They use the internet and technology to be more informed/smarter than any generation this country has ever had.

    No this generation will be just fine..I know because thier my grandchildern, my mechanic, my plumber, my lawyer, and my accountant

    March 22, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Reply
    • Sean B.

      We really didn't plan or execute any of that, we just were ordered to. We certianly didn't invent the internet, either.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
      • KT

        I think you missed Citizen_76's point. It was Millennials who showed courage to join the army while 1 then 2 wars were being fought (the article suggests this generation chooses maintenance over courage...) and that we use internet to a great extent, thus the idea of the so-called information age, which has accelerated the rate and scale at which ideas are exchanged globally. Don't be lame, Sean B; it sounds like you just have an axe to grind.

        March 23, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
      • Sean B.

        I suppose I would argue that the vast majority of volunteers for our military join up because of career/financial reasons. And yes, I certainly do fit into the cynical/bitter category with regards to human nature. I just don't think we need to place any praise or negative labels on any generation- it breeds age discrimination. The differences between the generations are natural as a result of technology, not some kind of revelatory discovery. Human nature remains the same- self interest is the guiding force of society.

        March 23, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
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    March 24, 2012 at 11:20 am | Reply
  12. K. Ombrellaro

    Im glad this article illustrates exactly the problem it discusses. Rather investigating the source of the problem this article merely mentions the problem's manifestations, and in its presentation begs a deeper, less superficical analysis of the situation. I hope your next publication doesn't solely focus on change strategies targeting these "millenials", because an article of real value, in line with your suggestion, would focus on change, creation, innovation - an order demanding focus on the roots, rather than the limbs of the problem. Do you know the root of the problem?

    March 24, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  13. Daniel

    I think alot of these problem stem from the fact that our world moves at a faster pace than we can rightfully handle. We're trying to cram more and more into our day, and because of that, we've lost our ability to stop and think about the 'why' like Fareed said. We've got so much to do that we're simply focused on getting our current task done so we can move onto the next task on our never ending laundry list of things to do. So because we're so over worked, we end up reacting to things defensivly and not thinking about them proactivly like we should.

    March 25, 2012 at 2:28 am | Reply
  14. Elenore

    Parker,

    Here is what you tell some of the Millennials you work with, it's just two things, so they should be able to get it right away:

    1. Everything is fine.
    2. If they have an idea that's worth testing out. Test it out. The only real lesson in life worth learning is that if you have something to do; you need to do it.

    March 25, 2012 at 10:17 am | Reply
  15. GenXer

    What a depressing article. When I come across young people from the Millenial generation, I see people who are enthusiastic, full of energy, full of optimism. People who aren't afraid of the rapid changes occurring in our world.

    March 26, 2012 at 10:48 am | Reply
  16. JulianDelphiki

    What are you most of talking about ? You really are in no way looking at statistics that really matter;as in most college graduates nowadays would flunk a basic geography test , cant even find Russia or even Iran on a globe, how 1 in five is all that will pass the most basic high school math and grammar tests. No wonder America is now ranked 45th in math and science and 25 th overall in education.I'm sorry like it or not but you need to wake up and realize you are the most stupid generation we have ever produced. Except for knowledge of how to use technology which you mostly put to just frivolous use ancient people were more educated than you are.

    March 28, 2012 at 6:06 am | Reply
  17. JulianDelphiki

    Comments any of you about how Millennials somehow came to the aid in country of war , you are forgetting one tiny detail, most of the people were already active military and when there wasn't enough of them they drafted men over 30 mostly from the National Guard to fight both wars. Our military wasn't in anyone saved by courageous young people stepping up and fighting for freedom , it was by people who had no choice in the matter of to fight or not George Bush's wars.

    March 28, 2012 at 6:12 am | Reply
  18. JulianDelphiki

    apologize for any grammar or spelling mistakes but did not see a way to edit after I posted. If there is a way to edit after posting please share.

    March 28, 2012 at 6:14 am | Reply
  19. Boomerang Residences

    Excellent Blog....

    April 4, 2012 at 6:40 am | Reply

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