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Stop Telling Young People to Wait Their Turn: Reflections on Years of Bad Advice

Like many insights, this one started with a crisis, this one of my own making.

This crisis was built from bad (or at least incomplete) advice for students I have trafficked in for years, convenient half-truths passed on for my convenience than for their edification.

Here's what I mean:

Student A says: "Hey professor, I am really concerned about (issue A, B and C). And I want a job that makes a difference and addresses these issues."

My advice (not exactly but basically): "I get it! I encourage you to get a good job after college and take the time to build your skills, knowledge and networks and then you might be able to actually make a difference one day."

Here's the Bad News...Now Sit Tight and Wait Your Turn

Is there really nothing else that they can do but wait their turn? Do we really expect them to wait around and be patient and to trust us? How can we share with them the troubling statistics but then tell them to sit and wait their turn?

We might say that we can't take the advice during times of peace and apply it to times of war. That might be overstating the point--but perhaps not. The climate crisis, biodiversity loss crisis, human trafficking and refugee crisis, plastic pollution, gun violence, antibiotic resistance, and on and on presses in on young people. In fact, the fields of psychiatry and psychology are recognizing climate-related depression and anxiety among young people (Frontiers in Psychology). To say nothing of the decades of research of the psychological effects of racism, sexism and other forms of personal and structural discrimination (National Library of Medicine).

The converging grand challenges don't lend themselves to a wait and see posture. We don't really want the young to be quiet, docile, acquiescent, do we? Respectful? Of course. Complacent? No way. We have work to do!

We don't want them to defer to the adults to take care of everything because we have not proven that we're capable of doing so. We need boycotts and buycotts and marches in the streets and letters to the editor and social media campaigns and teach-ins and teach-outs, advocacy and activism, new ventures and new technologies. We need new laws and new regulation.


How can we show them that the world faces existential crises, but that they should get a good job with good benefits and wait it out? I'm not satisfied with this advice. But I also don't know what else to say.


Will Someone Please Rock This Boat!

The fact of the matter is when you are young, you are young.

Almost by definition you don't know enough and you don't have enough skills to address some of the biggest challenges that we face. But it is equally true that it is because you are young and because you have fresh--even uninformed--thinking that we need you. Adults will always be too practical. Many of us have gotten to where we are because we have been thoughtful leaders, careful analysts, passionate and concerned, but without rocking the boat too much.

Even if the boat is in need of rocking.

So if we're losing species and losing the atmosphere and losing water and losing soil and losing lives (especially black and brown lives) and what do we tell our young people?

Let's try this again:

Student A says: "Hey professor, I am really concerned about (issue A, B and C). And I want a job that makes a difference and addresses these issues."

What should we be saying?

Start right now, with what you have.

We have built institutions to provide advice and support and structure for peace time. My previous bad advice was for times of peace, not times of crises.

This is not peace time. For those students who really want to make a difference, this is not the time for the normal advice: get a good job, pay off the loans, meet a nice partner, settle down. Build up a nest-egg and hopefully own a home as a key asset. Spend less money than you make. Treat people with kindness. Try to read a book a month in your field of expertise. Go to church or the mosque or the temple or the forest or whatever gets you connected to that bigger thing. Get regular exercise, eat well, care for yourself and loved ones, and drink plenty of water.

We have to provide an environment for a creative responses to these crises. We need to provide settings where their emotional lives are welcome, where their whole selves can come into the room. We need settings of healing and of activism, emotional sharing as well as intellectual rigor. New campaigns, new relationships, and new ventures.

My advice needs to be about engaging now in the cultural transition that is underway.

Get a job. Of course! Build the knowledge and networks. Obviously! But also start a hustle now, start volunteering now, organizing now. If you can write, write. If you can speak, speak. If you can code, code. You can cook, cook. If you have money, donate, invest, and loan. If you can drive or teach or fix or perform or TikTok. Whatever you can do, do it. Do not wait. We need you.

I tell all my students they have three powerful assets which I call their "Super Power":

  • who you are

  • what you know

  • who you know

That is enough. That has always been enough to get started right now.

So the answer to the question, "what can I do?" is this recipe: Super Power + Issue/Crisis.

This is the not-so-secret-sauce behind the inspiring young world changers in EDF's Climate Corps, Greenbiz's 30 Under 30, Brower Youth Award Winners, and Grist's Fixers.

This advice may not be for all students. Some don't have the interest or grit for the work right now...or ever. For some, Chris Rock's advice in a recent comedy special is appropriate, “You can be anything you want…If you’re good…and they’re hiring. And knowing somebody helps too.” But for those who come with that look in their eye, the concern that stirs their soul, a clarity of purpose, I will not be suggesting they wait, that they delay.

I will be encouraging them to use their Super Power to just get started. The doing will teach you everything you need to know.

This is one of the main drivers for our popular Major Sustainability. Students can quickly learn how their major (part of their Super Power) connects to impact...and can get started!

Upgrade Your Advice

These are not normal times. These are times of massive cultural change and we need young people in the game, not waiting on the sidelines until they get tapped in.

Want to make a difference? Start. Today is the day to get to work changing the world in whatever ways you can.

We need you. Don't wait. Don't delay. No matter what we say.

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