Monks in New York.
Irfan Kheiri immediately zeroes in on the context. “That is what they are all missing. They think they understand, but without the context that understanding is just superficial.”
“So I am going to tell you a joke to make my point”
“There is this monk who goes to New York.” He stops, looks around and ask, “You do know what a monk is, right, saffron robes, shaved heads, and New York?” Yes, yes of course we do, the class responds in unison.
“He heads out to a hot dog stand on Time square”.
He pauses again and the class groans. Please we get both references, hot dogs as well as Time Square, can you get on with the joke.
“Here is the punch line now, pay attention. This is the joke”
“Make me one with everything.” There is pin drop silence in the room. They look at each other as if he is mad.
And that is my point, says Irfan. The kids in my class think they understand monks, New York and hot dogs but they haven’t googled Nirvana as yet. They are sharper than we are, smarter too, occasionally hardworking, but they are still missing the context. And without context, there is no game. If you haven’t read Animal farm by George Orwell you can’t comment on social strata; if 1984 doesn’t ring a bell you won’t get the importance of the individual.
So yes there is a difference between my generation and yours. But does that mean we can’t work together. It means that it is our responsibility to help them learn what they need to up their game.
We have both been teaching for twenty one years. In the beginning it was a side gig so that we could stay young and connected with the next set of cool kids. More recently, it has become the only thing in our lives. Yesterday when we met for a long overdue chat after Kheiri’s surgery, the conversation drifted towards the generation of students we have taught, the lives they have lead and the memorable ones that got away.
I agree with Kheiri but I also think labels are dangerous. They imply that there is a cure all approach for managing talent that you can use based on how a given generation is perceived. There is no single collection of personas that you can use to influence a demographic group. There may be a common mindset, a set of preferred attributes endowed by the environment in which they grew up but that is all they are — attributes and mindsets. They do not describe an individual.
There is however an implicit bias in society and workplace against non-confirmation. What we don’t understand should be dumbed down and denied. Because they don’t belong, because they can’t be categorized or bucketed, because they are not understood, because they ask different questions, they should be sidelined, silenced or ignored. It is the game each generation plays with the next at some level and it never ends well.
I think the primary challenge is one of establishing a connection. Driven by a genuine desire to understand, converse and help — not judge. Occasionally a facilitator or a guide. One, who if asked, may guide a padawan towards the path of self-exploration and awareness. That is what Kheiri does very well every day, as a teacher, a Jedi master and animator.
The millennials, the young men and women that we have taught since the turn of this century are a different lot. In touch with technology, loyal to their peer group, focused on experiences, occasionally cynical and critical of our generation, competitive, yet collaborative, loved by two sets of grandparents, in search of control, meaning and life, sensitive to how the world and their financial future has suddenly changed from being promising to very uncertain.
We work with them in the class room, at startups and incubators, at home and in the work place at the companies we run.
Adnan and Ajmal are two sides of the same coin that belong to this group. One born in Karachi, the other in Chennai. If you see them sitting on the sidewalk café in Paris, you would think they are cousins, siblings or brothers. Slim and intense, they leave you with an impression of wading across silent rivers and deep waters. Spend ten minutes with them and you will agree these kids are going far.
I had the joy of teaching them entrepreneurship a few years apart. One in Karachi, the other in Dubai. Despite the difference in our ages, the cities we live in and years that have passed since their graduation, we still try and catch a bite together when we find ourselves in the same time zone.
At the end of my first class with his MBA cohort, Ajmal came up to me and said, “Sir I love your content but you have no idea how to teach it. Here is what I would do different.” He said it so earnestly and with so much confidence that I had to take his advice. And it was great advice too; smile more, move your hands, vary your tone, don’t come to class all washed out and tired and make it personal.
Adnan and I went on and on for years about the startup dream; whether it made sense to work for IBM or to dump everything and give destiny a spin. If founders and employers like me really understood what Adnan’s generation wanted and to his mind and his friends what represents a fair deal. A fair price for exchanging his immediate future for implementing my dreams. Why the trust relationship between employers from my generation and his clan of talent was broken? That discussion defines how I treat employees that came after Adnan.
The reason why we connected so well was because Adnan and Ajmal were always peers; not students, not juniors; neither kids nor the next generation. We understood each other because we were able to have an open exchange. They were clear that I had an agenda and a mandate. I went to great pains to show that while I wasn’t hiding anything I couldn’t help but push them towards the path that served my interests. It wasn’t a commercial exchange and yet in many ways it wasn’t that different from being one.
Like other great students before them they too were in search of a large bandwidth problem to solve. It was not about fame or fortune. It was about testing your mettle, your capacity to crack a challenge that hadn’t been cracked before. A rite of passage before you took your place amongst those who were called and survived the test. To assure you and the world; here is proof that you have it.
A common perception is that millennials switch jobs and roles frequently; more frequently than the generations before them. Reality is they don’t move because of money; they move because they have found the work, the role, the people, the challenge wanting. If you want to retain them, engage them, influence them, help them find their calling. That large problem with their name on it. Because anonymity is boring. Greatness is not.
“The key is”, I tell Irfan, “Pedestrian lives. That is the cross connect between our lives and theirs. They don’t want pedestrian lives and neither did we. Ordinary lives is what the ones that got away were running from. They don’t want anonymity, they want recognition. At their own terms not the terms the world, you or I have to offer. I don’t know what drives that? Certainly not insecurity, more like that inner voice that says you can do better, strive for more.”
“So the monk pays the hot dog vendor 5 dollars and the vendor begins to push his cart away”, he says. “The monk calls out, hey what about change.”
“The vendor looks back, bows his head, puts his hand together and says, change comes from within.”
Jawwad Farid is the CEO of Alchemy Technologies, the founder of FinanceTrainingCourse.com, an adjunct professor of Finance at the SP Jain School of Management and a board member of the PASHA Nest.io technology incubator. He has been corrupting young minds for 21 years.
Originally published as Monks in New York for Dawn Aurora.