Millennials are screwed, here’s why:
For the longest time, I thought misfortune had drawn me to terrible communicators as friends and lovers. Since early childhood, I have surrounded myself with peers who fail at reaching out, staying connected, and following through. Wonderful people though they are, by late adolescence, I began to believe I had developed poor taste in people.
Nevertheless, I applied my one (and a half*) guiding moral maxim to my conundrum:
“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” — Confucius
Thus, at a young age, due to my endless frustration with those I cared about, and not wanting the same for those I interacted with, I made it a life goal to always communicate with promptness, reliability, and clarity.
This act of behavioral vengeance has served me incredibly well in life… perhaps more than any other tendency of mine (besides pushing limits.)
However, in the past two years, both my professional and social networks have expanded exponentially, and I have come to a stunning realization:
I don’t have terrible taste in friends— Millennials just have terrible interpersonal communication skills.
It turns out, it wasn’t just my friends growing up that don’t communicate well — the general consensus among older folks is youth today struggle with interpersonal communication (that is, face-to-face dialogue.) Despite, or perhaps due to, the hyperconnectivity of Millennials, there is a dearth of strong communication skills among my age cohort.
Except for a handful of hypotheses I will lay out below, I will not waste your time speculating on the cause of this loss of the most basic soft skill, as that is for academic researchers to determine:
- This phenomenon most dramatically affects young people now entering the workforce (ages 18–26)
- This is the cohort just before the current, “Digital Native” generation, those who received their first cellphone and/or computer in early adolescence, but not childhood.
- These young people suffer not from the inability to communicate (they do so all the time via SMS or messengers,) but from a lack of genuine human engagement that enables them to work/play well with others.
- There may be a correlation with the shocking level of political correctness witnessed at colleges across the country recently (with demands for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.”)
What I am discussing here is not the ability to “network” or “make small talk” (non-talents, if you ask me) — what I am addressing is something much more fundamental: the inability to fluently speak to someone directly, in-person, and with assertion. This is troubling to me, on both a personal and professional level, particularly the last part.
From the perspective of my current job, a lack of assertiveness among young people is deeply problematic for a couple of reasons. I serve as both an “Entrepreneur-in-Residence” and associate at a venture capital firm, and both those positions force me to seek out individuals with a level of assertiveness and mindfulness that I rarely see among my age cohort.
In the first role, where part of the expectations are that I begin to conceive of new ventures, I would be highly disinclined, if not entirely opposed, to hiring anyone who appears to lack assertiveness. Early on the in the life of a growing organization (I have founded two), it is unimaginably important to have clear communication between teammates.
There is no “I” in “startup”, nor is there a “me.” However, if communication fails, that’s all there will be, because the startup will fail.
Growing teams need to be on the same page and in sync or else small problems erupt into enormous ones very quickly.
Having worked on highly technical undertakings, I cannot overstate this. Poor communication between technical people and business people can lead to egregious misunderstandings of products. Nevertheless, the greatest danger lies in miscommunication between technical people. This is due to the fact that when builders do not assert themselves, it can create a developmental fissure where a project can unknowingly fray in various directions. (I personally lost three to four months of a lead developer’s time when the other technical lead failed to question some of his counterpart’s testing techniques — despite the latter having suspicions they were flawed.)
Imagine team communication as a theoretical bridge being built to connect two ideas (product vs. sale, code vs. UX, backend vs. frontend, etc.) and each idea has different construction firms (types of employees) engaged to build each side of the bridge. If the two sides do not communicate well, one side might start building the bridge a couple of feet higher, or pointed a few degrees off. Now, if addressed immediately, through good communication and assertiveness, this can be easily remediated. However, as soon as the bridge construction starts in earnest, those minor errors compound to catastrophic scale very quickly, as there’s no remedy for two disjointed halves of a bridge, save for total reconstruction of at least one side.
In my recently appointed second role as a venture associate (it turns out I may have a knack for spotting budding startups), a lack of assertiveness by founders is a non-starter for investment. There is no hope for a founder who cannot communicate clearly and assert him or herself. The reason for this is that a meeting with investors such as those at my firm is the first test of leadership for an aspiring executive. Our role is to inject capital and help entrepreneurs realize their vision. But if that entrepreneur cannot clearly explain their product, or answer a question in a straightforward manner, it is more than unlikely that they cannot lead a growing company, nor satisfy future investors or business partners.
Lastly, on a personal note: although I am now desensitized to poor communicators, I do my best to channel Drake (“no new friends”) when it comes to that type of person. I have chosen to love my old friends for who they are (and try to nudge them towards better tendencies.) However, when it comes to nascent friendships, or romance, I am quick to distance myself if it becomes clear the person of interest is going to create the sort of frustrations and disappointment that plagued my early life.
So what do you do if you’re a bad communicator or if you have been told (even if you don’t believe) that you are?
The best part about becoming a better communicator is that it’s really easy to do! And I don’t necessarily say because it came naturally to me. It didn’t. But acquiring the skills for good communication are so straightforward it really only comes down to a handful of behaviors:
1. Mindfulness: this is what it all boils down to. If you are mindful of the need to be responsive, it is so much easier to be so. That means paying attention to your phone or email when you know you need to, and probably doing so even when you do not. Moreover, when you are having a conversation or eating a meal with someone, PUT AWAY YOUR PHONE (or computer, tablet, etc.
2. Divide and Conquer: unless you are like me, and there’s little separation between your work and personal life (in which case, ignore this step), know that there is a time for everything. That means focus on your work-related communications (such as email, phone calls, meetings etc.) for when you’re at work, and do your best to leave it there. Save the texting, social media, and Tindering for after work and during your breaks.
3. Prioritize: there are times when you have to bear down on work and cut out all external distractions. Turn off your phone or email notifications when you have to. That being said, always make time (5 min. every hour) to make sure nothing pressing has arisen. Also, just because you can’t take someone’s call, or respond to their lengthy email or text, that doesn’t mean you can’t immediately answer or respond with a brief notice of your unavailability (in fact, this is hugely appreciated.)
4. Annihilate, and Separate, the Inbox: this is huge and one of the hardest things to do. I manage three primary email accounts (VC, nonprofit, personal), and three side accounts (2 consulting gigs & my Facebook-connected promotional/spam address) and I keep them all separate, as that makes it easier to follow the above steps. (I use Gmail — native app on iPhone and Kiwi on Mac.) I only have the three main accounts on my phone, as those are the only ones with pressing matters. Importantly, I never have more than TEN unread emails. This forces me to stay on top of my communications. I have stayed under five (except for when I wake up or go disconnected) unread for nearly three months now. Getting to “inbox neutral” or “Zen inbox” is really tough, and email procrastination is tempting, but eradicating these problems makes a world of difference.
5. Disconnect: As much as this seems like an appeal for increased connectivity — it truly is not. Instead, what I am encouraging is more thoughtful communicative strategies and engagement. Indeed, perhaps most important, is to occasionally cutting off from technology entirely. I do this most often when I go to concerts or music festivals, or get a chance to go hiking, but the real goal should be the fabled “disconnect vacation”, where you cut yourself off from all tech a week or weekend. (I just booked a trip to Cuba where I will have to do this :)
Even the shortest moments of technological disengagement are rejuvenating. Despite what you may think, your friends do not need to see every cool experience of your life recorded on Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook. In fact, the moments I cherish most are those where the only record of them is imprinted in the minds of those with whom I endured them.
Everything that makes the impermanence of our existence so beautiful and exciting is fundamentally lost when every moment of our lives is recorded.
Sometimes the best way to be connected is to be disconnected.
6. ENGAGE: If you have a problem, idea, or any sort of potential contributions, to a work project, relationship, or undertaking in life, BRING IT UP. The worst thing you can do is repress how you feel. It will hurt you in the long run, and potentially weaken whatever you are working on. It never hurts to try.
Follow those steps and you’ll be well on your way to better communication.
Certain elements of solid engagement, such as assertiveness, are somewhat difficult to master. Overall, though, being a better communicator is not hard — it just requires a bit of toil. The rewards reaped from such an effort will be well worth it— I guarantee you.