What 20 Graduates Taught Me About Young People
Three weeks ago, I ran my first five-day, four-night camp for 20 young graduates.
We had a series of training modules to help them learn things. And a bunch of smart people who came by to teach. And then we had me. I tried to teach them what I knew about work and careers.
The best thing about being “teacher” is that you learn a lot more than being a student. By trying to give, you actually get back.
This is what I learned from them. This is what 20 graduates taught me about young people:
1. Young People Worry About Meaning
One of the first things we tried to teach was that young people need to be flexible — that just because someone’s a finance graduate — he/she shouldn’t expect to work in finance; or a bank.
My degree is in electrical engineering, and here I am trying to be a teacher and a writer at the same time.
But I realized most of them were already open to the idea of exploring other fields. What they were scared of was getting a job that was meaningless to them.
I had graduates tell me that if they couldn’t find a job in their field — they’d be willing to do something totally different, like teach children in remote areas of the country. As long as it was meaningful.
I was touched to hear that so early in their careers, they were already thinking about the “Why.” Plus I didn’t hear any complaints about low pay or hard work.
Sometimes old people say young people today are spoilt. Maybe they’re just way ahead of us.
2. Young People Learn Better by Doing Instead of Listening
If you think staying awake during an after-lunch meeting is difficult, try keeping a class of 20-somethings awake during an after-lunch class.
I knew that it would be difficult, but I didn’t realize how difficult.
Granted, I’m not the best teacher in the world, but I found that beyond a certain point — the only thing that could keep people awake were activities. More activity; less talking.
At the end of the five days, when we looked at evaluations — hard data proved it too: Participants were most engaged while doing activity-based modules, not modules where someone (no matter who he/she is) took the stage and preached.
It’s why we believe in learning through experiences.
3. Young People Love Authenticity
Over the course of the five-day camp, we had many different people take the stage.
Some of our speakers were high-ranking people in both the government and private sectors. Predictably, they spoke very well.
But we had other less-accomplished, young speakers come and speak too. And despite not having great experience, speaking ability or charisma — it was inspiring to see how graduates really connected with these speakers. The crucial element? Our guest speakers were authentic when sharing their personal stories. It made all of us laugh and cry together.
My boss always tells me that for a presentation to be successful, the presenter must both be competent (i.e. he knows what he’s talking about) and relatable (i.e. the audience feels connected to him).
It’s not enough for a speaker to be smart; then it just feels like he’s talking down to us. He needs to be real too — that makes us feel something.
4. Young People Feel Small Sometimes
During one of our breaks, I commended one of the graduates for doing a good job.
“Really?” he asked, “I felt I was much worse than the others.”
Which was a valid concern. He had struggled with presenting in English. If we compared him to the other presenters, he would have ranked lowly.
But I wasn’t congratulating him; I was encouraging him.
Throughout the camp, he had been one of the quieter ones. Perhaps it was because he was naturally shy and English wasn’t his first language. I knew how much effort he had to put in — just to stand up in front of 30 people and talk for five minutes. Later, I would hear that when everyone else had gone to bed the previous night, he had still been awake — practicing.
It’s easy to feel small, because the world always compares you to everyone else. The world wants to sort out its winners and losers, and to keep us competing. But it’s an unwinnable battle. There’s always someone smarter, faster and better than you.
It’s why I tell young people this: Just worry about making yourself 1% better every day. The only person you really have to compare yourself to is yourself yesterday.
I went into camp hoping to learn about young people from young people.
And I did. Over the few days we shared that I will always cherish, I learned all about their hopes, fears and dreams.
And I learned that they’re just like you and me.