Dear Millennials: Spend More Time With People Who Are Older and Wiser Than You

What I learned at my first Renaissance Weekend

Photo by Lotte Meijer on Unsplash
The true purpose of life is not to find your purpose, as so many young people I meet seem to be obsessed with doing (damn all those millennial self-help authors). The true purpose of life is to never stop learning.

This past weekend I attended my first Renaissance Weekend in Park City, Utah. Renaissance Weekend is kind of like a very (VERY) old school version of millennial-led transformational leadership development programs I’ve been to like StartingBloc and Hive — what those programs would be if it were 1992, you were in a hotel conference room, no one used social media, and 80% of the room was over the age of 60. Which is actually kind of awesome if you think about it, since millennials (and our affinity for meditation, yoga, cool dance parties, food trucks, interactive art, eye-gazing exercises, and venues that triple as co-working spaces/design thinking innovation labs/and coffee shops that sell avocado toast) dominate most of the events I go to these days.

When I first got to Renaissance Weekend on Friday evening, I wanted to get the hell out of there. I was like, “These are not my people. Where is my tribe? Why does everyone have grey hair? Why is everyone wearing khakis and a blazer? Where are the cool kids? Where is the kombucha?” I even texted my friend telling her I regretted coming and was thinking of leaving.

My friend gave me some good advice. She said, “Smiley: keep an open mind.”

So I took a deep breath and woke up on Saturday morning with the intention to just start talking to people the way I would at an event like StartingBloc, Hive, Camp Grounded, or any one of the number of events I go to.

What I found was quite profound: the people I met had so much to teach me. There’s something incredibly refreshing about older people who are brilliant (a professor of physics, astronomy, microbiology, AND molecular genetics) because they don’t have to prove their brilliance to you. A lot of millennials I know (and I’ll include myself in this category) can be a little self-important. It’s like we walk around constantly reminding ourselves and everyone else around us, “Hey, I wrote a book! I started a company! I’m a founder! I’m smart! I have followers! People love me on Instagram! I matter! I swear I matter!”

A lot of people in their fifties, sixties and seventies, are simply just cool as fuck. They don’t need to remind you all the time. I kept having conversations with people who, from their bios, I knew had published eight books, started three companies, failed at starting two companies, worked for two large organizations, traveled the world, painted, written poetry, AND raised two kids) and when they introduced themselves, were curious about my story and what they could learn from me. I kept meeting accomplished businesswomen who were quick to point out everything they didn’t know yet and wanted to learn. I met academics who are at the top of their field, some of the most brilliant people alive, who attended panels and asked questions as if they were in elementary school.

Most millennials I know don’t do this.

In addition to the value of intergenerational conversation, I learned why interdisciplinary interaction matters. True learning happens when you bring together people with varying fields of interest, opinion, and expertise. At Renaissance Weekend everyone participates — everyone that attends speaks on a panel. I have been to many purpose-driven transformational events over the past five years, but I have never been in a room with a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, an astronaut who has been to space, a labor organizer, an art dealer, a professor of African-American studies, a chemist, someone who manages hundreds of Google engineers, a journalist, an entrepreneur, a lawyer, a judge, a cybersecurity expert, a biologist, a hedge fund manager, an oncologist, a poet, a brain scientist, a futurist, a children’s music composer, a philanthropist, a pastor, Democrat and Republican government officials, a leader of one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the country, and a former Super Bowl-winning NFL offensive tackle.

Being in the presence of such accomplished individuals (many of whom also moonlight as bartenders, poets, painters, opera singers, theater buffs, botanists, parents, and grandparents) was humbling to say the least. The weekend taught me that the true purpose of life is not to find your purpose, as so many young people I meet seem to be obsessed with doing (damn all those millennial self-help authors). The true purpose of life is to never stop learning. To always surround yourself with people who don’t look like you; people who know things you don’t know, people who don’t necessarily share your opinions, and people who make you question the world around you.

Thus, the task of any in-person transformational event, whether old school or new school, must be to become the opposite of the Facebook wall, the antidote to the echo chamber. Not simply a space where people who are cool as fuck can congregate to talk about how cool they are. Not simply a space to get recognition for something you know is already great from people who already think you are great. But a place where you challenge your worldview, where you learn from others older (and younger), and where people from diverse backgrounds can openly and honestly come together and talk about the things that are not easy to talk about.

Adam Smiley Poswolsky is a millennial workplace expert, keynote speaker, and author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough. He speaks to companies about how to attract, retain, and empower millennial talent, and foster inter-generational collaboration in the workplace.

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