What 20 Graduates Taught Me About Young People

May 19, 2016 1 Min Read


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. Plus a bunch of smart people who came by to teach. Then, we had me. I tried to teach them what I knew about work and careers.

The best thing about being a “teacher” is that you learn a lot more than being a student. By trying to give, you actually receive.

This is what I learnt from them.

1. Young people worry about meaning

One of the first things we tried to impart was that young people need to be flexible. Just because someone is a finance graduate, he shouldn’t expect to work in finance; or a bank.

I know.

My degree is in electrical engineering, and here I am trying to be a teacher and a writer at the same time.

However, I realised most of them were already open to the idea of exploring other fields. What they were afraid of was getting a job that was meaningless to them.

Question mark

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 the older people say that 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 realise how difficult it could be.

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 activities; 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 the person is) took the stage and ‘preached’.

That is why at Leaderonomics, we believe in experiential learning.

3. Young people love authenticity

Over the five-day camp, we had many different people taking 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 who came and spoke too. Despite not having a lot of experience, speaking ability or charisma, it was inspiring to see how these graduates connected with the 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 worse than the others.”

It 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 found out that when everyone else had gone to bed the previous night, he had been awake – practising.

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 a losing battle. There’s always someone smarter, faster and better than you.

That is 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 meaningful days we shared, I learnt all about their hopes, fears and dreams.

And I learnt that they’re just like you and me.

For more Starting Young articles, click here.

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Aaron is the founder of mr-stingy.com, where he writes about optimising time, money and relationships. He was previously head of the campus team at Leaderonomics.

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