“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”
Mark was on the verge of failing out of college. He was living in the basement of his parent’s home and he hated life. He saw his future as hopeless, finding joy only in the hours spent playing video games.
But his joy was an obsession. In a 30-hour period, Mark spent 24 of them gaming, which left him exhausted most of the time. His parents desperately wanted to find a way to bring Mark back to a healthier, functioning life. That’s where I came in.
As a coach who focuses on helping young professionals and emerging leaders, I found Mark to be an interesting challenge. Although no one would have called this young gamer a “leader,” he shared many of the traits I had seen in other young adults I’d met. Mark’s problems didn’t stem from an addiction to gaming. His problems came from a cultural phenomenon known as “Generation Y.”
Who is Generation Y?
Generation Y represents the 74 million people in the United States who were born after 1980. They were spoon-fed technology from a young age, becoming techno-prodigies who showed their parents how to operate anything with a computer chip.
These young people grew up in a society where Google was a verb and the Soviet Union existed only in history books. They have always had the Internet, cell phones, iPods, and personal computers.
Generation Y are the children of the Baby Boomers, the latchkey kids who raised themselves while both parents worked. These children were given high praise (often regardless of merit) in favor of elevating the importance of self-esteem. Oftentimes, parents would reduce or avoid competition so that there are no losers. For better or worse, every accomplishment, big and small, received praise. Gen Yers have been fawned over by their hard-working helicopter parents who were always close by to bandage every scrape, and catch every fall. Now, as Gen Yers enter the workforce, it is no wonder why they are so different from the rest of us. They have been raised to be completely different animals from their parents before them.
Why do they feel entitled? How come loyalty is a foreign concept to them? How do you get them to switch from electronic communication to personal? In order to successfully integrate Generation Y into today’s productive work force, we must ask ourselves how to reach out to them in a way they can recognize and understand.
I’m a Coach, Not a Therapist
In Mark’s case, my first thought was that his excessive gaming blocked his view of a brighter future. I discussed with him the importance of decreasing his playing time. I gave him strategies and ideas for success, while I was usually persuasive enough to get him to give up maybe three or four hours, he continued to fail in college and remained distant from friends and family.
In order to learn how to redirect Mark to a more fulfilling existence, I had to understand why he spent so many hours playing. Finally, I set aside my righteousness about his gaming time long enough to open up a dialogue with Mark. What did he get out of playing? What gave him the most joy? Until this point, our discussions were merely addressing the symptoms of his problem, not the cause. In truth, Mark knew his gaming was excessive, but it fed a need in him that nothing else had satisfied.
I also had to recognize the boundaries of my coaching responsibilities. A coach is not a therapist. We neither diagnose nor deal with the emotional well-being of our clients. Could Mark have benefited from a therapist? Possibly. Did he need one in order to get a better direction for his life? Absolutely not.
Avoid the Right/Wrong Conversation
Once I opened my perspective, I discovered Mark’s gaming joy came from the opportunities to make friends in a safe way, achieve great results in the game, and therefore, feel successful. Since the rest of his life was not in such a protected, happy place, he retreated to his gaming world.
For the first time, I could appreciate his desire to play. I asked if he would like that same kind of feeling in his real life. Mark welcomed the notion but thought the idea was impossible. He was afraid that if he voiced the desire but then couldn’t achieve it, he would fail. In that moment, his massive fear of failure became glaringly apparent.
This fear presented a coaching challenge. My job was not to delve into the roots of the fear. Instead, it was an obstacle to be conquered so that Mark could get out of his own way and start participating in life.
As time went on, Mark shared more with me, and our coach-client relationship grew. He became more open to trying my ideas for success. We had healthy conflicts along the way, and when he didn’t agree with my methods, he created his own “next steps” — often more powerful and effective. Mark became actively engaged in the growth processes, eager to be as active a player in his own life as he had been online.
Over the past two and a half years, I have watched Mark go from almost failing out of college and living a life filled with video games (and little else) to achieving over a 3.0 GPA and completing an internship (which turned into a full-time position). He emerged from the basement and rejoined the world including starting a successful personal relationship that has lasted almost a year. Mark has renewed self-confidence, direction in his life, and is continuing (through coaching) to build the support structure around him.
Creating a Vision for Gen Y
As a group, Gen Y could be the most productive generation in the history of our culture. They are highly skilled at the technology that drives our world. They are undaunted by challenge, since we’ve led them to believe that they will (perhaps they are destined to) achieve great things. They have been taught that it is their job to make a difference in the world, and they are contributing vastly to the highest rate of volunteerism in 40 years.
I’m fascinated by individuals like Mark who have so much to offer but have fallen victim to their generational traits. We must ask ourselves if they knowingly choose to be avid text-messagers — to the chagrin of all around them — or if they simply mastered the tool they were given. Are they intentionally challenging others, or merely exercising the right to openly express themselves, as we have taught them? Can they teach the Boomers a few things? Wouldn’t many of us benefit from the belief that life is not all about work? Mark loved to play. He made friends all over the world, many of whom he has met in person.
Certainly, the excess was problematic, but when you look at the basis of his experience, I think we can take away some valuable lessons from this young man.
1. Before you can coach an individual, understand their motivation. Get to know them; ask genuine questions.
2. A coach is not a judge or a therapist. Recognize the limits of your role.
3. Avoid the right/wrong conversation. Instead focus on the “why.”
4. Generation Y was raised with tremendous self esteem and the freedom to ignore limits. Embrace this flexibility in order to help bridge the gap.
5. Be open to reverse coaching: never stop learning. The symbiotic nature of the relationship will broaden your scope and help you to grow as a professional.
6. Balance is key. No matter what else is going on in your life, there’s always time to play.
I welcome you to consider what steps you can take to become even more effective in your leadership style across generations.