social movements and Gen Y (or, stuff I’ve learnt from my students)

Oy! Don't so Lone Ranger leh

Oy! Don’t so Lone Ranger leh

I work with a lot of students, and many are really lonely when I first meet them. The more go-getting among them often have great ideas, followed by bursts of enthusiasm, followed by a gradual sinking back into normality/boredom when a project either successfully concludes, or bombs (or fizzles out in a middling sort of way). Eventually they get up again and have another burst of enthusiasm, for a different project. And do do do. And sink back. And rinse and repeat.

I don’t have a problem with this per se, in fact it can be a great sort of contained skunk works for rapid learning, and I don’t deny that it can produce some great results (in bursts). What I do struggle with, though, is the gap between most of these students’ huge hopes and dreams for things beyond themselves (peace in the Middle East, saving the environment, clean water and education for every child…) which will take massive sustained, coordinated effort to attain over years if not decades, and this pattern of scattergun, often Lone Ranger activity, which does not appear to me to be a workable, liveable means to achieving those huge hopes and dreams.

french civilian despair

The danger is that students then look at all these projects over time and think, “well, it was okay/good, but it didn’t really make a dent in (insert huge hope/dream). Come to think of it, neither did (this other project). Or (that other project). And they were all a heck lot of pain on my part for what they achieved.” This often doesn’t happen in a sudden realisation, more in a steady, creeping angst kind of way over a long period of time. And at this point, here are two destructive things that can happen:

1. The student loses heart. The gap between what they want to see in the world and their actual capacity to effect change just feels so unbridgeable, and they get discouraged and too hurt to try anymore. Something has soured. They retreat into their small dreams (sometimes telling themselves that those dreams are still worthy — which they are, they’re just too small for who the student is).

2. The student blames others. If only those guys over there had joined me; but they just don’t get what I’m trying to achieve (cue martyr spirit). So I’m going to try harder to do things even more on my own in future to protect myself. Or, poor me, stuck in this (job, relationship, other unfortunate situation) because I have to for (insert inevitable lifestory reason). If I didn’t have to do x, I could achieve so much more (cue self-pity).

Um, hate to break it to ya, but you are the only constant variable in your equation.

mo farah

One of my (smallish) dreams, which also happens to be one of the main purposes of the job I get to do (woop woop!), is to equip students and send them out into the world with both the heart that actually has those huge hopes and dreams, and the capacity to make them happen. Here are some of the things that I often find myself trying to teach/model to students in my job:

1. Focus your calling. You are probably not going to be the person who achieves peace in the Middle East and saves the environment and provides clean water and education to every child. But you might be the person who makes a massive dent in one of those. What’s it gonna be for you? (In the words of Jim Collins, what’s your personal hedgehog?)

2. Take the long view. It won’t all happen today, but it could happen in your lifetime. If x is really your hedgehog, which you will give your life to see happen, what do you need to start doing now so that you’ll be best placed to achieve it in 20, 30 years’ time? Sometimes these are really direct things, like getting more educational qualifications or work experience in a certain industry. But sometimes, these are strangely indirect things, like growing in perseverance through starting regular exercise. (And sticking with that image,) think of your life as a marathon, not a sprint.

3. Think movementally, not individually. Please don’t be the Lone Ranger, dreams that are bigger than yourself need movements that are bigger than just you. Who is going to be your mirror and your memory and cover your blind spots? Who can you hand on your massive hope/dream to so that it keeps growing past your lifetime? Most of us think in a rather loner, lifespan-limited way. Find a remedy for that. Live in community. Serve someone else’s hope/dream.

Gen Y are often characterised by sociologists as having little sticking power, and desiring community but being highly individualistic. Let’s buck those trends.

(Top photo from here; middle photo of French civilian crying as the Nazis occupy Paris from here; bottom photo from here. With thanks to all.)

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