Millennials: They Know What They Don’t Want
Nancy Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. Koehn's research focuses on how leaders, past and present, craft lives of purpose, worth, and impact.
Her new book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times is an enthralling historical narrative filled with critical leadership insights that will be of interest to a wide range of readers—including those in government, business, education, and the arts—Forged in Crisis spotlights five masters of crisis: polar explorer Ernest Shackleton; President Abraham Lincoln; legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and environmental crusader Rachel Carson.
Koehn is the author of numerous books, articles, and Harvard Business School cases. She writes frequently for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Harvard Business Review Online. She is also a weekly commentator on National Public Radio and has appeared on many national television programs. She has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and in many other venues.
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University, Koehn earned a Master of Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government before taking her MA and PhD in History from Harvard. She lives outside Boston and is a dedicated equestrian.
Question: What business and life lessons have you learned from your students at Harvard Business School? Nancy Koehn: One of the fascinating things about the generation of students that’s been coming through the doors of Harvard Business School for the last 10 years is how pragmatic they are and how clearly they understand the way my generation didn’t understand that they’re going to work for most likely a lot of different companies. They’re going to write a career novel chapter by chapter, but the chapters aren’t necessarily going to be written in one company and in kind of a vertical way at all. It’s going to be much more horizontal and across companies, across industries and that one of the most important criteria in writing that novel and choosing those chapters and navigating through them will be what do I think makes me feel like I am fulfilling my purpose. These students have an astounding sense of their own purpose and this great kind of well or hot spring if you will, of idealism that nourishes, that gushes underneath that sense of purpose and you know there is a real element of sort of organizational and financial ambition, “I want to do this and this and this in regard to my own reputation and my own net worth.” But that is very much just a patch. There are a number of other kinds of patches on the quilt of each of these people and there is a huge piece of what is my role as a global citizen. What is my role as a consumer? What is my role as an employer? What is my role in terms of the time I spend? What is my role in terms of who I sign up with as an employer to give them my very precious, very scarce energy and time? And there is good evidence this is not just Americans. It has global kind of aspects to it. It’s fascinating how what a huge and deep sense they have of the power and importance of their own contribution and some of that I think is a generation raised in incredible prosperity. Some of that is a generation raised by boomer parents who were endlessly fascinated by themselves and their children and their reflection of their children that way, but it’s an incredible force for good, that credence they put in their own worth and their own energy is important. So they have a real sense of: how do I make a social contribution? How do I use my energy wisely? And this relates directly to how they define success. How do I do that in a way that I don’t make the mistakes that a couple of generations have made ahead of me? Now every generation vows that it will not be like the generation directly ahead of it, but Millennials to me and my Harvard Business School students have a highly developed sense of what they do not want to be. They do not want to be someone who you know goes to work for 80 hours a week and wakes up in their forties or their fifties and doesn’t know their children. They do not want to be someone who puts their marriage on hold while they each climb the partnership ladder. They do not want to be someone who has no sense of a spiritual and social calling until they’ve made enough money that they need to appease any kind of guilt they have about how they made that money. They don’t want to be any of those things and most interestingly they don’t really think that shareholder capitalism not only as defined academically, but as it’s defined intellectually as a paradigm for the way business works, they just don’t think that’s the story. That’s not the song they sing. That’s not the song of the world. It’s much more variegated. It’s much more complicated. The stakeholders are much bigger than shareholders and so they have a new agenda and it’s wonderful to see that. It’s wonderful to be around that. It’s energizing. It’s game changing. It shows me what the future is or gives me a good, good kind of birds eye view into the future and it makes me question a lot of the older paradigm that’s been so important in shaping American business thus far and in shaping a place like the Harvard Business School. I think there is something else though that’s very important I’ve learned from these students and it’s fascinating, but it’s a little bit less cheerleading and that is that my students for the last maybe 10 years are students that have known astounding privilege and an astounding array of experiences, experiences that would have made me as a little girl just you know bug eyed with wonder and amazement, but most of them haven’t known any real failure. So there is an acknowledged fragility that lives in them and I think it’s been fascinating to watch them through this recession because it hit so fast and so hard. I was teaching last spring as the economy was really unwinding and it was fascinating to see some of the latent fear, some of the kind of almost quiet excitement that oh boy, the world is changing. It’s not going to be so easy. It’s going to be harder. What are we going to learn? How are we going to be tested? And it’s just interesting to see that they know they haven’t been tested. They know their backbones haven’t been built by the opportunity of adversity and it will be interesting to see how they respond to this economy and the new normal that is coming out of it. One last aspect of this in a grain of sand if you will. Many years ago I wrote a case about Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer and this astounding journey he made in 1915 and 1916 across the ice flows of Antarctica and got lost and how he kept his team together and alive and the only other case in the curriculum of my course, which is a stream of interesting well known entrepreneurs beginning in the eighteenth century and ending with John Mackey of Whole Foods and Mr. Bono. The only other case that got the kind of traction as the Shackleton case was the Winfrey case. The students were just fascinated by him, fascinated by what do you do when you have nothing and everything is at stake and what do you learn and how are you tested and how do you walk through that test and I think the jury is out as to how this generation of people in which so much rests for the future will respond to this test of our times, but I’ve learned that the flipside of all that idealism and all that confidence and all that sense of wonder is at least I think with my students, a sense of acknowledge fragility. Recorded on December 17, 2009
Nancy Koehn, historian at Harvard Business School, thinks it’s a generation that, before this recession, had not experienced failure.
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"Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…"
"The Yellow Sands", 1888, John Reinhard Weguelin; source: Wikimedia Commons<h3>Naked revolution</h3><p>Yet long before anyone knew about beach fashion, naturism was trendy. Bathing naked in the sea was going on in England as early as 1840. However, during the reign of Queen Victoria, this pleasure was outlawed. But it popped up again among the conservative Germans. In 1898, the first Naturist Club was founded in Essen and in 1900 the Wandering Birds group (<em>Wandervögel</em>) was scouring the country for uninhabited places and naked sunbathing. In the same year, Heinrich Pudor wrote <em>The C</em><em>ult of </em><em>the </em><em>Nud</em><em>e</em>, winning the hearts of contemporary supporters of naturism.</p><p>In the 1920s, on the back of this, members of the Movement for Natural Healing (<em>Naturheilbewegung</em>) organized naked sunbathing for the improvement of health. Persuaded by Pudor's theory of the healing properties of the sun and wind, which could be absorbed through the skin, they launched the naked revolution.</p><p>Pudor's book became the naturists' manifesto and soon after, not far from Hamburg, the Free Body Culture (<em>Freikörperkultur</em>, or FKK) movement was founded. This spread through other German centres and brought together thousands of people. The FKK still operates under the same name today.</p><p>The cult of the naked body even wrote itself into the ideology of fascist Germany, which advocated a pure, Aryan race. But in 1933, Hermann Göring issued an order that defined nudity as "the greatest threat to the German soul" and, with that, criminalized naturist organizations. But this wasn't the end of the movement. The naturists went underground, continuing their activities under the guise of improving physical fitness.</p><p>In 1936, the idea was even floated of having a naturist display to open the Berlin Olympic Games. It was quickly dropped. Despite this, in 1939 the naturists managed to organize their own Games in the Swiss village of Thielle.</p>
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Crows have their own version of the human cerebral cortex.
Action-packed pallia<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0NzkyMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNzk1NzM1OH0.Tjb3zulFW2gwhteR124F9HGbmdnCqNqQFOBQouieTJ8/img.png?width=980" id="2bbc9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2907e4035e553565f4446e968ee73d92" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Fun with Ozzie and Glenn<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0Njk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzY4Njc2MX0.ZgpsPMCK6qOj2o0kErvVPjdua1EnMCIwCuHHGrb3LiY/img.jpg?width=980" id="acbeb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e286fecbb228a5ca8aa26fcd19f95a2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="two crows in a tree" />
Ozzie and Glenn not pictured
Credit: narubono/Unsplash<p>The kind of higher intelligence crows exhibited in the new research is similar to the way we solve problems. We catalog relevant knowledge and then explore different combinations of what we know to arrive at an action or solution.</p><p>The researchers, led by neurobiologist <a href="https://homepages.uni-tuebingen.de/andreas.nieder/" target="_blank">Andreas Nieder</a> of the University of Tübingen in Germany, trained two carrion crows (<em>Corvus corone</em>), Ozzie and Glenn.</p><p>The crows were trained to watch for a flash — which didn't always appear — and then peck at a red or blue target to register whether or not a flash of light was seen. Ozzie and Glenn were also taught to understand a changing "rule key" that specified whether red or blue signified the presence of a flash with the other color signifying that no flash occurred.</p><p>In each round of a test, after a flash did or didn't appear, the crows were presented a rule key describing the current meaning of the red and blue targets, after which they pecked their response.</p><p>This sequence prevented the crows from simply rehearsing their response on auto-pilot, so to speak. In each test, they had to take the entire process from the top, seeing a flash or no flash, and then figuring out which target to peck.</p><p>As all this occurred, the researchers monitored their neuronal activity. When Ozzie or Glenn saw a flash, sensory neurons fired and then stopped as the bird worked out which target to peck. When there was no flash, no firing of the sensory neurons was observed before the crow paused to figure out the correct target.</p><p>Nieder's interpretation of this sequence is that Ozzie or Glenn had to see or not see a flash, deliberately note that there had or hadn't been a flash — exhibiting self-awareness of what had just been experienced — and then, in a few moments, connect that recollection to their knowledge of the current rule key before pecking the correct target.</p><p>During those few moments after the sensory neuron activity had died down, Nieder reported activity among a large population of neurons as the crows put the pieces together preparing to report what they'd seen. Among the busy areas in the crows' brains during this phase of the sequence was, not surprisingly, the pallium.</p><p>Overall, the study may eliminate the layered cerebral cortex as a requirement for higher intelligence. As we learn more about the intelligence of crows, we can at least say with some certainty that it would be wise to avoid <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/science/26crow.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">angering one</a>.</p>