I’ll admit it, I’m a lucky guy. I have the opportunity to do what I love and teach it to others. That’s why my position as an adjunct professor of marketing at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) is one that I relish. Why? Because by teaching undergrads, I’m consistently reminded of a basic premise in life: we must keep learning. And to do so, we have to get comfortable with getting uncomfortable.
Sure, we can tell ourselves we do this all the time. We can pat ourselves on the back for conducting meetings with C-suite execs and brokering big time deals. But ask yourself, how often do you really step out of your [well-appointed] comfort zone and do something you simply have no idea how to do? I’ll bet it’s not often enough.
As my own career has progressed, I’ve learned that those of us who are well into our professional lives can easily slip into a trap of thinking we don’t need to keep learning. We’ve earned our stripes, right? Wrong. In this post, I’m going to break it down for you, freshman style. Read on for the premise, the lesson, and the take-away. And start taking notes, because like any diligent student, you will be quizzed.
As an adjunct professor at IUP, one of my courses this semester is to teach a popular advertising class. I have a captive audience: though the class typically has about 35 students, 57 students registered this time. What does this mean for me? A larger group to reach = a greater challenge. And anyone who knows me knows I love a challenge.
I recently assigned my students a class project, one that involved working in small groups as client and agency partners. The assignment entailed what I thought was a basic function of technology, something that we professionals do every day: set up and hold a conference call. Yet at the mention of a conference call – that’s right, multiple phone lines conjoined to allow for a group discussion – my undergrads were baffled. Not only had some never conducted a group call, they also had no idea how to initiate a conference call using their trusty cell phones. They simply balked at the idea. And froze.
What’s going on here, I asked myself? Isn’t everyone born after 1980 a digital native and, therefore, able to run the world from their phones? Aren’t these kids born speaking the language of technology?
Well, yes and no. Sure, they can Snapchat their way into the wee hours of the morning, but ask them to apply technology to an unfamiliar or new task, and they’re suddenly bewildered (there’s an emoticon for that reaction, but let’s stick to words). Their non-fluency with technology became concrete when I asked them to add their audio of their presentation to their PowerPoint deck. Again, almost complete intimidation when faced with a new or unfamiliar task.
So here’s what I’ve learned: the general assumption of millennials and their relationship with technology is, in many ways, a generalization that carries too many assumptions. Or, in the language of digital natives, a #majorfail.
Millennials aren’t any different than any other generation. When faced with learning something new, they’re intimated. In a recent CNBC.com article, Millennials Aren’t As Tech Savvy as People Think, News Associate Nana Sidibe quotes a report that focuses on the STEM (science, tech, engineering and math) skills of millennials. The report reveals that roughly 58 percent of millennials have “failed to master tech skills that help increase workplace productivity.” Sidibe goes on to write that “the number is more surprising given that they spend 35 hours per week using digital media, the report states.”
Fifty-eight percent? That’s more than half! Should we carelessly label millennials “Digital Natives?” No. Should we always question assumptions? Yes.
Back to the big picture. What can we – as CEOs, department heads, and founders of our companies – learn from my millennial students. No matter the age or phase of life, we’re always students. Teaching college students is a great reminder of this basic premise. I’m lucky that I’m in a position to consistently learn this lesson. That’s why I’m passing it on to you.
The lesson is also a testament to my belief that “Nobody can ‘Out You’ YOU.” Let me break this down further: your success is dependent upon you. Nobody else. Your age, upbringing, heck, even your level of experience, can’t compete when it comes to being your own self-starter. What matters is your ability – your willingness – to step outside of your comfort zone and learn.
When faced with diving in and doing something new for the very first time, a willing 75-year-old Baby Boomer may rejoice in the task of starting a conference call, posting to Instagram, or even creating a Snapchat account – and will thus “earn an A” for effort, whereas a 20-year-old millennial may be completely lost, get frustrated, and give up.
Whether it’s technology, speaking in front of a crowd, or starting a company, it’s all about you. Not your age. Not your comfort level. Not your natural abilities. YOU. Why am I passionate about this topic? Because no matter where you are in your career, you must be willing to take on the “always a student” mindset and try something new. If you think that social media isn’t for you or doesn’t apply, think again. If you believe that you don’t need to sharpen your speaking skills, think again.
Remember, nobody can ‘Out You’ YOU, so don’t let them. Find out what you still need to learn. Maybe you’ve just been promoted to Senior VP. Maybe you’re the CEO of a major company. Or maybe you’re celebrating your 65th birthday and thinking about retirement. It doesn’t matter. You’re still a student. To quote Einstein: “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” Take his words to heart. And now back to class.
How and what you learn is specific to you, your learning style, and your individual exposure to a topic. When learning something new, ask yourself these 3 questions, to help spur on the learning and keep your skills sharp:
- What is it that you want to learn?
- What do you need to learn?
- How can you apply what you’ve learned?
Now hit the books. And your phones.