Generation What?


None of Us Has Any Idea What the Hell We’re Doing, But We’re Doing It Anyway

When I was 19, I was offered a position as composition instructor at a university. To my dad, a musicologist and college professor, this must have seemed a dream come true. What more wonderful career opportunity for a budding composer (me) than a university position! Which made it all the more startling to me that, when I turned the offer down in order to study macrobiotic philosophy and drive a cab instead, he did not flinch.

To this day, I cannot quite imagine how it is that he did not throw a fit. But he didn’t. He absorbed the news, and said nothing. Years later, he confided to me that, with the wisdom of hindsight, he was now so glad I had not taken the position. “It wouldn’t have been right for you,” he said. “They would have driven you crazy.”

I hope I am able always to muster such restraint and trust in the face of my kids’ decisions, whatever they may be.

When my dad was 19, he had a college position ripped away from him, not by choice but by history. As a young German with some Jewish blood, he arrived in Berlin to assume a teaching post he had won, only to find himself barred from entering. Within the year he had left home, career, and country. As he writes in his memoir:

“It was on my twentieth birthday, in 1937, that I first realized that I must leave my homeland. What loomed as a desperate conflict then became in retrospect my future’s blessing, but it took time to arrive at such understanding.”

It took time to arrive at such understanding. Doesn’t it always?

I had perplexed my dad before when, at 17, I dropped out of high school and started my own school with a group of friends. When I later graduated from that school, my diploma bore an inscription (from unknown source—probably something we made up): “We did not know what to expect upon the open road, but we began here.” A noble sentiment, which my father lampooned good-naturedly with this translation: “We had no idea what the hell we were doing, but we did it anyway.”

I think my father got it right.

We like to think we can offer guidance to our young, and I suppose, in many ways, we can. But the truth for every generation equally is this: life essentially is jumping off a cliff. They have no idea what’s ahead on that open road, and even though we might think we can tell them, we can’t, because we don’t know either.

Whatever it is, though, I can promise you this: they’re up for it.

Want to see an entire generation do something amazing? Just watch. And listen. And learn.

john david mannJohn David Mann is the New York Times bestselling coauthor of The Red CircleAmong HeroesFlash Foresight and The Go-Giver. His Take the Lead (with Betsy Myers) was named by Tom Peters and the Washington Post as Best Leadership Book of 2011.  He is also Editor-in-Chief Emeritus for Networking Times.



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