Millennials capable of more than we realize

The world is having fun composing satirical tributes to millennials, the generation roughly represented by 19- to 33-year-olds. Since I taught a few thousand of them, I have a hard time laughing at them.

One of their outstanding characteristics I witnessed in the classroom was a readiness to share. For instance, some kids weren’t able to afford the buck 25 or so for international meals we organized. I would announce to a class, “Everybody falls on tough economic times once in a while. There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you can’t afford to pay for the meal this time around. Just let me know privately.”

Then I announced that anyone with an extra nickel or dime could help cover costs for unnamed students. That’s all I had to say, and students began chipping in dimes and quarters – anonymously – so much so that all costs were quickly covered. No questions were asked, no one said a word, nobody was stressed.

It’s easy to love kids like that, but they were as brave as they were generous. I emphasized courage in the numerous difficult tasks I demanded of them. It took several years for me to understand how nerve-wracking the tasks could be, pushing students to the limits of potential.

An Italian educator who attended a conference where I demonstrated the method told me afterward, “You must have nerves of steel.” That prompted me to modify my method to support the students’ work. I didn’t ease up on them. I just added techniques that basically kept me from getting in the way of their success during fast-paced interaction that is too elaborate to explain here.

As long as I was doing my part – building in the proper supports – the students were fearless. Their attitude was: Stand by me, and I’ll do anything you dare to throw at me.

Parents and grandparents watched and were amazed. A few were afraid it was too much for their children, but after I made adjustments, even those kids exhibited courage and precision beyond what they thought they were capable of.

Millennials are not just generous and courageous; they are hungry for mental interaction. Yes, they have spent far too much time playing video games, but they gravitate toward the ones that require intellect in ways you might not perceive. Until you reach a certain skill level in gaming, you don’t see what it takes to master the games.

Millennials are also mocked for getting trophies for participation rather than for winning. But millennials aren’t fooled by such trophies. They know exactly what winning and losing are, and they know when they’ve won or lost, no matter the trophy. They can be the toughest competitors on the planet, while demonstrating the best of character. I’ve seen them meet the demands not a few times but literally thousands of times.

This generation faces some challenges that are not exactly what the rest of us have faced. To name a few: increased college debt, how things are manufactured and how computers and internet are used on the job and in communication with customers, fellow employees, management and devices that learn and monitor productivity. The disruptions to tradition are unusually numerous, complicated and far-reaching.

Millennials must learn that finding information on the Web is not by any means the same as discerning good information. As a group, they are mind-bogglingly naïve in this way, and they lack skill at using technology in productive ways. But they have what it takes for learning to navigate the world, and they will go down as a remarkable generation.

Max T. Russell of New Palestine writes for the international business intelligence and nonprofit communities.