Ambition or Happiness – do we need to choose?



Ambition tends to get a bad press. We often link it with greed and selfishness with a ruthless drive towards achieving a goal at any cost. And when that goal is attained, a new one will always emerge. The ambitious person will never be able to get satisfaction, as Mick Jagger still sings. Unsurprisingly, ambition seems to be irreconcilable with happiness.
This idea is not new. As early as the third century BC, the Greek philosopher Epicurus laid the foundation for a way of thinking that extols the virtues of living simply and avoiding fame and (political) ambition. Zen Buddhism is also generally associated with contentment and happiness, not least because it seeks to limit cravings like ambition. The American writer Thomas Merton, who studied Buddhism, didn’t mince his words: “Where ambition ends, happiness begins.”

snale - ambition
Where ambition ends, happiness begins.


If this is true, the world of work faces a serious dilemma. On the one hand, enlightened employers are well aware of the positive effect that having engaged, happy employees has on customer satisfaction, staff turnover and productivity. But on the other hand, organizations need people to want to strive for improvement. An organization in which people don’t look for ways to do things more efficiently, or to offer customers a better deal, is likely to stagnate and to wither away.
Is the only solution to go for a weak unsatisfactory compromise, in which employees are a little happy, and a little ambitious?
I don’t think so. Excessive ambition (like excessive chocolate eating, excessive exercise, or anything in excess really) is unlikely to contribute much to happiness. It’s quite the contrary. If the ultimate goal is never reached, all that results is persistent frustration. And if all that significant but futile, effort comes at the cost of sacrificing one’s social and family life to pursue constantly moving goals. It is not difficult to see how such levels of ambition lead to unhappiness.

Self-actualization or Depression

But to vilify ambition per se is to deny the profound need for self-actualization that pretty much every human being possesses. Not having a sense of aspiration means that we have no interest in progress, in achievement, in improvement, or indeed in the future itself. That way depression lies ahead. It is precisely experiencing progress, realizing a goal, and getting better at something that make important contributions to how happy we feel.
If our ambitions are within reach, then we have a good chance of fulfilling them. And when we do (or even just get close) we reap the emotional rewards. This applies in our work and in our leisure time. We can derive happiness just as much from successfully completing a DIY project, cooking a delicious Bolognese sauce or finally playing a Bach prelude without hesitation, as from delivering a development project on time and on spec, leading our team towards a successful bid, or getting positive feedback after training a bunch of colleagues.

Choose your aspiration

As an employee, choosing your aspirations wisely will give you the kind of job satisfaction that is depicted so vividly in the wonderful little book Fish! for example. But managers in an organization also have a crucial responsibility here. Staff development and staff engagement go hand in hand. Good managers not only understand the ambitions of their team members, but also help them shape and pace these aspirations so that they are realistic, but challenging – or challenging, but realistic (either way works!).
This means that there is no dilemma. There is no choice to be made between either happiness, or ambition. Happiness and ambition can and do coexist in a joyful, mutually reinforcing symbiosis.

Branding through People: Apple and Lush

This blog about branding is a reflection based on a lecture by Nader Tavasolli at London Business School.


A brand is a promise to the customer. It’s meant to differentiate products and services from those of other competitors. Branding is not only about how customers perceive the company. It’s about an integrated approach. If it’s well done, a brand can change how associations are made in our minds.
The thing is that features can be easily copied, but not a brand. If you want to try some associations that brands generate go to
If a brand is to differentiate from other brands, there are three questions we need to answer:

  • What is the brand differentiator? What do you do that other brands cannot?
  • Why would you brand your product/service/company like that? What are the benefits?
  • How will you make it happen?

The Power of the Brand

Brands can be really powerful. Strong brands lead to higher engagement, higher productivity, lower staff attrition, lower training cost. And this has value. Of course it’s not easy to assess the value of a brand. One model is the Aaker model on Brand Equity.
The most interesting is when a brand becomes a symbol. That’s the case for Apple, one of the most powerful brands in the world. You can check an article on how the Apple brand motivates people to think differently here.
I was at the Apple flagship store in Regent Street a month ago. It was amazing. A lot of people, lots of staff, the buzz and the vibe. I talked to one of the people there who advised me to buy headphones that were not on sale in the store if I really wanted to have the best ones for classical music. So I’ve asked him if he could say that just like this. His answer was simple: “I can. The only think I cannot do is talk negatively about other products. I’m not here to sell. I just have to talk to you. People come in here to buy anyway, so I don’t need to sell.”
Selling without selling. What a great concept. And how easy it must be for someone in the Apple store to just be him or herself and talk about the things he or she is passionate about.
So it’s about People and Culture.

The “How” of Branding is a matter of culture

And culture is related to the attitudes and values of people. If your people are not convinced that the brand matters, you’re in trouble. The question “how” challenges us on our commitment to execute any plan. It requires a consistent alignment of the various elements that make a brand come true.
And it starts with how we think and speak of customers. Do we talk about them in board meetings? Are they invited to product development workshops? What about value creation? Do we create value for the customer or on the customer?

Do not extract value out of customers

Some companies “discover” how important their customer is. Well, if you get your branding right, it’s not just about the appearance or about the ROI. It’s about getting it right.

Customer Experience and Branding

And the problem seems to be that we are too generic. Branding must be concrete, tangible, both in services and products. I was at Lush in Antwerp last week. When you enter it’s very clear what the product is about. Natural, locally made and ethical cosmetics. The way the people in the store talk to you, how they rub the products on your skin just to make you experience the product is very consistent with the message they want to send out. There’s a big difference between Paris XL, Body Shop and Lush. And that’s what counts: make it differentiated and make customers experience it.

Building a consumer oriented culture

What’s the culture in your company? Is it generic or is it specific? How does the culture support your brand? Is the behaviour of the staff in line with what the brand promises?
Adding technology to the equation is easy. Changing behaviour is difficult. If we create connection through technology without any content or emotion, we only have traffic. We need to do more.

Branding creates Value

And then the big question pops up? Where is value created? Most companies think they create value. But maybe value is created during consumption. And therefore the value is created by the customer who experiences your product or service in a certain way.
Focusing on the experience of the customer or consumer can make your brand successful. But do we really know how to design experience? Apple does. But Apple might have a problem as they become too big and not exclusive enough. We need to know why people are choosing our brand instead of any other brand. And we need to find ways to add value to the equation.
But are we working enough on that. A PWC report on disruption shows that 70% of CEO’s focus on cost-cutting. We know that we cannot grow through cost-cutting. And we know that cost-cutting has its limits. So let’s look at the customer experience instead and we might be able to grow by binding our customer to ourselves, based on a symbolic brand that makes it unthinkable to consider any other product or service.
This video show the power of branding for Apple. Consumers do not base their decision to by an Iphone on the criteria the salesperson uses.

This blog is a reflection after a lecture by Nader Tavasolli at London Business School.

Capabilities. Is there any Oxygen up there?

Career Choices

Having advanced in your career you might want to look back. And if you do, you’ll see that you are not the person that you used to be. How many principles did you have to sacrifice on the altar of corporate progress? How many situations were uncomfortable? How many times have you done something that was not totally in line with your values? The answer is probably often. And that’s not bad. Such is life. We live and we make choices.
You have to decide what you want and if you have got what it takes to be on a higher level of responsibility. But what does that mean? It means that you have to check if you have the required capabilities – not competencies – and if you are willing to make a compromise on some of your capabilities that would hinder performance on a higher level.


What are these capabilities? There are 5 of them.

  • Intelligence (IQ): Are you smart enough to analyse, come up with the necessary arguments and reasoning? Can you understand and work with the figures? Are you able to come up with the concepts and ideas that can shape the future?
  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ): Can you deal with people? Do you have empathy? Can you send consistent messages in an adaptable way to different audiences? Can you build relationships that are warm? Can you anticipate people’s feelings and reactions? Can you adapt your behavior in such a way that you do not offend your fellow-man?
  • Political Intelligence (PQ): Can you take influence? Can you network and build useful (instrumental) relationships that are of value to you and the company? Can you leverage your work by using your channels and relationships in such a way that the message you want to send gets the necessary amplification and support? Can you analyse the political landscape and act upon that analysis?
  • Moral Intelligence (MQ): Do you have a moral compass? Do you have values and principles that are important to you? To what extent are you willing to defend those in any discussion. Morality has to do with the impact of your actions on others. Are you willing to set moral issues aside to get to the result you need? Are you willing to accept e.g. bribery to enter or stay in a market? Do you want to make choices based on principles or rather based on outcome? Do you work with universal principles (what is right and wrong) or with instrumental principles (what needs to be done)?
  • Resilience (RQ): Can you take the heat? Are you robust enough to come with the stress related to the job? Can you recover fast enough from blows and set-backs? Are you able to handle the pressure that goes with the function? Do you bounce back or do you break?

Your Capabilities and your Career

These questions are important if you want to decide upon your next career steps. And what is important is that you do not need all 5 of them to the same extent on every level.
CapabilitiesYou need your IQ, your PQ end your RQ on board level. That’s pretty much the same as on executive level. On managerial level you would need all your skills, but some of them are less developed.
Now what does this mean for morality? Does this mean that you can have morally deprived people on board level? I do not think so. It means that the job requires less dependency on moral principles than other jobs. Or it might mean that you can make the moral call on board level, whereas a manager should not take decisions on moral issues by himself. It’s up to the board to decide whether we accept certain moral transgressions in a certain country to do business. I trust that people have morals on every level.
An important issue are the political skills. Politics sometimes seems a dirty word. We think of Machiavelli. But what Machiavelli described so many centuries ago, was the required behavior to survive in the political world of Florence. And many of those principles are still valid today. But sometimes political skills are restricted to knowing what to say, when and to whom. And it’s also paramount to analyse the political landscape. Who can I trust? Who does agree with me? Who are my allies? There can be positive politics. But depending on your context, you might need to sharpen these skills to become effective.
And intelligence? That you always need. I must say that the evidence for several kinds of intelligence is limited. Scientists tend to concur that there is only one kind of intelligence. Intelligence – together with attitude – determines a lot. You cannot train it, so companies had better selected intelligent people.

See it in the context

Everything above depends on the context. What everyone should do is decide if he or she has what it takes in the context in which he or she is working today. Don’t bother trying to change the context with your personal energy. You will fail. The only way you can influence the context is by working your way up. But by the time you get there you might have changed a lot. And maybe you will get there only to find out there’s not enough oxygen for you. So know yourself.

Talent Management is about Identity

New Vision on Talent Management

We must change our vision on talent management. Why? Because it is too exclusive, normative and superficial.
It’s exclusive because of the definition of talent.  Talent is too often about the people with the highest potential and/or the highest contribution. In that definition we forget people who are the foundation of continuity and quality. It’s usually a small group of people who decide whether someone belongs to this select group of talented people.
Talent Management is usually extremely normative. The people who decide on who belongs to the talent group put spectacles on that are very biased. The selection does not acknowledge the fact that every person is unique. Or that people are able to compensate lacking competencies by other talents. There are no independent traits. Everything is related. You do not have to “possess” all leadership competencies to be a good leader.
Talent Management is superficial. Why is that?  It focusses only on observable traits: competencies, results. Based on these superficial traits we build ingenious talent processes and systems.  Talent Management can entail processes such as performance management systems, selection, learning, … The focus of many of these approaches is on their efficiency and not on their effectiveness. Hardly anyone is truly satisfied with the performance management system in his or her company.
I am not saying that the concept of competencies has no value within the frame of talent management. But without a more profound approach, these approaches miss their target.

Inclusive, tolerant and existential

Talent Management should become more inclusive, tolerant and existential.
Inclusive means that we acknowledge that everyone in the company has talent to offer. Talent management is oriented towards everyone within the company, not a select group. You might say that it is exclusive anyway, as you select. True. However, if you base your selection on competencies you might be in trouble on the long run.
Tolerance for talent means that you allow people to apply their own strengths and style. It’s useless to push people into a mold. It’s pointless to force people to acquire competencies only because that suits the organisation. If these competencies are not related to the person’s talents and values, the process of molding (instead of learning) will not yield sustainable results. If we accept that people can use various combinations of traits to perform, we embrace a human wealth already available to us. An example of this is extraversion versus introversion. Very often introverted people have fewer opportunities within an organisation. The reason is simple. They do not get noticed. And people assume that introversion is not a positive trait. But that is so wrong. Just check Susan Cain’s Ted Talk about the power of introverts. One thing we have to learn is not to think in dichotomies, black or white.
Existential Talent Management means that we not only focus on the surface, but also on what lies beneath. Talent is related to being, willing, daring, being able and doing. A superficial talent management is focussed on being able and doing. An existential talent management focusses on the deeper aspect of humanity: being and willing. Or identity if you want. Doing is important, but if we focus on being we might build companies that combine culture with personality. We must not forget that the being determines the doing. So if we focus on identity we will focus on things that are not trainable but extremely influential.

Why we do not like existential Talent Management.

Although most of us know that identity is crucial in predicting behaviour, we do not go into it. We are scared. There are two reasons for this. (1) We feel that we are invading a private place. (2) Identity seems less observable then competencies.
But competencies are constructions. You can fake them. Do you know that you can train for assessment centres? You can act your way through it. But is that a problem? Not really. If you can act you can learn. So competencies are trainable, identity isn’t. Identity is very difficult to influence, and yet it’s crucial.

The Smell of People

Let’s compare. Within organisations culture defines how people work.  Sumantra Ghoshal calls this the smell of the place. Identity is the smell of people. Identity is to a person what culture is to organisations. You might think this is disrespectful. But think about it. Why do you love to work with someone? Usually not because of the competencies, but because of more fundamental reasons. We often talk about people in very existential terms. This person I can trust. This is a fundamentally good person. This guy has an amazing energy. My colleague is someone I can build upon. Why would we talk about employees only in terms of their competencies, where in human interaction we talk about identity?
Is it dangerous to focus on deeper traits? The danger of talking about the smell of people is that you might be subjective. Competencies seem to be observable, therefore more objective and certainly less biased. Competencies are comparable. You can rank people according to the degree in which they have acquired them. It’s hard to rank identities. We are who we are. And even when we know that identity determines action, we look at the action, not at its source.

Identity Management

Should we talk about identity management instead of Talent Management? Maybe. You cannot manage identities, you lead people. So maybe we should just drop the term talent management and go back to the term people management. In people management working with identity is important. These are some examples.

  • Selection becomes a more profound business. Instead of selecting on competencies, we need to select more on attitudinal and cognitive traits. Instead of selecting someone who communicates well, you select someone who likes to relate to people. Instead of selecting someone who will do the job, you can look for someone who shares the values of the company and who will fit. Matching identity to culture might be something we will need to do more.
  • Career management is over. Careers drivers are existential questions as people increasingly want to fulfil their lives. So career management is identity-driven.
  • The problem of harassment has to do with identity. Harassment is about destroying someone’s identity and it is an unpleasant human trait for which we cannot have any tolerance.

Allowing people to sculpt their work and career according to their desired life pattern is the greatest outcome of talent management.

Life Sculpting

We often talk about job sculpting. If we allow ourselves to work with identity and not with competencies alone, we enter the realm of life sculpting. Imagine that the people who work in your company can sculpt their lives among other things thanks to the environment that you have to offer. Allowing people to sculpt their work and career according to their desired life pattern is the greatest outcome of talent management, or identity management.

Summer Holidays. How to survive them.

Who invented holidays?

Who invented the concept of taking a break? If you would take the bible you’d think it was God. He created the 7th day to rest. But you don’t need to be religious to believe in the power and value of taking a break. There is no one who does not need it.

And if all goes well, we do it naturally. We take a break at lunch, a break in the evening, we get up from our chair to take a walk (and a break), we take a break during the weekend, and we take a break when going on summer holidays. It’s healthy. It’s good for us all. It helps us to get through the day, the week, the year. Not taking a break is unhealthy and not sustainable. This is what my company Securex that is active in health management tells its clients. So let’s apply that simple principle on ourselves during summer holidays.

Summer holidays

Tips for the Summer Holidays.

We all work hard to get the best result for the company we work for, or when we are self-employed for our business. And I hope all of us have fun in doing so. So if you still need to go on holiday this summer, I wish you a great break. Here are some tips to make it successful: 

1. Plan a transition period.

  • Don’t go into full relaxation immediately.
  • So plan some things in the beginning of the summer holidays that keep you busy and get your mind off of work.

2. Make your “last document”

  • That’s a list of to do’s for when you come back.
  • That way you can forget them during your holidays. It’s like writing them to an external hard disk and wiping them from your mind.
  • It will be on your desk when you return.
  •  I usually send that list to my boss, so that he knows what is going on and that he can intervene when necessary. I call it “summer testament” but some people do not like the word.
  • Oh, and write down your passwords too. So you can forget them as well. (unless you breach some security rule by doing so).

3. Be a good leader.

  • A sign of good leadership is that your team can do without you during the summer holidays.
  • So tell them that you do not wish to be interrupted, unless when it’s urgent.
  • Make it clear that you will ask them why they think it’s urgent.
  • Make sure people know you trust them to do the right thing. Don’t be mad when they did something you did not like. You were on summer holidays. They weren’t.
  • And if there’s someone in your team who feels (s)he will not survive, help him or her to plan the weeks in advance.

4. Define your limits.

  • Decide how you will deal with the cloaca of mails and messages.
  • Give instructions on how people could reach you in case of emergency.
  • Even when it gives you a false sense of peace, do not look into your mails every hour. The less you do it, the better.
  • If you cannot afford not to look into your mails at all, plan when and how often you will look.
  • Talk about this to your partner and ask him/her to help you do that.
  • If need be, give your smart phone to him or her.
  • Don’t forget you can switch off data connections so you will not receive those mails.

5. Prepare your return.

  • Book some time in your agenda to catch up.
  • Realize that most issues will have been solved when you return.
  • Pick up your to-do list (it’s on your desk) and go through that prior of checking your mails.
  • Use some artefacts of your summer holidays in the office afterwards (an exotic pen, paper from your hotel, a tie you bought on the Rialto bridge, …- don’t bother with good taste)

Happy summer holidays. Enjoy the time with your family and friends. Keep it safe. Come back full of energy.   


Read also:

5 ways to extend your holidays

Employee Engagement is not enough. It's too much.

There’s a book and website on “employee engagement is not enough”. The point of the book is that we need passionate employees. Well let’s forget it. It helps to have passionate employees. But you can hardly expect from all people to be passionate all the time about all aspects of their job. It’s an illusion. Look at the figures. The actively engaged employees are a minority. Many people come to work and want to do well in their jobs but nothing more. Is it a problem that many people work to earn a decent income to support their family? Not at all. Like Obama says: it’s about work, but it’s more about family.
So let’s not overestimate the importance of employee engagement. Let’s not overestimate the importance of HR for its development. Let’s go back to what is essential in work. Why people work is important.  Let’s not be normative or naïve. As business managers we can only offer a job and work context that fit to what is important to people. There is no hocus-pocus, only common sense.

Focus on the Context, not on Employee Engagement

So employee engagement is not enough. Sometimes it might be too much to ask. Let’s stop asking people to be passionate, or happy, or spiritual. We should not focus too much on psychological states. It does not work. It’s better to work on the input factors that might lead to those psychological states. Why? Because you can only control that. And if a company works on that, the output will be in most cases beneficial. And in some cases there will be no positive reaction at all.
And how can you create the fit between what is important for someone and the work context?

  • Start with listening to the people who work in your company. Empathy and exchange are crucial.
  • Recruit and select people with the right attitude and values. Focus on the fit with the company and not on competencies and immediate return.
  • Accept and acknowledge that people work for a living. Don’t expect everyone to look for a higher level of being at work.
  • Don’t be spiritual as employer. Be spiritual as a human being.
  • If people work for a living, make sure you help people to manage the interference of personal and professional roles. Make sure employees feel that you find it important that they lead a balanced life.
  • Get the basics right. Decent work. Decent Pay. Decent environment.
  • Be clear on what is possible and what is not. There’s no point in trying to be a company that you are not.
  • Apply common sense to your employee relations.
  • Do not put targets on employee engagement. Don’t force people into engagement.

Employee Engagement is not enough. It’s sometimes irrelevant. Focus on the input factors and go back to basics. It’s the context that matters. And don’t be disappointed that not everyone is spontaneously as engaged as you. That’s life.

Inspirational Teachers are Inspirational for Inspirational Leaders

Inspirational Teachers are rare

Go back to your high school days (secondary school). How many teachers do you remember that have inspired you? I’d bet that you can count them on one hand. If there are more, you may have been very fortunate. In itself the thought is amazing. You could expect teachers to be in the business of inspiration. But they aren’t always. Unfortunately many teachers are (or have become) uninspired and not inspiring. They drag their bodies into class rooms and give the same lecture as they did last year. They are bored with themselves and hurry home when the school bell sounds. They are easily forgotten. And if they are remembered, it’s for their weakness or hilarious conduct. Children see through them and they mock them. But when children meet an inspirational teacher, they cling onto them.
What do inspirational teachers do? A recent research paper by Lamb & Wedell (2013) describes the qualities and the effects of inspirational language teachers. There is nothing spectacular to it. Inspirational teachers are kind and patient. They show attention to the individual learner needs. They encourage and show professional diligence. They have an impressive subject knowledge. Musser e.a. (2013) suggest that teachers need to be connected with peers as collaboration is key. They need to have passion for learning (not for helping students to pass tests) and they need to embrace each pupil as an individual, involving also the community. Moreover teachers need to look at developing strengths, not fixing shortcomings.
I remember one of those teachers, JT. JT was an incredible teacher. He was erudite and humoristic. He was extremely passionate about his subjects. He put much effort in his classes and came up with new things. He gave Latin, Dutch, music. Once he introduced his pupils to the erotic poetry by Juvenalis. This was in a catholic all boys school. Forbidden. But he giggled his way through it. When he was victim of a prank he went with it and added some humor to it. Here was a teacher the pupils could discuss with. He always treated them with respect and the pupils grew through his probing questions. He was eager to share his vast cultural background with anyone who wanted. He got the best out of people and it seemed like it came natural to him. It didn’t seem to cost a lot of trouble. But sometimes you saw how he struggled with certain issues. He was involved. He did not want to convert anyone into anything. But still, he was troubled by the lack of diligence he found in some pupils. And yet, he was never judgmental about that.

Inspirational Leaders

Inspirational teachers are rare. Inspirational leaders are rare too. You know immediately when you meet an inspirational leader or teacher. They are also the kind that you will remember years later and whose advice will guide you even throughout your entire life. You might think of them at odd moments. You might even build a kind of conversation with them. What would he or she have done in my case?
So what does this tell us about leadership? A teacher is also a leader. (S)he stimulates the evolution of people. Children like to work for teachers who trigger them. It’s the same with employees. They like to work for or with leaders that trigger them. Empathy and kindness are important characteristics. As is diligence. Have you ever worked for a lazy leader? That’s just awful. You feel the injustice, especially when you are working like a mule in a treadmill. You feel it when an inspirational leader talks. There’s anergy, passion.
Companies should detect inspirational leaders. They are not always in the leadership positions. They are of great value to a company because people like to work for them. They can create movement. They are bakens of trust. They have the potential to lead a company. Without wanting to go into the nature-nurture discussion, I am convinced there are innate characteristics an inspirational leader has. So forget about developing inspirational leaders. But there are some things you can do to develop inspirational leadership in your company.


Here are some guidelines to develop inspirational leadership

  • Inspiration is contagious. If the chairman and the CEO are inspirational, chances are that the motivation to be inspirational crosses over to others.
  • Screen for inspirational behavior. You can do this directly (observing that behavior) or indirectly (through evaluation). Once you have detected an inspirational leader, work with him.
  • Stimulate leaders to be inspirational. Encourage them. How? By giving them enough latitude. Do not control them. It’s impossible. Inspirational leaders need space, a context in which they can thrive.
  • Foster inspirational leaders. As they are rare, you should hold onto them. Retention measures are appropriate.
  • Help people to channel inspiration. Leaders do not have to be inspirational all the time. But they need to be at the right moments. Inspirational leaders can learn how to switch on their inspiration engine. But they need to switch it off again.
  • Focus on meaningfulness. As most of your leaders will not be inspirational, you need to help the non-inspirational to create meaningfulness whilst being authentic. There is no inspirational mask. So don’t ask managers that cannot inspire to become inspirational. But make sure they contribute to the overall movement.
  • Position inspirational at the right spot at the right time. You can choose to position inspirational leaders in business areas that are in trouble and/or that need development.
  • Help inspirational leaders in areas they do not excel in. Sometimes inspirational leaders tend to delegate too much. They do not check. They assume that people share their passion,. They expect them to be as mature and autonomous as they are. They think everyone takes on responsibility. Inspirational leaders seem to be hit-and-run (I have inspired you, so now it’s your turn). Make sure they stick around to get their hands dirty. They need to show diligence.
  • Beware of the gurus and the divas. Some inspirational leaders develop diva-like features. Help them to stay with their feet on the ground. Give them coaching. Give them feedback. Inspirational leaders are often mavericks. They are difficult to handle. That’s not a problem in itself, but make sure that the value of the inspiration remains greater than the cost of having to manage an inspirational leader.

I admire inspirational teachers. They help to build a future for youngsters. They invest in people more than anyone else. Over the years inspirational teachers might have touched the lives of hundreds of pupils. And yet, they disappear into the anonymity of retirement. Would they know how they live on in the thoughts of the ones they have inspired? I certainly hope so.
Martin Lamb and Martin Wedell (2013). Inspiring English teachers: a comparative study of learner perceptions of inspirational teaching. Leeds, ELT Research Papers 13–03
P. Maureen Musser, Micki M. Caskey, Linda L. Samek, Younghee M. Kim, William L. Greene, Jan Marie Carpenter, and Jay Casbon (2013).  Imagine a Place Where Teaching and Learning Are Inspirational: A Decade of Collected Wisdom From the Field Middle School Journal, March 2013. 

We become our Parents: the Myth of Generations

I don’t believe it
Type in “Generation Y” in the google search engine and you will end up with nearly 3,000,000 references. It’s the topic of the moment and it has been taken up by marketeers, management professors and trend watchers. In the past there have been studies about intergenerational differences and trends, but never before one generation has received so much attention long before it even has left a significant trace in world history.
So this article might be sacriligious to many as it shows that there most likely is no such thing as Generation Y . I for one do not believe in it. I think something else is going on, but it’s something that has been going on for centuries.
It’s totally natural that generations that live side to side make comments about one another. Socrates was not very positive about the generation that came after him. The Romans thought that their youngsters were heading for disaster. The anti-authoritarian movement of the 60ies that culminated in may 68 in Paris and other places in Europe is another example of how one generation reacts to its older generation. It is of all times. But if you want to see how the revolutionaries of those days evolved, you can ask yourself how revolutionary that revolution really was. Many of the leaders of those days have now embraced what they have fought against, all those years ago.
We invent stories about generations
The transition into adulthood is changing in the sense that it takes longer than it used to. Childhood and adolescence are taking up a larger chunk of the lives of people in number of years (even though relatively it might be that due to our longevity it is taking up the same relative part of our lives). That’s a fact.
Also, every generation has its views on how to consider childhood. In a sense we invent stories about the generations. Probably we need those stories to create our own identity. Imagine that a child never disagrees with its parents? It has to, because otherwise it cannot become more of itself. So I am convinced that Generation Y is just a story (a kind of branding of a generation) and that the similarities between generations are more important than the differences. What undoubtedly has changed is the way children and youngsters are treated (educated) and that has of course a an effect on how youngsters behave and how they develop into what they at a certain time most dread: their parents.
Going back in history
Let’s go back in history. The classical notion of childhood was one of development: children had to become adults as fast as possible. Inspite of the image of Romans being civilised and having a lot of attention for the schooling of their children, conditions for many children were hard. There is even some evidence that infanticide and child abuse was much more common than we would (like to) think.
In the middle ages it was still that classical notion of childhood that dominated. There was not much understanding of the importance of the early age for the development of the child. Children were treated as “small adults” that were somehow innocent but incomplete. There was love, but emotional ties were influenced by the views of the church and by the high infant mortality.
For the church the most important issue was to baptise young children to redeem their souls. That’s why children were baptised immediately after birth, a habit which yours truelly was also the subject of in 1969. This shows that these practices survived well into the twentieth century.
The education of children in the middle ages is to be seen in its context. Society in itself was organised differently. First of all one needed to accept that societal organisation was a product of God’s will and was not to be questioned. Children learned what had to be learned without being taught the capacity to criticize. Catechism was the most important intellectual input they received and this consisted out of a list of questions and answers that you had to learn by heart. My parents underwent this in the 30ies and 40ies of the twentieth century, but it was in fact a medieval practice.
The Church was the main source of education but the education was used to indoctrinate youngsters with ideas (and fears) that perpetuated the societal structure. The product of this education was ignorance and thus the church stopped deliberately the development of youngsters. The Education was a way to control. Let’s not forget that this remained very true until Vatican II. And let’s not forget that this is a proven tactic of authoritarian regimes. If you control the youth, you control the future.
Confronted with other views, the catholic church turned to repression. Heresy was used as an excuse to get rid of religious opponents. The inquisition is an example of that. The index of forbidden books is another. So for centuries deviant thoughts were considered to be dangerous. Not only the church used this approach, the monarchs ruled as well with iron hand and did not tolerate any thoughts that might have destabilized their authoritarian rule. Intolerance is a weapon. So as far as children were concerned, they were brought up in a sense of societal stability and continuity, with a totally different perspective of the meaning of life. Let’s also not forget that life expectancy was only 30. Only 50% of royal children lived until their 20ies. So there was not much time to think about emancipation.
The Enlightenment
During the Enlightenment new ideas came up also about how to raise a child. Whereas in the medieval times it was the clergy that determined the vision on education, during the enlightenment it was philosophy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought that the child’s curiosity should be the driver behind its development. He thought that the environment of the child should be rich and stimulating so that the child is to discover many things and ask questions about it. This is a romantic idea that still exists today and is found in many nature-nurture discussions. But nothing much had changed for children. The philosophers talked mainly about educating the upper class. Most children were brought up just to be productive. At the height of that we see the child labour during the industrialisation.
20th century
And then came the 20th century. During the 20th century the child was finally “discovered”. New educational theories came up and developmental psychologists finally determined the importance of childhood for the development of people. Laws were voted that banned child labour and installed the obligation for learning and schooling. Child labour was progressively forbidden in the West. So childhood was reinvented and extended in time. Children were allowed to play and they were given space to be a child. Parents became their mentor.
Related to that there was also the notion of social mobility and democratization of education . Where children in the early twentieth century used their extra time to learn a profession or a trade, they were increasingly stimulated to expand their horizon and to focus on a more general education. Higher education became increasingly accessible in the West and especially in Europe and the numbers of people signing up for higher education has increased since the 60ies of the past century. In the past a university degree was something for the happy few, today it has become a right for everyone. Let’s take a look at Germany. In 1994 1,8 million youngsters started continued education (after secondary school). In 2010 this number had increased to 2,2 million. This number is unseen in history both in absolute and in relative terms.
Casa mama
And now? Youngsters seem to be postponing their adulthood. This is called the psychological moratorium. In Italy it’s called “casa mama”. Youngsters do not need to take on responsibilities until their mid or later twenties. They prolong their studies. The Italians seem to be at the top of the chart. Even those who go to work early, have the chance to remain under parental “custody” for a much longer time than we have known in history.
What are the mechanics ? Adolescents are taking more time to make the transition to adult life. There are 5 elements in that transition : finalizing studies, leaving the parental home, finding employment, marrying and having children. So do we think that young people have become lazy, that it is their fault ? Looking at Italy it is for youngsters impossible to leave their parental homes because of a huge gap between their income level and the cost of living.
One of the reasons for delaying the transition into adulthood is that the financial situation or certainty of youngsters has deteriorated in comparison to that of the babyboomers who rushed into marriage and lived on a wave of economic prosperity. The coming generations will be less well off than the baby-boomers. So delaying adulthood is probably a wise thing to do. However we must not forget that families themselves face challenges and that this prolonged residence causes strains within families.
Something else is happening. There is a certain decomposition of education. Primary school teachers complain about the low maturity of children entering the system. Secundary school teachers complain about the low readiness of children leaving the primary school, higher education teachers complain about the inflow in their system and finally companies are worried about the quality of candidates. So have we become stupid ?
One element could be the deteriorating disciplinary climate in families and school. But there is no proof for that. On the contrary  discipline in school and teacher-student relations seems to improve and youngsters are even asking for it. The German psychiatrists Winterhoff argues that there is a problem within families where discipline is fading. Parents want to be the partners of their children whereas children need structure. He argues that our society is cancelling childhood which has a detrimental effect on the psychological health of children. The problem is not to create boundaries (Begrenzung), the problem is the lack of them (Entgrenzung). The lack of boundaries creates dependency. It’s only because there are limitations that people can (have to) make choices. And it’s by making choices that one learns to be free.
So from a very rigid educational system, with hardly any attention for the development of children, we have come to an age where adulthood is postponed and youngsters are given a lot of (false) freedom. This leads to different behaviours of later generations at comparable ages. But everytime we see a change in society, we see that generations return to rather stable values and needs. Revolutions never succeed. There is always a backlash. You could also state that the reaction to the anti-authoritarian movement in the 60ies was a more conservative society. The need for discipline that youngsters express might be a reaction to Winterhoffs observed disintegration of the family.
Generation Y
So is the current generation Y different than any other generation ? Looking at the changing perception of childhood and the prolongued trasition into adulthood, something must change in how people develop their identity and how they behave. Anyway, that’s the conviction many people have. But is there really proof of that?
Some studies show that generation Y does not exist. A French professor has shown that the employees belonging to generation Y do not differ substantially from other employees. Their behaviour differs from students from generation Y. I guess that this would be the case in any generation and that the process of work socialization would play a role in that process.
So maybe companies will take over the role of educational systems and they will despoil a generation that has been used to extreme high comfort and lack of boundaries. And at the end of this despoiling process, generation Y will have taken of its clothes and be just the same as any other generation.
Throughout history children have not changed that much. They were treated differently, but they developed into adults. There has been no change in their psychological needs. People need to have the feeling they belong, that they can be autonomous and have a sense of mastery. The only thing that has changed is the speed of the process. It has slowed down. Life is longer so there is more time to reach the state of adulthood. We look at the current generation and we think they’re different, because they’re different from previous generations at the same age. But every later generation was perceived by earlier generations as being different. And every younger generation has tried to differentiate itself from earlier generations. It’s an eternal process.
Youngsters reaching adulthood will find out that life is not that easy after all. They will have to work for the money. They will have to struggle for a carrier. They will have to take on responsibilities, they did not understand. And they will have to learn how to do it fast.
So what about technology? I haven’t mentioned technology so far. Yes, technology has changed. Indeed the possibilities of ICT seem to be endless. But does this change the deep needs of people ? It doesn’t. People will use ICT to fulfil those basic needs. So technology does not change those needs, but it facilitates their satisfaction. Generation Y does not have significantly different expectations about employment than students from the baby boomer generation and generation X. They do not have different needs at all.
What is intuitively not right is to talk about generation Y as if it were a monolithical generation. In the past generations weren’t either. I mentioned the stories earlier in this blog : generation Y is a myth. The baby boomer generation has produced a lot of different behaviours : hard working citizens, hippies, radicalists, environmentalists, … and all in one generation.
There are many studies that do show differences. For instance generation Y is less focussed on money and more on quality of life. This is to be seen in a societal context as this is a trend for all generations. We all evolve together. The elderly people of today have a different behavior than the generations before them, but they have evolved during their life, together with society. Their current behavior is not comparable with what they heve been taught 50 years ago. It’s a collective development.
But at the end of the day people from generation Y will have to work hard as well and do similar things to achieve their personal targets. Generation Y will grow up and they will become just like their parents. We see that happening already.
We become our parents
Although the societal context is changing and technology is changing, there is no point in considering generation Y as a monolithical generation that is fundamentally different from other generations. The behavioural differences that we might see are less important than the psychological similarities with other generations and indeed rather superficial differences. Moreover you will have members of the same generation act differently and members of different generations act in the same way. Generation Y is an invention, just like all the other stories about generations that have arisen since the oldest times. At the end of the day we have the same psychological needs and drives.
How much we resent the idea during puberty and young adult life, we all become our parents. And no generational branding will change that. There is no way out.