October 7, 2008

I am not Complaining…

posted by: Jim @ 10:59 am
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This post was written by Vik Kothari, a colleague at Digital Network Group…

In the recent press, we have been having a huge debate about “US being a nation of whiners!” It all started with a comment from John McCain’s financial advisor, Phil Gramm who claimed that “we have sort of become a nation of whiners.” He later had to resign because many people whined about him making this statement. This blog is not about Gramm or McCain or whether we are in fact a nation of whiners. It is about whether we are nurturing a generation of complaining young adults under-appreciative of what they have and harboring a feeling of entitlement for much more. It is not about our present but about our future. Most people with a teenager in the household might relate to this rather directly. What can we do about it?

I had the distinct privilege of running a very successful summer program for a group of high school youths in Washington, DC (Kinetic Potential Scholars). Participants in the program were very diverse - from the underprivileged to those with a middle class background. Not only was the program free to the participants but most of these ‘scholars’ were also paid for their participation. You can learn more about the context and goals of the program at www.kpscholars.net.

The program focused on career development with the objective of exposing participants to the world of career opportunities by helping them to identify the steps necessary to achieve their career goals. My colleague Jim Smith, a fellow Wharton graduate and creator of the Kinetic Potential Mentoring System, invited me to join him in delivering this program. Free to the scholars, they got a virtual education, which included a social entrepreneurship conference for youths, room and board, and lunch. Participants were exposed to role models including NFL players, Entrepreneurs, and Entertainment figures. Five days a week, all day long, no cost to participants. Before you read ahead, consider the lifetime value added for these participants by such a program. Remember, the program is one that pays you for participating while helping you to plan ahead for your future career.

Now, here is an analogy that helps to illustrate some concerns I have regarding today’s youth. You are out dining at a fine restaurant and you are given a complimentary cake after the waiter realizes it is your birthday, what would be your natural reaction? A normal person (from my generation anyway), might simply accept it with a ‘Thank you’ and a smile. But what if we are a nation of whiners as Phil indicated? Well, in that case, the reaction could range from complaints about the quality of the cake or the desire for a different flavor. At an extreme, you could also complain that offering the cake for free is discriminatory since it gives the impression that the owner doubts your paying ability based on your appearance – after all, if you really wanted it, you could have bought it, right? This leaves us with the following predicament - if one does not truly appreciate what is being offered, should it be given for free? In fact, should it even be given at all?

To our chagrin, the program we conducted was this free ‘birthday cake’ offered to many under-appreciative scholars (many others took full advantage of this opportunity). For the dissatisfied though, the program was met with many complaints – the site was ‘too hot’, the computers were ‘too slow’, expectations of them were ‘too high’, the virtual education was not ‘entertaining enough’, the food was not ‘tasty enough’, the sessions started way ‘too early’ at 10 AM on a Saturday (don’t they know that teenagers are used to sleeping until noon on weekends?). You catch my drift - Clearly, for some, we did not have the right flavor cake.

Our program assessment indicated that those who saw value and participated fully in the program did extremely well, regardless of capability. But the question is whether the appreciation for the program diminished for others because it was being offered free of charge? Is this part of the reason why programs offered by competent people with reasonable resources sometimes fall short of desired results? The dilemma is acute because a better part of the population that needs these kinds of interventions cannot fully afford it to begin with!

It is my personal belief that by not fully emphasizing the great opportunities that such intervention programs offer, we do a disservice to our target population. The more motivated and appreciative the participants are to take advantage of an opportunity that they consider a privilege (and not a right) the better they can leverage the services of any program. Consequently, the outcomes of the program would improve. Given that most of these programs need to reach people who do not possess enough financial means, and hence must be subsidized, the programs must focus on motivating participants by emphasizing the overall benefit to them thereby increasing the overall ‘appreciation factor.’
I propose that youth development programs, or any other community based programs, should do at least one of the following:

1. Include a component in the delivery of the program that emphasizes to the participants the privilege of being there and help them appreciate the value-added benefit, whether the opportunity is free or not.
2. Introduce a mechanism that easily identifies those participants who appreciate the opportunity the most, filtering out the rest (for example, giving them responsibility to have a stake in the delivery of the program). This is especially true for the programs with capacity issues.

With all the good intentions of many youth development programs, these services can be viewed by the benefiter as a right, that can be demanded, and not as a privilege, that should be cherished. At an aggregate level, one can possibly argue in favor of society’s role in helping the underprivileged where help becomes an expectation from the society, but at an individual level, it could potentially cause a moral hazard. The ‘free’ factor does cause the value of the program to be diminished by some. However, the outcome could be different if the participants themselves, not their parents, were asked to have a stake in it. This can be done, for example, by having participants raise say 50% of the fees themselves (utilizing program resources) to continue in a program, even if the program itself is delivered for free at the beginning. That was a component of the KP Scholars Program—that each individual would be responsible for raising a portion of the cost of their program fees.

In our zeal to help others, by reaching out to those most in need, we must not forget that we still need to instill the basic principles of hard work, persistence, responsibility, respect, and discipline that are required for success. Nothing comes for free, even if appears that way sometimes. We must not forget that teaching to appreciate what we have is the first step towards making sure that we are not raising a generation that wants more, but whines at the idea of being expected to do more. We must also not feel apologetic about expecting more out of our youth. No civilization has ever become great or stayed at the pinnacle based upon low expectations! “Want more. Do more. Be more.”* Appreciate. Leverage. Compete. Expect. Win. Not complain! I am not sure if this is what Phil was trying to articulate.

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