Recently I was enjoying a diverse, entertaining, and enlightening conversation with a group of twenty something’s. I became aware however of an interesting trend that I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around. None of them had a good grasp of what they wanted to do with their lives, let alone how to get there. What was even more unsettling was my impression that they really hadn’t given a whole lot of serious thought into their world of options. Oh, to be 25 years old and open to a huge world of career options.
“Youth is wasted on the young”. While George Bernard Shaw’s quip doesn’t represent anything new in terms of human development it does put a spotlight on the motivation of a generation.
Maybe it was different 30 years ago. Actually I know it was. Certainly I was motivated and thought differently back then. Drawing to the end of my college career I remember feeling a sense of urgency to be self sufficient, successful, and relevant. In my conversation with these young adults however, I didn’t detect any urgency. What I heard was that this or that would be great, or doing such and such would be pretty fun, or I can make a lot of money if I went off in this direction. What I didn’t hear were words like; doctor, lawyer, banker, engineer; you know that long term stuff that old people do.
Why is it that I’ve never met nor have I ever heard of a guidance/career counselor at either the high school or college level that kicked open the doors to a student’s imagination by asking the same question over and over again”What are your passions? What do you really want to do with your life”? Aren’t they the salient questions to be probing if one is on the cusp of becoming immersed in a career?
I left our conversation that day wishing one thing for those young people. I wanted them to come into contact with something or someone that would serve to ignite the rocket that sends them in a positive direction in terms of their life’s work where you devote yourself to something you love instead of something that simply pays a wage.
I was lucky enough to meet such a person when I was in my twenties and for thirty years I have never regretted his challenge. Except for that feeling of urgency, at 21 years of age I was not unlike my young friends in the conversation. I was treading water in college, putting in time to get passing grades as a history major. I wasn’t doing it to gain knowledge, graduate and move on to something better but simply in an effort not to fail. While fear of failure is a great motivator it’s a lousy source of inspiration.
It was 1976 and with less than a year until graduation and the beginning of life in the real world I was called by an good friend to meet a relative that was flying in town for the day. This visitor was a Navy fighter pilot on a cross country training flight. After meeting at the airport a single seated fighter jet screamed over the runway. The jet landed and taxied in front of us where I watched the canopy open. Down the ladder came this guy wearing a helmet, oxygen mask, flight suit, G-suit, and a survival vest with hoses sticking out all over the place. I remember standing there staring for the first time at what I wanted to become. I always had a unique interest in flying but my fascination stopped at a Cessna 172. This event changed all of that. My sights had been set at 120 knots and supersonic now stared me in the face. Bigger thoughts!
That fighter pilot and I became quick friends as he spent an inordinate amount of time with me that evening kicking open the doors to my imagination while encouraging me to set me sights higher. That day and that exchange changed my life from rudderless anxiety to deliberate anticipation. I acted on that dose of motivation and two years later I reconnected with him after I earned my Navy wings and was about to be deployed to fly fighters from deck of the USS Independence.
Whether or not I set my sights high enough initially became moot. What I do know is that I never would have ended up where I am today had I not been encouraged to imagine and think bigger thoughts.
‘Chic’ Burlingame became a good friend after that first meeting. We corresponded over the years and kept track of each other through mutual Navy friends. We kept in touch even after Chic resigned his active duty commission and went to work in the airline industry. He was the Captain of American Airlines Flight 77 on 9/11 when terrorists hijacked his aircraft enroute to that fateful day at the Pentagon.
As I sat and listened to the young people talk hesitantly about their next steps in life, I found myself wanting two things for them; to devote some serious time to thinking big thoughts about their future with lofty goals, and for each of them to find their own Chic Burlingame to provide a glimpse of what their future could hold.