Doodle cat

One day I was looking at Highlights magazine with my daughter, who was about four years old at the time. A regular feature is a list of questions to stimulate creative thinking. I was reading my daughter the questions when we came across one that said, “If trees could talk, what do you think they would say?” The answer, from that bright little mind, was so obvious it was almost poetic. What would trees say if they could talk? “Surprise!”

Of course that’s what they would say! To this day I can still imagine walking along a wooded path and having a tree lean down to me and say, “Surprise!” I’m just not sure what I would say back. Because, of course, I would truly be…surprised. But this kind of simple insight is exactly what I’m looking for in all aspects of my life. And sometimes it’s kids who help me re-focus on what’s real in a most elegant way.

One of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve done in the last couple years is being a volunteer company advisor for Alaska Business Week camp. This is a week of 13 hour days working with a team of high school kids who’ve been thrown together to figure out how to function as a company. In one short but intensive week they complete a business simulation, create a new product, and compete with other teen-run companies for top rankings and bragging rights. If you asked me why I signed up for this, I’d tell you I wanted to give back and share my business expertise with young people. The truth is I’ve personally gained so much from the experience.

It’s so invigorating to help those young adults run their company. On our first day together I had to confess to them that this was pretty scary for me. I kid you not, even after one year under my belt, I was extremely nervous at the beginning. Trying to dissect the complex inner workings of a simulated company using just a page of numbers is decidedly not in my wheelhouse. On top of that, trying to dissect the complex inner workings of a group of teenagers in order to keep them moving forward as a team is equally daunting. I was looking forward to later in the week when it was time to invent a new product and create its marketing plan.

Day One – a room full of eager faces are staring at me, assuming I have the answers. “Fake it till you make it” is more than just a flip adage. It’s a survival strategy. The good thing is that teenagers are natural practitioners.

Then came Day Two – After just one day, my team is running their company, crunching numbers, and making complex decisions. They’re cooperating, collaborating, and creating. At that point, my biggest challenge was to stay out of the way and change from leader to guide, imparting well placed words of wisdom. This, by the way, I became awfully good at.

I was positively giddy on the final day of camp, seeing my team in front of a room full of business leaders, and presenting their product idea in a simulated trade show. It made me wish more of my generation could have this kind of up close and personal interaction with the young people who will be taking over our world. I’ve really had enough of what’s implied when “grownups” talk about “kids these days.”

Not long ago, I was making small talk during jury duty when one of my fellow jurors started complaining about “kids these days.” He said it was shocking that most teenagers don’t know how to write a check! And hardly a one of them has had a newspaper route. I didn’t want to get into a debate with this guy, but I did point out that just about no one writes paper checks anymore, and only a few oldsters like him still read paper newspapers.

I’ve got a different perspective on “kids these days.” At Business Week, I witnessed kids who are smart, collaborative, and curious. They help each other and build each other up. They have great ideas, and the courage to take on the future. Sure, they don’t know everything, but they literally have the world at their fingertips and they’re not afraid to ask questions.

My daughter, who is now a teenager, delights in reminding me that she’s so much smarter than I am. I tell her, I hope so! Young people these days are capable of knowing more, doing more, and achieving more than any previous generation. And any thinking adult would expect nothing less. Humans are designed to evolve – to build on all that has come before. Our generation just needs to point them in the right direction…and know when to stay out of the way.

Copyright 2016 Liz Behlke