In a speech delivered in October 2009 to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point, cultural critic William Deresiewicz made the point that leadership requires solitude. (1) The leadership theme made sense’the men and women gathered in that room were preparing to command platoons or perhaps companies of troops. What they lacked was solitude, both presently (as students in common living quarters) and in their anticipated futures (as officers at the forefront of worldwide conflicts). No doubt his message was counterintuitive: after all, leaders by definition are out in front of other people, articulating goals, motivating them to pursue a vision of a better future. So why the need for solitude?
Deresiewicz's point was that casting a vision worth following would first require intense thinking’actual thinking, not just reciting facts and figures, or even mastering the arguments of others. And thinking in turn required solitude’concentrated time in which to work out one's thoughts, to interact with whatever content is being presented in a classroom, a seminar, or a book.
If the information overload of technology and social media makes it difficult to raise military leaders in the kingdom of man, how much more does it threaten the training of saints in the kingdom of God? After all, the latter advances invisibly in the world and without the aid of physical weaponry or earthly governments. To put the question more broadly, what unique challenges do young Christians face in recognizing their God-assigned vocation and taking their place in this theater of God's glory as stewards of God's grace, putting their talents and skills to work in the service of God and neighbor, and contributing their prayers and tithes toward the fulfillment of the Great Commission?
Distractions and Diminished Productivity
Ours is an age of multitasking, as a 2006 Time magazine cover story reported. (2) High school students don't just do their homework after dinner; they write a paper while instant messaging (IMing) with three friends (simultaneously), while listening to iTunes, while perhaps catching up on an episode of their favorite TV program (streamed over the Internet).
A 2005 survey of the Kaiser Family Foundation found that eight- to eighteen-year-olds were spending an average of 6.5 hours per day using electronic media. That figure wasn't particularly new. What was new, however, was that they were cramming in (on average) 8.5 hours per day worth of media exposure due to "media multitasking." A quarter to a third of those surveyed said they simultaneously absorbed more than one electronic medium "most of the time."
No doubt there's an attraction in having stimuli come from a variety of sources. There's never a dull moment; unpleasant tasks such as math homework can be punctuated with blinking lights at the lower right corner of the computer screen, each associated with a close friend sharing her latest thoughts or reflections on the day. The uncertainty of how others will respond to your most recent text or tweet brings an added layer of excitement. Patricia Wallace, a techno-psychologist who directs the John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth program, likens this attraction to the rush experienced by those who pull slot machines in a casino. "You have intermittent, variable reinforcement," she explains. "You are not sure you are going to get a reward every time or how often you will, so you keep pulling that handle." (Is that why people tweet what they had for breakfast?)
But that lack of "dullness" has a price tag: It's harder to "get in a zone"’to achieve the kind of focused intensity from which maximum creativity and your best work can naturally flow. If our high school and college students find it more difficult to lose themselves in a particular task, they'll miss out on the joy that Eric Liddell famously expressed in the phrase, "When I run I feel His pleasure." The pleasure of which Liddell spoke was one that comes from doing the task God made us to do and doing it with excellence’the excellence that comes only from a combination of talent and hours of preparation. It's the joy of performing at one's very best, and doing it consciously for the glory of God.
We need to turn off our cell phones and log off of Facebook when it's time to work, not only so we can honor God in our work, but also so we can reach our potential, in order to better honor God in our future work. In not doing this, I fear many remain adrift, unable to recognize God-given talents, and unaccustomed to the need for genuine productivity, not just idealistic intentions.
I'm not lamenting the fact that it takes people longer to establish their careers, as a growing number of fields require additional years of higher education. Ours is increasingly a knowledge-based economy, which is neither sinful nor a virtue. It's just reality. But precisely because of this economic reality, it is concerning that the average high school student today has a relatively short attention span’an inability to harness the mental concentration needed to master challenging concepts, and a tendency to give up too easily. (3) This suggests they will be less capable of academic and professional excellence. For example, a survey conducted in 2008 on 517 high school students in California found that those who interacted on social media sites, used instant messaging clients, and had cell phones tended to have lower grades (particularly if they sent and received text messages). (4) But even beyond the academic world, a constant need for diversion (a need cultivated by hours spent on Facebook and YouTube) hinders our character by making us unable to delay gratification and persevere through pain or difficulty. It weakens our work ethic and eats away at our spiritual disciplines such as Bible-reading and prayer, which require solitude and concentration.
It turns out that multitaskers produce not only lower quality work than nonmultitaskers, ironically enough, they even multitask worse than nonmultitaskers. An August 2009 research study at Stanford University found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory, or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time. (5)
Multitasking not only makes us bad workers and bad multitaskers, but it can also greatly diminish our ability to truly come away from our labors and rest. With multitasking making us less comfortable with silence or with doing just one activity, we have more trouble disconnecting, falling asleep, or simply recreating. With iPhones and Androids, our responsibilities can pursue us everywhere we go, at all hours of the day or night.
Cell Phone as Umbilical Cord
The technological addiction of some young adults is also slowing their transition to adulthood. My wife remembers a night during her high school years when she took a wrong turn driving home from an evening event and ended up on a long bridge that sent her in the wrong direction and to a bad place for a sixteen-year-old girl to be, especially alone. In the pre-cell phone dark ages, she needed to figure something out. It was somewhat frightening, but formative. These experiences help us become adults, as we're forced to remember what we've been taught, and to exercise judgment as best we can. I had a similar experience when at the age of twenty I was in a nasty car accident. I had taken a turn a bit too fast and slipped on the ice, hit a guardrail, and flipped the car onto its side. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. In fact, no other vehicles or people were involved. Alone, I had to figure out how to flag down help and rent another vehicle to drive the remaining one hundred fifty miles home.
I had another car accident two years ago with a college student who was about the same age I was at the time of my accident. From inside her badly damaged car blocking two lanes on a crowded freeway, her first call was not to AAA, the police, or her insurance. It was to her mom. I watched as they remained on the phone for a good ten to fifteen minutes as she no doubt explained to Mom in detail what had transpired. Her mom, I am sure, was able to give her precise instructions as to what she should do next.
Whereas previous generations grew up leaving for the day with a plan for doing X,Y, and Z, and having to adjust on the fly for the unexpected (but inevitable) mishaps or delays, this generation has grown up with just one line: If something happens, call. Yet social observers are wondering if the same technology that keeps us so close to others, especially early in our adult lives, is actually making it harder to establish our personal identity and take ownership for decisions. Hana Estroff Marano writes:
Think of the cell phone as the eternal umbilical cord. One of the ways we grow up is by internalizing an image of Mom and Dad and the values and advice they've imparted over the early years. Then, whenever we find ourselves faced with uncertainty or difficulty, we call on that internalized image. We become, in a way, all the wise adults we've had the privilege to know. (6)
It's far easier for young adults today to make a phone call (or send a text message) than to engage in deep reflection and critical thinking for themselves. Yet the development of these mental muscles is absolutely crucial for making hard decisions with incomplete information’a fundamental real-world skill.
Today, college students can ask Dad for advice about dropping a class while walking to the class. They can call Mom in the cafeteria line to get her thoughts on the lunch menu. And in so doing, they stunt their growth by missing out on opportunities to grow in discernment, and to crown their parents' labors by proceeding toward functional independence without delay. Even those who want to be relieved of the obligation to obey Mom and Dad (and therefore don't invite micromanagement) often wish to have adult freedoms without adult responsibilities. Their parents, in turn, are often all too willing to run to their aid when they do stumble, rather than letting them deal with the consequences of their actions. Bad grades? Parents get on the phone with the administration to try to save their college scholarships or student loans. Trouble with credit card debt? Mom and Dad rush in to pay it off, lest their child's credit score suffers (or their own, if they cosigned). While they can occur independently of one another, it is not uncommon for the phenomena of "delayed adolescence" and "helicopter parents" to be mutually reinforcing.
Narcissism, Participation Trophies, and Grade Inflation
Narcissism is self-esteem on steroids. It's egocentrism’the belief that reality revolves around me. Social media often breeds this trait: with Facebook we tally our friends, with Twitter we count our followers, and with blogging we monitor our traffic, measuring our worth by how much attention we're able to generate, and from whom.
In a June 2009 national poll of over one thousand college students, two out of three agreed with the statement, "My generation is more self-promoting, narcissistic, overconfident, and attention-seeking than previous generations." (7) This is college students speaking of their own generation‘it isn't older folks merely criticizing "kids these days." In late 2009, New York Times columnist David Brooks reflected on the tendency for self-promotion in our day. We recall singer Kanye West's opinionated interruption of Taylor Swift's Video Music Awards speech, Michael Jordan's egotistical, longwinded Basketball Hall of Fame acceptance speech, or even the brashness of Dr. House on the popular TV series. Brooks contrasted the chest-thumping of our day with the humility and restraint of war veterans (and, by extension, America as a whole) the day World War II ended. The ticker tape parades came later. The initial response, from President Truman on down, was solemnity, even awe, at the enormity of what had transpired. Writes Brooks, "The nation's mood was at its most humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary." (8)
In our day, it's the exact reverse: the rising generation has a more than healthy dose of self-esteem, but that self-esteem is often not grounded in reality. Our accomplishments may be modest, but we feel really good about ourselves. It's fitting’many of us were awarded a trophy in Little League just for being on a team. A recent study found that 39 percent of American eighth graders were confident of their math skills, compared to only 6 percent of Korean eighth graders. (9) But I probably don't have to tell you which were actually better at math.
It's one thing for parents to want their children to carry themselves with confidence into new situations. Fear of failure is far too often a self-fulfilling prophecy. But our society has swung the pendulum to the other extreme. It conflates a sense of dignity and self-worth (appropriate for God's image bearers) from actual achievement, and hence diminishes the value of excellence. It breeds not self-confidence but rather blind confidence’the notion that positive thinking somehow assures success.
Ours is a day in which everybody is apparently above average. I survey my students at the start of every semester to ask what grade they expect to earn in my courses. Invariably, 50 to 70 percent say "A"’a grade that once meant "excellent" in comparison to one's peers. The average college student in 1961 earned about a 2.5 to 2.6 GPA. Over the last decade that number has swelled to well over 3.0. (10) Harder working students? Not exactly: Students studied twenty-four hours a week in 1961 as compared to only fourteen hours a week in 2003. (11) Better prepared, more capable students? Not according to trends in K-12 education or evaluations taken during or immediately after a four-year undergraduate program. (12)
The topic of grade inflation is controversial and well beyond the bounds of this essay. I merely make these observations to speak to the point that the self-estimation of many young adults in our culture is not always tethered to reality. By coddling them in childhood with "participation trophies" (lest they feel bad), by giving them Bs and As for mediocre work, by constantly reminding them how special and talented they are, it's no wonder they're shocked and depressed when shuffled off the stage (post-graduation), like another failed American Idol contestant. They're set up to underperform, if not fail.
The Bible speaks of children and adults. It doesn't have a category for a nebulous, multiyear stage of adolescence in which we can enjoy increased liberty while little is expected of us. We must teach our teens that they are to be exemplary (1 Tim. 4:12), that toil and hardship are to be embraced as the means of preparation for the good works God has in store for them (Lam. 3:27; Eph. 2:10), that they must grow to accept the responsibilities of adulthood in proportion to their enjoyment of its liberties. Indeed, they must recognize, and be thankful, that taking their place in the adult world is to be the aim and orientation of their early years. It's an honor to be embraced, not a duty to be avoided.
We must teach them to cultivate a sober estimation of themselves (Rom. 12:1), to distrust their own inflated opinions, and to seek honest feedback and truth-in-love critique from caring adults they trust. We don't discover our talents by staring at our navels but by challenging ourselves’by trying something, then seeing how it went, and getting feedback from those more skilled than ourselves. We must teach them that nothing worth doing comes easy. And as they discover their God-given talents and disposition, we must help them stay humble, grounded in the truth that everything we have has been given to us by God, not to fuel pride (1 Cor. 4:7) but to stoke self-forgetting service (Eph. 4:28; Phil. 2:3-4).
As we raise our children, let us remain mindful of the awesome responsibility and wary of the dangers of both structureless liberty and reactionary legalism. Technology in itself is not evil. On the contrary, the devices that connect us with others can be tremendous tools if used for good’that is, to increase our ability to edify others, reach the lost, and honor the Lord in the workplace by being more productive. But we must wisely guard our use of these devices lest the tail wag the dog, lest they cease to be our servant and we unwittingly become their slave. Slavery to our tools yields a life of diminished effectiveness’which means Christians less able to lead others, less able to rise in their vocation, and less able to fulfill the great work of the Great Commission. n
Aspects of this article were adapted from Thriving at College by Alex Chediak. Copyright 2011 by Alex Chediak. Used with permission from Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved..
2 [ Back ] Claudia Wallis, "The Multitasking Generation," Time (19 March 2006).
3 [ Back ] For example, math education researcher Alan Schoenfeld (a professor at U.C. Berkeley) once asked a group of high school students how long they spent on a math problem before concluding it was too difficult for them. The average answer was two minutes. However, Schoenfeld's research has found that it takes about twenty minutes'time mainly spent understanding how to approach the problem'to really understand what's happening and to make significant progress in mathematics. This story is recounted in Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling book Outliers (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008).
4 [ Back ] Brittney Moore, "The Myth Behind Multitasking," The Michigan Journal (16 February 2010).
5 [ Back ] Adam Gorlick, "Media Multitaskers Pay Mental Price, Stanford Study Shows," Stanford Report (24 August 2009): http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html.
6 [ Back ] Hana Estroff Marano, "A Nation of Wimps," Psychology Today (1 November 2004).
7 [ Back ] Jean Twenge, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York: Free Press, 2009).
8 [ Back ] David Brooks, "High-Five Nation," The New York Times (15 September 2009): http://www.nytimes.com/ 2009/ 09/15/opinion/15brooks.html.
9 [ Back ] Jay Mathews, "For Math Students, Self-Esteem Might Not Equal High Scores," Washington Post (18 October 2006): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/17/AR2006101701298.html.
10 [ Back ] E.g., Valen Johnson, Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education (New York: Springer, 2003).
11 [ Back ] Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, "Leisure College, USA" (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, August 2010).
12 [ Back ] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).