It’s funny when the universe talks to you.
I had been scratching my head about what to write about this week when I heard a Thought for the Day presenter talk about “being the best version of ourselves” and suddenly the thoughts started tumbling. It wasn’t just that presenter. It’s a New Year, after all, when everyone is thinking about fresh starts and hope for the future and making resolutions to improve themselves. But there are echoes elsewhere, too. My younger son’s school motto is “be the best you can be”. The TV advert running when I decided to join the Army, many moons ago, was “be the best”. And in a tangential current, I was reminded of a video that my vicar posted on his Facebook feed in which a US chat-show guest tried to answer the question of why companies are struggling to motivate and retain millennials.
So let’s start where I began: with a man of the cloth asking us what the best version of ourselves looks like. I don’t have any answers for you. Everyone’s picture will be different. Whether you consider “best” to be a moral assessment or a physical one or a financial one or an emotional one will depend upon your particular life’s journey. I don’t judge. Whatever resolutions you may have set for yourself will speak strongly about what you see as your “best” self. And even if you are of the sort that refuses to make New Year resolutions, I suspect you still have personal goals or, at the very least, an idea of how you ought to be, somehow, better. Perhaps you want to eat more fresh fruit and veg. Or learn a new language. Or spend more time with your friends. Or not miss another school play. Or try harder to have less month left at the end of the money. Whatever it is, you’re chasing some aspect of your “best” self: one who is healthier, cleverer, more sociable, a better parent or just better off.
But when we use the word “best” of ourselves, are we using it the way others use it of us? When schools use the word “best”, they have one eye on their Ofsted report and the other on the league tables. “Best” is a clear and strictly-measured metric in that environment. The point of going to school is to learn. The reason to learn is to pass exams. The reason to pass exams is…
Well, we’ll come back to that in a bit.
When the British Army called on recruits to “be the best”, they were tapping into several veins of psychology. It was a statement of pride that the British Army was the best army in the world (arguable, of course). It was an invitation to participate in something bigger than the individual. It was a challenge, daring potential recruits to measure up to the Army’s high standards – standards not only of fitness and technical skill in the art of killing, but of professional behaviour, personal appearance and performance under intense pressure. The campaign was one of the most successful the Army ever ran and it was still running when I left uniformed service 20 years after making the decision to join up.
What I think really stands out, though, was that the campaign was also a commitment from the army to the recruit: come to us, they said, and we will make you into the best. That campaign has now given way to a newer one. When I was writing this, I realized that I didn’t know what it was, so I went to have a look. Imagine my amusement to discover that it’s now “be a better you”.
Truly, the universe is speaking to me today.
Part of the problem companies have with retaining millennials, apparently, is that millennials don’t know what they want. When asked, they have answers. But when given what they ask for (recognition, meaning, aspiration), they still quit anyway. I recently offered a job to a millennial. She didn’t seem fully qualified, but we were impressed by her energy and enthusiasm. But she turned it down to go travelling instead.
Full of energy and enthusiasm, but without a clear idea of what she wanted. Because she’d been through a process of schooling in which the object of each step wasn’t to invest in the person, but to invest in the institution. They are told that they should pass exams so they can get a good job. Logically, then, with the best possible results, they should receive the best possible job. Instead, they find themselves back in an institution that is, by nature, invested only in itself and not in its people.
I love millennials. They’ve been taught to expect great things… wonderful things! And when they don’t get them, they walk away. And businesses cry “woe is us, for we do not know how to retain them!” But if your choice is between exploring Gloucester city centre and exploring the wide and wonderful world, why would you not choose the world? I hope (I think) millennials are just the tip of a whole iceberg of humanity up to and beyond my own generation who just aren’t prepared to keep on accepting lives that aren’t great and wonderful, because employers needs to start waking up to the fact that a process that invests only in the institution just isn’t going to cut it any more. It’s not just the millennials who demand constant innovation. Our society, our technology, our social lives, our hobbies, our sports, our laws, our politics… For everything, the answers is “change or die”.
It’s not enough, any more, for work to fill up our bank accounts. It’s not even enough to be persuaded that our work makes the world better, all you charities and social enterprises that rely on that argument for your retention strategy. In the Twenty-First Century, work has to be making us better.
Work has to become part of our journey towards our best selves.
 Mine is to re-learn how to do calculus. No reason. It just seems a shame that I used to know and now I don’t.