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Potholes and Teenagers: The Rules of Engagement

Do you remember when you were a teenager? Unfortunately, I do and quite vividly. As you probably already know, rule number one for teenagers is that teenagers know everything and are experts on everything, especially on topics, for which they have no prior experience. Teenager rule number two is that parents of teenagers know nothing, and the life experiences and wisdom parents possess is not relevant or applicable for teenagers.

I always get asked, “What advice do you wish someone had given you as a teenager, that you know now?” The answer is quite simple. It does not matter what anyone told me or advice they provided. I would have ignored it.

For instance, my father, who worked in the construction industry, once suggested I consider civil engineering as a possible discipline to study in college. I responded with, “No way, I don’t want to fill potholes for the rest of my life.”

Being a “binary” teenager, which means everything was either a “yes or no” and nothing in between, I had already made up my mind at his suggestion. The answer was “no”. There was no need to conduct any further investigation on the matter and the case was closed.

If I could go back in time, I’d give myself a smack up the side of the head for all the great advice I ignored, especially my father’s advice to go into business for myself.

Today, I would be quite content with a multi-million-dollar contract filling potholes on our roadways. Also, knowing there is never a shortage of potholes in our great state, I would have had tremendous job security.

Now, I realize that I know absolutely nothing, even though I am not yet the parent of a teenager, who will eventually tell me this. This realization has turned out to be a good thing. Why? Because now, I try not to make assumptions, jump to conclusions or rip people’s faces off for comments that show how truly clueless and uninformed they are about a topic. I look at every interaction, and attendance at a technical meeting as an opportunity to educate myself, and others and most importantly, to keep innovation brewing.

However, I do still hiss and growl at people who engage in unethical behaviors. Some things I just cannot and do not wish to change.

I have mentored and worked with cohorts of students for over twenty years. They come to me with their dreams and aspirations and I have learned quite a bit from them.

In academic engineering programs, all students are required to do a capstone design project. Some choose their own project concepts, others allow the Professors to choose for them. Over the years, I have seen creativity in overdrive from my students. One thing I have learned is that rule number one applies. They know everything, well almost everything.

The students may not have the exact path carved out on where they are going, but they are confident that they will get there. It is my job to help them do exactly that, even if I don’t quite comprehend the value proposition in what they are proposing.

In some cases, colleagues have said, “Why don’t you tell the kid what a stupid idea that is?”, I always remember the rules. Teenagers know everything and I know nothing. I never tell them they cannot do something or not to bother even trying. I always give them the tools to investigate the options and determine the feasibility for themselves. The proposed projects, where I struggle to understand what customer base on earth would buy the resulting products, are usually the projects that have made my students millionaires.

There is something about young engineers naivety that keeps their perspectives fresh and unbounded. It is truly refreshing.

An IEEE colleague once told me the story of a Venture Capitalist (VC) who saw a thirty second pitch for a start-up company back in the 1980’s. The VC said the young entrepreneurs showed him a realistic animation of a person morphing (transforming) into an animal.

The VC’s response was “so what?” and made the executive decision not to fund the company.

That company is now known as Pixar. Even today, that VC keeps kicking himself for his poor decision.

I have personally exceeded a lifetime limit of poor decision making during my teenage years. So, knowing that teenagers and young adults know almost everything and will most likely ignore advice, which they view as authoritative directives, I always encourage them to make decisions for themselves based on their own investigations and discoveries. I always tell them to never give up on their dream goals and add that I am still working on achieving my own dream goals.

The fact that I still have my own aspirations surprises them. After all, rule number three of teenagers is that anyone over the age of 25 is considered old. At this point in my life, they think I should just climb in the box and close the lid. Young people expect to be successful right now, and not when they are “old”.

Thus, all this has reinforced that unless I see imminent danger including ethical issues, my student mentoring approach is to listen, support, advise and most importantly, learn. One of the best ways I have found to arm students with information without stuffing it down their throats is to introduce them to the networks of individuals who know how to nurture good ideas and turn them into successful entrepreneurial ventures and products.

Here in the IEEE Boston Section, we have many groups that are doing just this. One is the Entrepreneurs’ Network and the other is the Consultants Network. These individuals have mastered the art form of knowing how to give young people advice, while making everyone value the advice and use it.

These affinity groups are not only providing resources to help young professionals meet their goals, but are the strongest support network for those of us who aren’t quite ready to climb into the box and close the lid on our own innovation dream goals.

To answer the question, “What do I wish I had known back then?” I wish I had known that I didn’t know everything and that to be successful, assuming we know nothing can remove all boundaries on innovation.

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