by Arveent Kathirtchelvan

It seems lately that social media sites are inundated with pseudo-inspirational videos of ‘life gurus’. Speakers like Simon Sinek and Prince Ea populate many Facebook walls with third-party pages adding buzzwords onto heavily edited videos to increase the chances of them being shared by other users. Truth be told, this is quite an effective strategy, but the content of these videos is nothing short of depressing. These motivational speakers are little better than snake oil salesmen capitalising on youthful ignorance and fear of the unknown. Constantly assuming intellectual inferiority amongst the masses, they are vacuous figureheads looking only to sell their equally uninspired books.

But we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let us go to the source of this vitriol. Simon Sinek. His low-key rants on millennials in the workplace are extremely popular and equally annoying. According to Sinek, millennials are unrealistic in wanting to make an impact in the world and are also asking for free food and bean bags. This is a usual complaint thrown our way by the older generations who often reduce whatever legitimate demand young people make to survive in today’s world into bite-sized ridicule-fodder. Suddenly, wanting to get rid of dehumanising cubicles and being treated like actual contributing members of an organisation is discouraged, whereas in actual fact, happier workers are more productive overall.

Helpfully still for this tear-down piece, Sinek goes on to list 4 factors contributing to the weaknesses of millennials; parenting, technology, impatience and environment. Firstly, we have parenting. Sinek claims that failed parenting strategies have led to emotionally weaker individuals. Pointing to rewards given to young people as they grow up even for participating in an activity, he states that the science is clear that this devalues all rewards given and it actually makes those who didn’t perform well more emotionally down from embarrassment as they know they do not deserve it. Well, about that.

In her well-known study, Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck presented a group of fifth-graders with a relatively easy IQ test. When they were presented with their scores, all of which were high, half the children were told, “You must be smart at this.” The other half were told, “You must have worked really hard.”

When they were offered a choice of second tests — one that was harder and promised to teach them something new, or one that was as easy as the first test — 90 percent of kids praised for working hard chose the more difficult test. The majority of kids praised for being smart chose the easier test.

The very nature of participatory rewards is to appreciate the hard work that the participants put in. They are conveyed with the message of ‘It is okay that you didn’t win this time, I’m proud of you for working so hard’, showcasing a reward for the effort expended on the activity. This then would logically encourage more hard work and determination. So how can Sinek justify millennials of being overwhelmed by the reality of their surroundings due to these ‘undeserved’ rewards when the science shows that they would be more willing to take on the challenges presented to them? Or at least that giving participatory rewards does not automatically make them entitled?

Let’s move on to technology. Sinek, as thousands of irate parents have iterated, is extremely fearful of the effects of social media on the self esteem of the youth. He claims the constant filters and need to keep up appearances hack away at the self esteem of individuals. It is comical that this is presented as something new, as if history is not strewn with individuals who have put vanity over everything else.

As if France’s noblemen did not wear lice-infested powdered wigs to conform to societal expectations. Many point to selfies as the bottom of the barrel for refinement yet our museums are filled with self portraits of old masters. In China, the practice of foot-binding has only recently been discontinued. In India, skin bleaching products are stacked high in departmental store shelves. Yes there is a problem with beauty standards and the bullying of people who go against it but that is true for all people throughout the history of mankind. It isn’t a uniquely millennial problem.

To prove my point, a thesis from Rowan University on the effect of Facebook usage on the self esteem level of the users concluded that there is no significant correlation between the two. Another study from Cornell University concluded ‘The Internet has not created new motivation for self presentation, but provides new tools to implement such motives’ and that the any self esteem issues exacerbated by social media is not caused by standards set by social media alone. The fact of the matter is societal pressures are represented in social media, not created or made worse by it. In fact, many such prejudices against social media are busted within a third study from the University of Michigan and a fourth from the University of Amsterdam.

The truth of the matter is Simon Sinek is not wrong. He makes some fair points and generally gives helpful advice.  However, at best everything he says has been said before and at worst it is outdated and rather insulting. It is intellectually dishonest of those like Simon Sinek to capitalise on public naivete to sell low quality product, especially when he is diagnosing a whole group with his misguided observations.

When Sinek comes out with statements like ‘Millennials, after a few months in a job, bump and find a new one on the basis of not liking the first one’ is just wrong. They just want a better deal. Unemployment amongst young people is high, yes, but is it because they are dissatisfied with many jobs on offer or a host of other factors including financial crises, an aging workforce and a skills mismatch?

Not to mention that job-hopping is not necessarily a bad thing. We are far more educated now than ever before, including the knowledge that a job should not suck the life out of you and actually provide you with enough recompense that you can survive in the real world. Yet employers in Malaysia cite young people asking for RM 3000 as unreasonably high for a starting salary. Try renting a place in KL these days along with other expenses on RM 3000 a month and you might think you have disposable income. But then we have the filial piety, saving for a wedding, paying off the car since the job required self-transportation, paying off student loans and on and on and on.

Face it, millennials ask for more not because they are self-entitled whiny babies, they just want to have enough to eat and give back to their parents. In a world where conventional jobs are being steadily replaced by automation, do we really need some self-elected wealth-maximisers to complain that we are respecting ourselves a little too much? Here, have some pretty graphs that tell you in no uncertain terms that millennials are far too humble for that already.

Funny thing is, Sinek’s motto is ‘Start with the Why?’. But if we actually do and question why we are stuck at a dead-end job then leave, we are making a mistake. No matter which option they choose, millennials still lose. He does redeem himself a little by suggesting the environment around these millennials causes some pressures on them that make them disillusioned. But again this is a very top-down approach to deal with the millennial problem.

And an ineffective one as there is no millennial problem. At least, not any new one. Job security, fulfilment, adequate pay, a comfortable environment, these needs have existed for a long time. Rubber tappers have asked for them 50 years ago and so have women, minority groups and everyone in between. The one solution is to listen. Look these young people are tough, hardworking and willing to commit so much for their jobs. How many work overtime every day? How many are tedious enough to make the perfect Powerpoint slides? There are volunteers willing to give up weekends and social gatherings for work. They just need to feel like they matter. Is that too much to ask?

If it is, maybe Simon Sinek is right. Maybe I’m crazy. But I’ll be damned if he gets shared again on my wall without some form of retribution. As far as I’m concerned, Simon Sinek is better off writing fantasies. He’s already got a head start.

Arveent Kathirtchelvan is the Founder and Chief Coordinator of #Liberasi.

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