Make Friends with Worry

I look forward with a quiet thrill to each new school year – another chance to explore the world of ideas, events, and values with a novel group of smart, curious, thoughtful, and ambitious grad business students ready to take on the world. This year is different.

Perhaps the Millennial and Gen Y students have earned their reputation for high maintenance and annoying entitlement. From the outside, it looks like the world is their oyster. But they have a lot to worry about, and the brooding fog of anxiety hangs heavier in recent years. Now, heading into Fall 2020, an unprecedented flurry of emails about assignments, grading, and logistics appear to signal deeper worries. What’s really going on? Is stress becoming a public health crisis?

…the brooding fog of anxiety hangs heavier in recent years.

I begin to query a student I’ve known for over a year – not a complainer.

ME: I know the Zoom school isn’t ideal, but after several months we’re getting the hang of it. And if things aren’t working for you, just let me know and we can come up with some solutions.

STUDENT: Ok. Thank you. Well . . . it’s just that. . .

And so it begins. The aging parent with no job, no health insurance, too young for Medicare. The tanked startup. The hopeless job market. The gone boyfriend. The irrelevance, skyrocketing costs, and crushing debt of business school. Gunshots in the neighborhood. Crumbling city infrastructure. The ugly politics of healthcare, race, and education.

We talk about grad school as a “boot camp”. Business students love the idea of toughness for learning to thrive in the complex, uncertain, disruptive environment. We talk about how prolonged fear and anxiety distort our brains and increase our need for reassurance and micromanaged certainty. About how hard it is to be our best selves when we are overwhelmed.

I steer the conversation to bright spots in the world of business and management and cite a McKinsey report on the future of the healthcare industry — “Industry growth, major changes, and strong value-creation potential make healthcare an exciting industry. At the same time, cost concerns, uncertainty, and complexity make it an unnerving one. Substantial upside exists for players that can deliver value-creating solutions and thrive under uncertainty.”

A glimmer of hope at the idea of an upside, but it’s hard to see beyond the unnerving reality of the present. An embarrassed apology for bothering me and a promise to talk again soon. Maybe coffee next week.

*****

The real work of learning and teaching resides of course outside the classroom as well as in. Learning to thrive under conditions of risk and uncertainty is not a head game. Facing visceral anxiety and fear involves more than knowledge. Conversations are an opportunity to scaffold the adaptive learning experience of risk with tools and practices to foster resilience, to explore the idea that grad school might be a safe place to learn from failure. That becoming your “best self” is a lifelong marathon, powered by hard work and setbacks that slowly morph into joyful confidence.  

Facing visceral anxiety and fear involves more than knowledge.”

The crisis trifecta of pandemic, economic, and racial distress presents both a challenge and an opportunity for education, especially for higher education and graduate schools. Higher education can be a bravely adventurous place for future leaders to learn how to be tough, resilient, and adaptive, while honing the “soft power” skills that make them better human beings and citizens, drive value creation, and mitigate business and financial risk.

The next generations will need to make worry their best friend, in order to survive and thrive in a fractured society. The least we can do is care enough to listen and engage as they anxiously take on the world we are leaving them.