The experiences that mean the most to the generations that follow us are often the ones that will help them live fuller, more resilient lives. Since 1979, I’ve been committed to mentoring emerging leaders—both students and young professionals. I became a father in 1988 and now have two adult children. Over time, I’ve identified that the experiences that are the most meaningful to my Generation Z mentees and my children are the experiences that foster maturity, as well as build grit and depth. Collectively, they serve as a sort of “rite of passage” for them. As we approach Father’s Day, I’d like to share five experiences we can communicate to the next generation to lead powerful, positive change in their lives. I invite you to consider inserting these experiences as you invest in the generations after you, now or in the future.
Personal Growth Experiences That Foster Maturity and Build Grit and Depth
1. DO SOMETHING SCARY
There is something about stepping out of our comfort zones to attempt a risky act that’s unfamiliar and even a little frightening that makes us come alive. Our senses are heightened when we feel we are taking a risk. We don’t know what we’re doing, and we have to trust and even rely on each other. Ideally, these initiatives are intentional and well planned, but they should not be scripted. They must include the element of chance. As a mentor, I’ve taken my mentees downtown to spend the night with homeless people. Those students were wide-eyed as we interacted with an entirely different population of people and slept on trash bags with newspapers as a blanket. A small dose of “danger” mixed with a large dose of “unfamiliar” accelerates growth.
When my son was 12, he and I took a father and son trip to another city. We explored some new places, but the scariest part the four-day trip was when I traded places with him in our car and had him drive it around a parking lot. After explaining the gears and peddles, Jonathan overcame his panic and drove that big automobile. In moments, he was grinning from ear to ear. This sparked a remarkable conversation, comparing his fear to what he’ll experience becoming an adult. Adulthood is not for the fainthearted; it’s about responsibility; being “drivers” not “passengers” in life. Facing fears is a rite of passage for kids. Doing something that’s neither prescribed nor guaranteed unleashes adrenaline and other chemicals in our bodies that awaken us. Other “feel good” chemicals also come into play with scary experiences, including dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, and oxytocin. Part of the reason more teens don’t “come alive” is we’ve protected them from “high stakes” in the name of safety.
2. MEET SOMEONE INFLUENTIAL
Another challenge for them to rise to is meeting someone they deem significant. Because Gen Z is less at home meeting adults face to face, the encounter itself stretches them. On top of that, meeting significant people invites them to prepare questions to ask and fosters listening skills. These can be famous people, but they don’t have to be. The key is they’re people the students believe to be important due to what they’ve accomplished. I was invited to participate in a special meeting in Washington D.C. when my daughter, Bethany, was just nine years old. Since I would be meeting members of congress, ambassadors and other civic leaders—I wanted her to experience it with me. Encountering noteworthy people can be intimidating, even to adults. It was fun to introduce her to these people and witness her interacting with them and eventually feeling quite at home.
For the first 20 years of my career, I worked for John C. Maxwell. My kids were fortunate enough to build a relationship with John and his wife, Margaret. Interacting with the Maxwells enabled them to overcome social fears and to see noteworthy people as “human.” Today, my kids are not star-struck with celebrities and are comfortable interfacing with people of all ages.
3. TRAVEL SOME PLACE DIFFERENT
If you’ve had the privilege to travel, you know that visiting somewhere else is an education in itself. While classrooms are useful learning contexts, leaving the classroom and all that’s familiar is better still. Not only does travel push kids out of their comfort zones, but it also forces them to work at understanding others, at connecting with new environments and at problem-solving, since those new contexts are places we cannot default to our subconscious. Consider this: when we’re in familiar situations, we can shift into “cruise control.” We can become numb to reality since we’re on our home turf. This doesn’t occur in a foreign location. We think new thoughts in new places. My friend Glen Jackson says, “A change of pace plus a change of place equals a change of perspective.”
One of my favorite memories, however, was taking my 5-year-old daughter, Bethany, to Croatia, during the Serbian-Bosnian War, in 1993. My goal was to enable her to be comfortable in environments that were both foreign and struggling. Bethany helped to serve clothes, food, and blankets to refugees who relocated to the area. She saw poverty she’d never seen before and experienced the joy of providing for the needs of those who were displaced and suffering. It was life changing.
4. CHASE A MEANINGFUL GOAL
I believe teens need for us to let them pursue an objective that has high stakes and give them full control. Past generations matured more effectively because they were given responsibility for jobs and goals that had genuine meaning at a younger age. When we lower the stakes or we give kids an artificial purpose to engage in, they end up with artificial maturity. While I believe in the value of academics, it’s still a facsimile of a meaningful world, created by our current, contemporary structures. I meet too many students who master the skill of getting a good grade yet struggle to translate those grades into a career or healthy relationships. Information is meaningful as it becomes application.
When I speak of chasing a big goal, I mean aiming for a target that has deep meaning to your child, one that stretches their capacity, and is important. As a teen, my son told us he wanted to pursue the entertainment industry. So, my wife and I decided to let Jonathan step out at 16 years old. As a homeschooler, he had more freedom with his time. He and his mom moved from Atlanta to Los Angeles for seven months to try his hand at acting. The experience was revealing, as you can imagine. Life in Burbank at an apartment with hundreds of other kid actors revealed the highly competitive world there. He soon recognized that the real influencers are the story tellers behind the camera. Returning home, Jonathan was a different person—more clear about his calling. He earned a degree in screenwriting and now writes scripts every week.
5. WAIT AND WORK FOR SOMETHING YOU WANT
One of the reasons teens and college students find “adulting” so challenging today is they’ve grown up in a world where almost everything is “instant access” and “on-demand.” It can coerce us to expect instant gratification. The opposite of this trait is patience and work ethic. These signal maturity because the person is able to see a goal in their mind that is still invisible externally. Consider what’s happening in their brain. When a teen envisions an outcome before they actually experience it, it can cause the brain to release dopamine and endorphins, which signal pleasure and rewards. As teens experience learned industriousness (“I keep working because I know it will pay off”) acetylcholine kicks in. This chemical plays a vital role in learning and memory, and it deepens neuropathways as kids associate rewards with working for a goal.
In our home, our kids paid for half of their first car, half of their smart phone or half of a trip they each wanted to take in school. My favorite outcome from all these experiences with my kids came years later. My daughter, Bethany, called me when she was 25 years old and living 2,000 miles away. When I asked why she called, she replied, “I guess I just called to say thanks.” I said, “Well, every dad loves to hear that from his children—but what drove you to call me? Did something happen at work today?” After collecting her thoughts, she blurted out, “I guess I just noticed that I work with a bunch of young professionals like me, but nobody sees the big picture around here. They act lazy, they’re on their phones, and I don’t see any work ethic. They’re not ready to live on their own!” Then, she paused and concluded, “I guess I just realized that you and mom did get me ready. And I just wanted to say thanks.” Through tears, I smiled and replied, “Bethany—you just made my year.”
This content was used with permission from Tim Elmore and adapted from an article originally published on GrowingLeaders.com.
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