Simon Sinek is Wrong About Millenials

First let me admit that I am a huge fan of Simon Sinek, who is the creator of a fabulously successful TED talk about why companies are successful. His thought – people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.  He is an excellent, convincing speaker on par with Obama and other excellent orators.  It was with some excitement then that I hit play on his new video taken by the fine folks at Inside Quest. The clip was from his longer interview with them and dealt with Managing Millennials, which is apparently a challenge. Since I had gotten so much out of his talk and his subsequent books, I was hoping for a new perspective. Instead I got the same old complaints and a heap of blame to go along with it.  

Before I continue, I need the Gentle Reader to understand why they should care what I have to say on the matter.  While it is true that Sinek teaches at Columbia and I do not, I do feel that I have enough credibility and perhaps more on this topic.  First, on a matter of education, I have a Masters Degree in Organizational Development, where we dealt fairly deeply with complexity theory, which comes up at the end. Secondly, I am a project manager and Agile coach and have worked with many Millennials over my 20+ years in the software industry. Third, I happen to have three children, two of which are Millennials, and many nieces and nephews who are as well. Finally, and what sent me into a bit of a rage about this video, is my experience with addiction. I am the child of two alcoholics, both of which are now gone, in part, due to their addictions, even though I tried to get them alcohol abuse help for this. While I know that Mr.  Sinek teaches college kids, I think this lone perspective has lead him to grossly erroneous conclusions. 

Watch the video, then come back.  

Welcome back. I’ve combined his four points into three, with a mild rebuttal to each. For this essay I have three goals. First, I want to point out where Sinek goes wrong so you might be able to fend off similar criticisms. Secondly, I hope these words give you hope for your future, especially if you’re a Millennial or parent, since Sinek provides little. Finally, I put my coach’s hat on and shoot out a few tips have worked for my family and friends. 

I.  Millennials are Doomed by Bad Parenting  

The main villain in Sinek’s narrative are parents who, by employing “failed parenting strategies”, have ruined an entire generation of American youth –  “They were told they were special…they got participation medals. They got medals for coming in last …they got in honors classes and A’s by aggressive parents bullying the teachers….they feel that they can have anything they want in life, just because they want it.”  

I’m sure almost every parent is getting a familiar chill up their spine. It’s a learned reaction that enables us to grit our teeth, bite our tongues, and survive each such encounter without committing assault and battery.  It happens to every one of us, and usually by well-meaning people, friends, even family. Parenting tips come from those who have raised us (aka grandparents), experts (aka childless scientists), and people who are raising their own children (entirely different children in entirely different circumstances).

Parenting advice from people who don’t have kids is particularly grating (I was unable to find any evidence of Mr. Sinek having children). It’s not that raising a kid makes us an expert on the subject. Quite the opposite – by raising kids, we know how unique they are and that the results we have gotten are not guaranteed to have the same effect in another family.  Raising kids provides a humility absent in the Sinek video.

I’m not sure what age group he’s discussing in this video.  I do know that evil participation trophies go away before middle school in my experience. Below is a a picture of my son, who was five.  He has in his hand a participation trophy.

           Gasp – a participation trophy!

That’s right. It’s for participation because, at five, you don’t even keep score. That’s a good thing since half the time the kids are running in the wrong direction or tying their shoes or checking out a cool bug in the wet grass. Other kids are at home playing video games, eating cookies, or both.  If you want to read more about why participation trophies are a good idea, check out this excellent blog post by Richard Greenberg, an author and youth sports coach. One quote:

Ultimately, participation trophies mark the fact that these kids kept a commitment and showed up to the games. That they experienced the wins and losses with everyone else, and contributed, to the best of their abilities, to the outcomes of those contests. Participation trophies are not a gateway drug to entitlement.

People with kids, and those that work with them extensively, know that there are lessons in sports beyond winning and beyond the scoreboard. Young children have a tenuous grasp on rules, success, and failure. Losing means they failed and that’s not what we’re after as parents. We want our children to enjoy soccer so they keep on playing and get off the damn couch. Maybe they’ll make a few friends.  Perhaps we parents will get to chat with some other bleary-eyed parents over cold coffee in the rain while hapless coaches (usually parents as well) try to make soccer happen amid chaos.  In the end, we’re winning if they see the outdoors and sunshine once in awhile and have the thrill of participating in a team sport, and we get a winning smile.

Parents who insist on winning everything are the boorish baseball parents (for some reason it’s the worst with baseball) who will charge the field and fight with umpires if Junior is struck out.  Sinek talks about over-aggressive parents, he need look no further than the youth baseball field. Kids watching adults bully refs is what perpetuates behaviors that results in teachers being bullied.  The spirit of “we win if we play together” is needed more, not less, in hyper-competitive youth sports. 

But really it all boils down to that smile. Ear-to-ear, and worth a million dollars and heaping piles of criticism. Parents live for smiles like that. My son is now a varsity football player for a very large high school. He knows nothing is ever given to him. He fights for every minute out on the field and every grade he gets in high school.  He is learning grit, self control, and he knows that the world doesn’t give people things. He’s learning these things on his own timeline, when he’s ready, by the (mostly) gentle prodding of his parents.

Conversely, his big sister was not a team-sport kind of kid  We put her into the same activities at a young age and got a totally different outcome.  It turned out that she had an aptitude for hiking and yoga. Kids are different. People are different.  

(The Gentle Reader may also note the irony of Sinek criticizing participation trophies while simultaneously criticizing overuse of technology. Pick one, pal!)

Finally, research on “participation trophyism” isn’t as one sided as Simon would think.  The pioneering psychologist Carol Dweck created a revolution when she painted the distinction between “growth mindsets” vs. “fixed mindsets.”  It’s a short step from believing you’re not athletic to thinking you’re not “smart.” Kids are all too quick to belittle themselves, adopting a belief that others are “gifted,” when the latest research shows that grit and perseverance are almost always enough to get you into the highest classes of performance.

I wish Simon would have talked about Angela Duckworth’s (who has two children) work on grit and what it takes to get to world class. Instead, he threw out accusations based on the “participation trophy” straw-man, spouted pseudo-scientific pablum and context-free stories.  Emboldened by his blissful ignorance, he moved onto his next axe to grind – Technology.

II. Millennials are Doomed by Technology

“We know that engagement with social media and our cell phones releases a chemical called dopamine…dopamine is the exact same chemical that makes us feel good when we smoke, we drink, and when we gamble. In other words, it’s highly, highly addictive.”

If the first diatribe on parenting was a kick in the gut, his position on addiction is a hit on the back of the head with a shovel.  I am sick and tired of people conflating chemical addiction with compulsion.  It is intensely obvious to anyone who has any experience living with an alcoholic or other substance abuser that it is radically different from a person who uses their iPhone too long.

Sinek makes this bold claim:

“We have age restrictions on smoking, gambling, and alcohol, and we have no age restrictions on social media and cell phones. Which is the equivalent of opening up the liquor cabinet and saying to our teenager, ‘Hey, by the way, this adolescence thing, if it gets you down…[gestures to the implied liquor cabinet]’.” 

I’m dumbfounded by this ridiculous statement. I’ve never heard of a child or spouse getting punched in the face by an “iPhone addict” as they’re coming down from their dopamine high caused by a little blue screen. It would be nearly unheard of for someone to punch a hole in the wall when going through withdrawals from a Samsung Galaxy. People don’t lose consciousness in their minivans with their four-year old  in the back seat after a long session of Heroes of the Storm.

I realize that he might be speaking metaphorically, but it didn’t sound that way. Pundits can’t keep hitting the EMERGENCY! button on every single issue. Parents need to be told what is lethal versus what will make Junior a C-student or give him carpal tunnel.

The scars of living with alcoholism do not go away. To watch a parent or loved one suffer a chemical addiction is among the worst experiences in life. I would very much appreciate it if the medical community would step up and make some clear distinctions on these matters. If people like Sinek are allowed to continue to their prognostications of doom, it will sap real crises of their much-needed resources and attention.

Don’t get me wrong here – people can play too long on devices. Yet, my parents generation feared that we’d all go blind by sitting too close to the television, which is laughable today. I also remember fears about microwave ovens causing radiation poisoning.  

I can’t fully blame Sinek for fanning the flames of fear here. He is merely parroting the current hype in the popular science press, much of it which plays on parents fears and lines the pockets of those people that report they can “help with internet addiction”.

In Sinek’s world we’re all addicted – if we charge them by our bedsides, look at them before we kiss our husbands or wives good morning, use them during a boring meeting, or even use them as our alarm clocks. Sinek does not see much possibility for Millennials, saying that, at best case, we’re going to have a whole generation looking for joy, and worst case will be a marked increase in depression and suicide.  

Best case – a joyless, goalless generation? Because of Facebook?  It is a time management problem, a focus problem, and a relationship challenge, but that does not make it an existential crisis. 

The Internet is unarguably one of the greatest inventions of mankind, akin to things like Electricity, Central Heating, and the heated shower. It has changed the trajectory of our species, accelerating change in anything that can be reached by 1s and 0s.  So, forgive us if we, as parents, may not have had all the tools at our disposal to deal with it.  Together we’ve made up the rules as we went along, and together we’ll all find ways to deal with our creations.  Above all, we need to remember that people are different. 

III. Millennials are Doomed by their Work Environment

Sinek is big on saying that the Millennials were dealt a bad hand. In this segment, he bashes corporate leadership and then commands that they have to fix the problem. 

“I wish that society and parents did a better job but they didn’t so we’re going to have to pick up the slack…sucks to be you.” 

Telling companies they have to patch up for bad parenting is ludicrous. Who do you think is running these companies? PARENTS!  Or should we have those who aren’t sullied by the parenting experience take the helm and fix what we broke?  

What’s the answer?

So, for pundits who care, please use this four point checklist before suggesting parenting strategies for millennials: 

  • Provide tools, not fear-inducing, frothy diatribes loosely rooted in science. Light, not heat. 
  • Stop conflating substance addiction to compulsive tech use.  It’s not the same, and you’re just pissing people off.
  • Don’t scream Doomsday. Humans are incredibly resilient, and every generation has freaked out on the following one, thinking it the worst ever.
  • Take it easy on parents. Parenting has never been an easy job. Do you think that the Internet made it easier?  We are amidst an epoch, a sea change in the way our species behaves. This is the golden era of the Information Age, where Moore’s Law is accelerating change everywhere.  So forgive us for indulgences and our missteps. This tsunami hit Generation X, the Boomers, and Millennials simultaneously.  Forgive us for the temporary intoxication on the experience that is before us in these little screens. Have a little faith that we will get it right, that we will wrestle with that which is outside of us to that which is inside.

Here’s five tips, borne of experience, for dealing with parenting and technology.  Your mileage may vary, but I do hope they help.

1. People are Complex, so Use the Right Tools

People are Complex

If parents of millennials do not know how to raise children, it is because that it is not knowable, at least not in the way that it is to fix a car or to fly an airplane. Humans are complex adaptive systems. The rules that govern their behavior change inside an ever-changing environment. In complexity science they call this an undulating landscape. There is no recipe or instruction book for complex adaptive systems. Instead you need to iterate and experiment and take small wins.

We experiment, we try different things with different children, and we watch their behavior and adjust our techniques. Then they change or the situation changes, and we do it all over again.  And forget using your experience on subsequent children. People are different.  

One thing we’ve tried, found by my children, is RescueTime.  It calculates how much time you’re spending on sites, and categorizes them nicely.  

2. Discuss it with your children

Provide sensible boundaries fit for that child right now. You know your kid, and you know you. Are you addictive? Do you use your phone too much? Children copy not what we say, but what we do. Be that model, put the phone down and meet people in the eyes when they talk to you. But don’t expect it to be the same. This is the way I see it now. Millennials are always bringing the Internet with them. The Internet has a seat at the table, and that’s okay. They might be Snapchatting people who are sitting right next to them and including those who couldn’t be. How cool is that?  Kids carry their very important social network with them all the time now.  It’s actually more social than less.  When you see the Internet as a real person sitting at the table, as real as any person in their life, it makes it easier to understand their behavior.  

Don’t be afraid to ask them to put down their phones at appropriate times.  This is a function of parenting, to teach limits. If they can’t stay off of it at night, it’s completely rational to forbid the phone from their rooms for some time.  But eventually they’ll be older and need to figure out how to control themselves, and because people are different, no one way will work.

Take it easy. The Millennials are going to be fine. Indeed they’re less likely to smoke, and more likely to eat smarter, and exercise than previous generations. And they’re using those devilish devices to get better at it, tracking their data and searching online for the healthiest foods.

3. Frame the Issue

Frame the issue in terms of consumption vs. creation. Millennials are big into meritocracy and see themselves as creatives. Pointing out how much time they spend in each activity drives them to change. Once they start thinking of term in terms of consumption vs. creation it helps then decide what that ratio is going to be. It holds up a mirror to them, and since they’re used to using data to make decisions, it has a chance of becoming a rule that they uphold when they’re out of the nest.

4. It’s Not Alcohol

Above all, do not in your mind conflate technology compulsion with substance addiction.  Anyone who starts there is useless to you and your kids. Do not let them freak you out.

5. Have a Great Time

Frankly, I love being alive when the Internet was born.  Gen X is uniquely positioned to see the amazing changes it has brought.  What great glory it is! And what great terror.  It is all that we are, it’s our extremes and our failures, our greatness and our shortcomings.  Sure, it’s made parenting much, much harder, but I’ll take that in exchange for having the world’s knowledge at my fingertips.  Instead of waiting in line, I’m reading an article on tween parenting.  While sipping awful coffee at Jiffy Lube, I’m texting my sisters who live far away, looking at pictures of their kids that I would otherwise never get to see. I’m also very excited to see what the Millennials will make of all this tech. I think it will be a great future, because they will make it so.

Agreement & Conclusion

I like to end in agreement and fortunately Sinek ends his speech well:

They’re in front of a mountain, at the top is impact. Love,  job fulfillment, a skill set, these things take time. The journey is difficult and takes time and is arduous.”

There isn’t a truer statement. The journey of love and life and job fulfillment is a mountain of hardship. I teach this to my kids every single day. I wish that Sinek would understand that raising kids is also messy journey and give us the slack he so willingly gives others. If there was a bad hand dealt to anyone, it was dealt to everyone.  If having ubiquitous tech is a “bad hand” that dooms us to depression, we are truly lost.

What strategies have you employed for your tweens and Millennials?  Please share them with us so we can all, with great humility, learn from others.


  1. I needed this today Joe because I actually finally listened to that video that has been circulating my Facebook feed for 2 weeks and I will now be sharing this. I was feeling pretty much like a failure as a parent today because of other doubts I already have but his speech didn’t help. Then I had a long talk with my oldest about having patience and reminding her to be grateful always and not entitled but she already knew those things so we can’t be doing everything wrong! Haha! Love you! Glad you wrote this!

    1. Thanks Heidi! The LAST thing we need in the world is criticism in parenting! The audacity of this fellow!

  2. Nice one! I don’t think any generation of parents gets it perfect, but the majority give it their best. And every generation of youth get criticized by their seniors and rise up to take their place in the world. So when I watched the video I took it all with a grain of salt. I enjoyed reading and taking on board the points you made.

    1. Thanks Sharon. You’re 100% right. It also seemed a bit of pandering. I mean, he was totally trying to be cool and perform for the Millennials in the audience, not really thinking about who he was throwing under the bus. Dude , you’re in your 40’s – forget about being cool and give parents a break! 🙂

  3. Joe,
    This was a great read, thanks! I too am a big fan of Simon Sinek, Carol Dweck and the Growth Mindset I have read both of their books and enjoy their take on education and life. If you haven’t already I would encourage you to read the Gallup/Purdue report and survey Great Jobs/Great Lives, it is an excellent use of data showing how college path and fit can help young people to cement long term happiness and satisfaction in the work place and home. While I agree that technology can be controlled and powerful for good I must provide an alternative view point. I work at a large public high school and I’m afraid a lot of what Mr. Sinek says proves true more than false. I see young people struggling to build and keep quality relationships, impatience is at an all-time high. We have experienced first hand the growth of teen suicides here at our school where for the last 3 years we have suffered a loss each year. I see students regularly taking long-term leaves for depression and anxiety. I don’t claim to have all the answers except more parents like you and your wife! Unfortunately, what we see here in the public school system is a lot of parents disconnected from their teens unable for lots of reasons, or worse, unwilling to engage with their students. Until we get more parents on board society will be left to pick up the pieces, that is a natural consequence of our current environment.

    1. Hey Becky, thanks for the comment. Really, there’s no substitute for parental engagement. If parents think that they can hand their kids an iPad and send them on their way then its a problem. We’ve had to push against the use of their devices at several junctions, and its tough. I need Sinek to do better next time by providing tools, suggestions, and understanding to teachers, parents, and “society”. I need his comments to be as kind and as useful as yours is. 🙂 Thanks again!

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