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Nadira Hira: What Winning Means To Generation Y

When I was first asked how Generation Y defines “winning,” I had to chuckle. Because, of course, to “win” is actually a fairly straightforward concept: As a quick trip over to

dictionary.com will tell you, it is to place first, to succeed by striving, to triumph. And we all know that.

What a sign of our times, then, that we can even ask what winning means, a question that allows us to redefine a word so firmly rooted not just in language, but in the American experience. (We are, after all, a country of competitors, and goodness knows we like to win.) But Gen Yers are redefining winning, and they’re doing so because—based on what they’ve already seen in their short lives—they don’t think they have a choice.

Whether it’s 9/11, Columbine, Hurricane Katrina, global warming, or corporate layoffs, Gen Yers have seen enough unpredictable upheaval and unrest to know that we can’t wait too long to live our lives. And so winning, for us, is living our lives—our whole lives—and living them now. Sure, I could wait till I retire to go on that safari or visit that storied foreign city, but at the rate things are going, the animals and monuments I’ve always dreamt of seeing may not be around four decades from now.

And while some of you might think that’s extreme, consider this: It was barely five years ago that my best girlfriend and I were undergrads at Stanford giggling about the trip to New Orleans we hoped to take a few years down the road. We even shared a laugh over the thought that, if we took too long, the city would be under water before we got a chance to see the famed French Quarter. Little did we know, right?

So winning, for Gen Yers, isn’t as simple as getting the corner office, or becoming rich and famous, or even having the perfect marriage. It’s about having the best life possible every day, which means doing work you love, having balance, having passion, and achieving equal success personally and professionally.

Admittedly, it’s a goal that seems at once far too ambitious and not ambitious at all. It’s impossible to have everything, an older person might say, and anyone who thinks different is setting himself up for failure. But isn’t pouring all your energy into one often unrewarding enterprise—say, corporate conquest—just as foolhardy? As Tammy Erickson at the Concours Institute puts it to Baby Boomer bosses on her Harvard Business Online blog, Yers “don’t necessarily want your job.” Which certainly wasn’t what this seasoned researcher was expecting: “We were pretty surprised by the number of Y’s who said their boss’ job just didn’t look ‘worth it,’” she writes.

And what’s more, we aren’t nearly as willing as climbers of yore to forsake our colleagues for that top job either. Yers, as many of you have read, grew up in a world of teams; we played sports, we studied in groups, we were even graded in teams. And we were all “winners,” especially where our coaches, teachers, and parents were concerned. So we understand support, we love the group environment, and—predictably—we aren’t so big on the traditional corporate model, which favors hierarchy over happiness.

It’s true that may spell trouble for corporate America. (What, no cutthroat kids to abuse and/or initiate into the brotherhood of C-suite striverdom?!) But it may also mean that, in the spirit of the progressive society we aspire to be, we will begin to judge our wins by the fullness of the lives they get us, not the fleeting—and let’s be honest, somewhat morally questionable—highs of crushing an opponent or gaining a victory to the detriment of all else. A world like that, well, wouldn’t that be a win?