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The New Me Generation

The crop of talented recent graduates coming into today's workforce is widely seen as narcissistic and entitled. And those are their best qualities.

By Jake Halpern
September 30, 2007

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Nicole Mirabile, who is just 15 years old, has a clear vision of her future, and it doesn't involve a boss. The prospect of working at a Fortune 500 company – and landing the sort of well-paying job that Americans once regarded as the benchmark of success – holds zero allure for her. "It would be hard compromising with a lot of different people whom I might clash with," she speculates. Mirabile, a sophomore at North Quincy High School, would be far happier running her own company. "I have the time, I have the brains, I have the patience to do it, and I am not going to give up if I fail once," she vows.

Alan Chhabra, who is 31 years old, shares a similar sensibility even if, as it turns out, he does report to a boss. Chhabra works at Egenera, a computer-server manufacturer based in Marlborough, but he is not the sort of fellow who puts too much stock in old-school notions of corporate protocol. As he puts it, "I have no problem knocking on the door and walking into the CEO's office or the CTO's office on a whim – interrupting their schedule – and saying, 'I need to talk to you.'" Chhabra says that ever since he was a kid, he has been "knocking heads with basketball teachers, track coaches, teachers, and girlfriends. If I felt that I was right, I wouldn't back down."

What do Alan Chhabra and Nicole Mirabile have in common – besides a great deal of chutzpah? They are members of the so-called Entitlement Generation, the upstarts at the office who put their feet on their desks, voice their opinions frequently and loudly at meetings, and always volunteer – nay, expect – to take charge of the most interesting projects. They are smart, brash, even arrogant, and endowed with a commanding sense of entitlement. And since a new crop is graduating from Boston's high-powered colleges and universities every year, chances are, one may be heading to your office soon.

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, says that this includes virtually everyone born after 1970. According to Twenge, these young people were raised on a daily regimen of praise and flattery from their baby boomer parents and from teachers who embraced a self-esteem-boosting curriculum that included activities like the Magic Circle game. Never heard of it? In this game, one child a day is given a badge that says "I'm great." The other children then take turns praising the "great" child, and eventually these compliments are written up and given to the child for posterity. This constant reinforcement, argues Twenge, is largely responsible for those young co-workers who drive you nuts. At the University of South Alabama, psychology professor Joshua Foster has done a great deal of research using a standardized test called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). The NPI asks subjects to rate the accuracy of various narcissistic statements, such as "I can live my life any way I want to" and "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place." Foster has given this personality test to a range of demographic groups around the world, and no group has scored higher than the American teenager. Narcissism also appears to be reaching new highs, even within the Entitlement Generation, among American college students. Another national study involving the NPI, conducted by Twenge, shows that 24 percent of college students in 2006 showed elevated levels of narcissism compared to just 15 percent in the early 1990s.

All of this would seem to suggest that this generation, which is flooding into the workforce, will create chaotic, unpleasant, and utterly unproductive work environments that will drive many a good business directly into the ground. But there's another very real possibility. It may be that this much-reviled generation will revitalize the economy and ensure the prosperity of America for years to come. Painful as it sounds, in the not-too-distant future, we may owe a debt of gratitude to these narcissists.

The concept of narcissism is an ancient idea that dates to Greek mythology. According to legend, Narcissus was a beautiful Grecian youth who fell madly in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to avert his eyes from the image of his own face, Narcissus knelt too close to the water, fell in, and drowned.

Michael Maccoby is a psychoanalyst, anthropologist, and business consultant based in Washington, D.C., who works with CEOs who want to become more-effective leaders. He is also the author of Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails. Maccoby has spent the last seven years writing and arguing – quite convincingly – that what the American economy needs right now is a generation of brazen, brash, narcissistic innovators. Within the business world, Maccoby's theory is something akin to blasphemy. For the last five or six years, the bible of corporate management has been another book, titled Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don't, by Jim Collins. In his book, Collins studies the inner workings of 11 mega-companies – including Wells Fargo, Gillette, and Walgreens – and determines that truly effective CEOs are often actually "self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy." Maccoby, for his part, argues that such CEOs may get the job done in old-fashioned companies that focus on retail, manufacturing, and cutting costs, but that businesses that rely on innovation, new technology, and globalization require far bolder leaders who can take risks, shrug off conventional wisdom, project confidence, formulate hyper-ambitious plans, and charm the pants off investors and underlings alike, so that they, too, will make a leap of faith and believe in the next cold-fusion-powered car or the iPod that pays your bills and runs your household.

"Generally, it is very rare that people accept new ideas," Maccoby says. It takes a person with "strategic intelligence" to push a new idea successfully. Such a person must have foresight, the ability to partner with others, and the charisma to motivate an entire organization to succeed. This, Maccoby says, is "productive narcissism." When a person with this combination of traits emerges – and arguably this will happen fairly often when you have an entire generation of young narcissists – great things can happen.

Take the example of Yael Maguire, the 32-year-old chief technology officer of ThingMagic, a Cambridge-based company he cofounded in 2000 that designs and manufactures radio-frequency identification systems, commonly known as RFID. "I think we are an entitled generation, but by feeling entitled, we also feel empowered to do great things," Maguire says. "I grew up thinking if you were confident in yourself and you took a chance, you could do whatever you wanted. The thought of working my way up the corporate ladder had absolutely no appeal to me."

Interestingly enough, one of the pivotal moments in Maguire's career hinged on his not listening to superiors. One day, when Maguire was in grad school studying quantum computers at MIT, he began chatting with a protein biologist about a hypothetical device that could detect whether a given protein was binding with a receptor. Such information is vital in drug research. Maguire became fascinated by this challenge, even though, he says, "I didn't know anything about biology other than what I knew from high school." He designed a device using technology that is traditionally used in wifi. This device, Maguire boldly proclaimed, could determine whether the protein was present. The biologist and Maguire's fellow students were skeptical. So he built the thing, and, sure enough, he was right.

It is precisely this style of thinking that has enabled Maguire, as CTO, to pioneer new technology. And now that he's at the top of a 50-person company, he says he plans to keep hiring other young, passionate, "freethinking types" – the sorts of upstarts who won't be afraid to tell him, on occasion, that he is dead wrong.

Just a few miles due south, roughly a dozen teenagers – including 15-year-old Nicole Mirabile – have gathered in a dreary classroom at North Quincy High School in the hopes of figuring out how they might launch highly successful start-up companies of their own. The students are participating in a program known as Biz Camp that is sponsored by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. At the front of the classroom is Jacky McDonough, director of business partnership for My Turn, Inc., a youth development agency. McDonough seems to embody the iconic Whole Foods customer – willowy figure, sandals, and flowing hair.

"We cannot reiterate this enough," McDonough says to her students, who range in age from 15 to 18. "It's not what you say, it's how you say it." To demonstrate her point, McDonough smiles, puffs up her chest, and says with gusto, "CATS ARE VERY SPECIAL!" She then pauses a moment, steps backward, slouches, and says quite meekly, "Cats are very special." The students in the classroom nod their heads comprehendingly. A few scribble down notes.

"So," says McDonough, "can anyone tell me what role confidence plays in starting up a business?"

A shy giant of a boy at the back of the classroom raises a hand sheepishly and then begins to talk. "You get your confidence . . ." McDonough interrupts and tells him to show his confidence. The boy stands up, nods his head, and begins again. "You get your confidence by knowing what you are going to do," he says. "You have all your ideas, and if you are confident, nothing is going to stop you. You are going to succeed, no matter what."

"Without confidence, you can't take risks," adds another student, who takes the initiative to stand up on his own. "And in a business, you have to take risks."

"Beautifully said!" exclaims McDonough. "Let's give them a round of applause!" The students applaud politely.

During a break in class, I have a chance to speak with Mirabile. She is dressed in blue jeans and a magenta T-shirt. From the start, Mirabile appears to be the prototype of the self-assured, self-empowered teen. "I am always confident in myself because it will lower my self-esteem if I'm not," she says. Mirabile quickly adds that she doesn't let failure or naysayers get to her. "Even if I do badly in a class, I know I can do better next time." When I ask her what the chances are that her dreams will come true, she answers without batting an eye: "I would say about 85 percent."

At first glance, Biz Camp may seem like just another self-esteem program, encouraging young people to be overly confident and self-centered. But unlike the Magic Circle, where kids are praised for being inherently "special," the Biz Camps teach skills along with self-confidence. On a nuts-and-bolts level, the hope is that students like Mirabile will learn what it takes to make it as an entrepreneur. On a deeper level, however, the hope is that this program will encourage her to hold onto that brash self-confidence well into her 20s and 30s, when – professionally, at least – she'll need it the most.

Management professor Edward Roberts, who has been teaching at MIT's Sloan School for decades, argues much like Maccoby that high-octane self-confidence is a prerequisite for entrepreneurs today. "Think about it," he says. "As an entrepreneur, you need serious chutzpah to overcome the negatives that are thrown at you on a regular basis. And you need the stamina to overcome failure. If you do something risky, you will fail. So what do you do once you fail? Do you give up? Or do you come back and say, 'Damn it all. I am going to try again!'" One might argue that this country has always needed a base population of cocky entrepreneurs. But according to Roberts, we've never needed these types as badly as we do at this very moment. "If you went to the huge corporations and asked, 'Where are you opening new labs?' the answer would uniformly be India, China, Russia – but not the US," he says. "And if all of these companies are going overseas, what are we left with? From my perspective, we have nothing left to the US economy other than start-ups and entrepreneurship."

The good news, says Roberts, is that America remains an idyllic incubator. "Studies show that in many societies – like France, for example – once you fail, you are damned, and society will shun you," he says. "This isn't true in America. American laws are very supportive of entrepreneurs. You can go bankrupt here, and you start with a clean slate. We have a much more forgiving set of attitudes." What we need now, Roberts says, are waves of young people who are willing to push their own ideas and who aren't afraid of failing. Like them or not, he concludes, the young, brash kids with the grandiose plans are our future.

Tom Hadfield, who is 24 and a senior at Harvard, is the very embodiment of Roberts's young, hyper-confident entrepreneur. At the age of 12, Hadfield started an Internet company from his bedroom in Brighton, England – Soccernet.com – which ESPN purchased just a few years later for $40 million. "No one ever knew I was a kid online," Hadfield says. "All I needed to do was spell properly, so I had Mom buy me a dictionary."

Hadfield actually made very little money on the sale of his website – the profit went mainly to his investors – and as he puts is, "My parents still have a mortgage on their house." But this hasn't discouraged him in the least. Since then, he has started several new businesses, managed a global environmental education program, and started an initiative to raise awareness of the genocide in Darfur. When I finally tracked him down for an interview, I reached him on his cellphone in Zambia, where he was running a philanthropic project funded by the Goldman Sachs Global Leaders Program. "We came here with these naive, grandiose plans to set up a micro-financing program, distribute anti-malarial bed nets, teach English, organize health education – and do it all in one summer," he says. "A lot of people would have said that it was naive when I was 12 to set up an Internet website like Soccernet.com – but luckily I didn't listen." Hadfield believes that such an attitude can also create problems with "people who were born before 1975," who are "generally running the treadmill, trying to pay mortgage payments, and buy a JetBlue ticket to take their one vacation a year."

"Our naivete enables us to try things that previous generations haven't tried in the history of humanity," he says, "But it often builds resentment among the older managers, who resent these young self-important kids who arrive on the scene and want to take the fast track without putting in their time."

Twenty-year-old Lilly Deng, a junior at Harvard, was raised in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, by a single mother who worked multiple jobs. Deng's saving grace, she says, was a teacher who taught every student to "realize the genius in their inner self." This teacher left her feeling so empowered that Deng, who longed to be a nationally ranked debater, wrote every single lawyer in the Collegeville phone book asking for sponsorship. Deng soon found a patron, traveled to debate tournaments, distinguished herself repeatedly, and launched a program that teaches the fundamentals of debating to hundreds of kids from 30 different schools in eight states. For her part, Deng doesn't seem too surprised by her success. "I never thought anything was impossible," she says.

In recent years, aspiring Harvard entrepreneurs have had quite a bit of inspiration as they've witnessed fellow students get rich quickly by starting companies like Facebook and Sparknotes. Last year, two undergraduates – Mike Segal, who is now 19, and Travis May, now 20 – cofounded the Harvard Entrepreneurial Forum. The club started off as an informal gathering of four or five students; by the end of the school year, it had more than 200 members.

According to Segal and May, many of their classmates are no longer interested in working their way up the corporate ladder. What's more, says May, "people want to do something that makes them famous and rich or creates some change in society."

"People like their own ideas," adds Segal. "And I think that's why so many people are unhappy at their office jobs. Because when they ask themselves, 'Who am I doing this for?' the answer is not for themselves, but for the greater good of the corporation. And ultimately people lose touch with their egos and themselves. Entrepreneurship is the diametric opposite. I think it is just egomania, but in the best sense possible."

This isn't a Harvard-only phenomenon. In the basement of a barbershop in Jamaica Plain, entrepreneurs Tony Martinez, who is 24, and his partner, Eliu Hernandez, also 25, have established what they call the international headquarters for their business, Created by Us Airbrushing. Right now, "international" is a bit of a misnomer, as is "headquarters." The space, which is only accessible via a trapdoor behind the barbershop's cash register, is essentially a cramped, dingy cellar furnished with a stereo, a fan, a fax machine, and a great deal of airbrushing equipment.

But never mind that. Martinez and Hernandez have grand plans, great talent, and a very interesting product. They sell customized hats, sneakers, and hoodies with made-to-order designs. That way, anyone – from a boarding-school kid at Milton Academy to a punk rocker in Berlin – can go online and order the sort of street apparel that used to be the exclusive domain of urban American hipsters.

Hernandez, who does most of the actual airbrushing, in some ways couldn't be more different from the members of the Harvard Entrepreneurial Forum. He joined the Army instead of going to college, serving in Afghanistan. But his outlook sounds familiar: "One thing that I can be grateful about is that my confidence kept me a little ignorant, maybe even a little arrogant," he says. "If you start looking at everything that could go wrong – and think about that all day long – you will never do anything!"

According to both Hernandez and Martinez, their unflappable self-confidence has been the only thing keeping them afloat during a rocky start-up period. It is not that they feel entitled to greatness as much as that they feel entitled to a shot at greatness, just like the other members of their generation.

But even productive narcissism is not an entirely good thing. Far from it. Michael Maccoby is the first to admit this. He says that narcissists tend to be oversensitive to any kind of criticism and are often incapable of learning from others. What's more, they frequently bully subordinates and don't care at all about the feelings of others.

The greatest danger, however, is that narcissists are so sure of themselves that they ignore the advice of others – and even the dictates of common sense – and arrogantly blunder their way into serious trouble. Foster, at the University of South Alabama, has seen this scenario play itself out many times. In one study, subjects were asked to play a game in which they earned points by answering trivia questions correctly. Before answering a question, subjects were allowed to wager a certain number of points. "In the study, we had many highly narcissistic people who would get all these questions wrong, and yet they were still willing to wager that they would get the next one right," says Foster. "Narcissists have this view of themselves as being so excellent that they say, 'To hell with the data. Things are going to work out for me!'"

In this regard, narcissism poses quite a conundrum. On the one hand, we need plenty of young entrepreneurs who are willing to believe in themselves in the face of skepticism from their peers, mentors, and society at large. But we also need these upstarts to be correct in their beliefs. It does a society no good to invest in young narcissists who, in betting on themselves, squander resources as they come up with wrong answers again and again. The key, it would seem, is to identify the upstarts with the most potential and then – despite whatever personal qualms we may have with them – allow them to run with their ideas.

This is precisely what the management at servermaker Egenera decided to do with Alan Chhabra. Chhabra was, by his own admission, neither the easiest nor the most diplomatic of employees. "I think that at another company, after some of the heated moments that I had, the bosses might have said, 'This isn't working out, Alan. It is time for you to go,' " he says. But that's not what happened. According to Rachael Jacobson, who works in Egenera's HR department, the company recognized Chhabra's value, and saw that he constantly needed new challenges. In a new division, he was given wide latitude to help get operations off the ground. The division's goal was to encourage clients to buy not just servers but also long-term customer-service programs. Perhaps the biggest challenge was that Chhabra had to persuade prospective clients to stop using the services of heavyweights like HP and IBM. He says: "Basically, I had to meet with CTOs who had 3,000 to 4,000 people working for them and had an IT budget of $10 million to $50 million and – within five minutes – I had to convince them that what they'd been doing for the last five to 10 years was wrong and that they should start buying Egenera." And this is exactly what Chhabra did. According to the company, Chhabra and the division helped Egenera undergo an important and profitable transformation.

Of course, there are people – perhaps even within Egenera – who can't stomach the notion of promoting someone as strident and nervy, someone as entitled, as Chhabra. It doesn't look as if they'll get relief any time soon. "Kids definitely feel entitled when they get out of school nowadays," he says. "They have been groomed, they've been told that they are the best, and they've seen people from this same generation make millions of dollars just before them. They think, 'I want to be the next Google, Amazon, or eBay. After all, these companies were founded by young people. Now it's my turn.'"

Jake Halpern, born in 1975, is the author of Fame Junkies. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.