The $1000 bottle of water

Recently I was speaking to a group of secondary school students about planning their future. They were a typical bunch of 15 year olds; likely plans for the weekend vastly outweighed any career aspirations.  As we spoke about priorities and how they really felt about things, they shared with me that although they understood that career planning seemed like a good idea in theory, it seemed a bit premature to be thinking about in grade 10. After all, they had most of high school, then whatever post-secondary programs to wrangle with before it was time to even begin to worry about finding a job.

I asked them to give me some idea of what was really important to them. I clarified that I wanted real answers and not contrived ones from them. We all know that stock phrases and appropriate answers to what our values are. After a deluge of honest responses which included a great deal of video games, Facebook, YouTube and “chillin’”, I asked the class if having fun took precedence over thinking about the future…if they were answering honestly that is. A nearly unanimous “YES” was immediately put forth.


I suppose that this mindset shouldn’t really be all too shocking given the age of the respondents.  I do however see some alarming trends when we look at what’s happening with recent college and university graduates, particularly with the challenges our workforce is having with members of “Generation Y”.  Many employers report that there is a disproportionate level of complacency for recent graduates. A solid education has always been the key to success in the past. Why should it be any different for these young people?

I am very concerned for this age group. As a father (and step-father) of four teenage boys, I see the same phenomenon at home. Minimal effort is the standard to meet.

As I looked at this group of very confident youth, I picked up a bottle of water that I had with me. “Who wants to pay me $100 for this bottle of water?” I asked. Not surprisingly, no one did. “Why not?” “Because we can get water anywhere for much less than that!” was the general reply. “Okay.” I said. “So what you’re telling me is that you wouldn’t pay more for something that was easy to come by. Right?”

“That’s right.” Was the collective response.

“Now imagine that you have thousands of dollars, and we all go to the desert. There’s no water. None.  We’re there for 5 days. If I offered to sell you my bottle of water for $1000 then. Would you buy it?”

“Absolutely.” Came the replies. “You need water to live!”

“So if I understand you correctly, this bottle of water is not worth $100 today, but is worth $1000 or more depending upon the scarcity of the water?”

“Yes!” they agreed.

I pointed out to this group that they are very much like the bottle of water, and their future employers are thirsty. What changes is the scarcity.  If they do what everyone else does, making the minimum standard of just getting by their goal, there would be an abundant, over supply of workers just like them.  Not very scarce, not very valuable. However, if they decided to step up their efforts – even just a bit – then the differentiation that they created from others would make them scarcer, and thus more valuable to future employers.

The paradox of being lazy too soon is that we create a much more difficult life and limit our long term choices thus creating more work for ourselves in the future.

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