Awaiting the Second Enlightenment

Former CIA official Carmen Medina has spent her entire professional career thinking about information—how to get it, who to share it with, how it flows.  What excites her lately is how it empowers young people.

After a 32-year career with the CIA, Medina is now a Specialist Leader focusing on Innovation and Intelligence at Deloitte Consulting, where she works with a group of millennial-age fellows.  She says they seek real meaning in what they do, a quality that she finds “spectacularly wonderful.  “They have a disarming kind of communal honesty about them,” she says.

Medina links these general millennial qualities to the greater availability of information that is the hallmark of the world they were born into.  More information is creating a youth culture that doesn’t accept things at face value. 

“When I was growing up, I didn’t have a lot of information,” Medina says.  “If you wanted news, you read Time magazine—and there wasn’t much else.  But these young men and women have the capacity to figure things out and compare and observe the gaps.  They do it naturally.  They don’t settle for facile explanations—they really investigate.”

They have an easier way to communicate with each other and are more willing to collaborate than the generation before them, Medina says.  They have a sense of autonomy and confidence in their response to the world.  They don’t ape conventional wisdom and passively contribute to the preservation of traditional thinking.

“It’s not that they’re anti-authority,” Medina says, “it’s that they just don’t accept hierarchical ways of organizing society.  I love that.  They definitely think that this is their world to shape.”

Part of Medina’s role at Deloitte is to help these millennials think more critically, organize their ideas and use evidence  to support their point of view.  But she also helps them to hone their skills of “sense-making,” their ability to make a pure interpretation of reality: “When you make sense of the world, you free yourself as much as possible of your preconceptions.  You observe the world as it is.”

Millennials have a natural affinity for sense-making, she says. They have a wider range of observation, a willingness to acknowledge the unexpected and greater flexibility in responding to what they see.  They don’t spend endless amounts of time gathering evidence before they act.  They are nimble.  They make decisions, but they’re not afraid to change their minds.

The generation ahead of them finds these attributes unnerving.

“I think we’re still in the grips of the strategic planning stuff of the ‘80s and ‘90s, where someone very clever has to come up with the blueprint for decision-making, and then everybody will be doing that for a while, and they’ll do it to excess,” she says. “We could scale down the apparatus around decision-making.  What’s really important is reality, not the decision.”

According to Medina, this shift away from, top-down leadership has been facilitated by social networking, which creates an environment where we all observe the world together in a powerful, reciprocal relationship.

“For me, social networking represents the largely unfiltered reactions of people to what they are observing,” she says.  “This is unprecedented.  We never, ever had this information before.  It’s telling us a lot more about how humans operate and the human condition.  I think it’s helping us to see human society more realistically.”

The downside of all this information flow is that the human psyche cannot process everything it is currently absorbing.  Medina senses an “existential plague” on the horizon as people grasp the magnitude of global problems and feel at a loss to find solutions.  She worries about a crisis of meaning in the world. 

But her faith in millennials blooms in this space.  They will put their creative sense-making into high gear, embracing technological tools.  She hopes that these individuals who are redefining marriage, family and relationships  also take a fresh look at capitalism, national security and foreign policy. 

“I like to think we’re on the cusp of a second enlightenment,” she says.  “Once you’re rethinking marriage and family, isn’t everything else up for grabs?”