So was I once myself a swinger of birches. And so I dream of going back to be.  —Robert Frost

C an you remember that time in your life when it was all in front of you? A point in your journey where your hopes for the future so far exceeded any baggage you had collected along the way that you were filled with an exuberant sense of possibility? This week, our summer interns will complete their time with us. As I’ve watched them along the way, I’ve been repeatedly reminded of that point in the past when the world was wide open in a way that only youthful innocence can experience. A place where all dreams were possible.

Our interns were hired to focus on a research project and develop a proof of concept for some technology that we would like to deploy. During the interview process, one of them asked me: “You are asking for a lot in this project. Why are you hiring interns and not experienced engineers?” I smile as I remember that conversation and the bold directness of the question. My simple answer: “I want a team unencumbered by the knowledge of what is not possible.”

My experience with these young men over the last couple of months has been reflective of that first interaction. Bold. Fearless. Honest. Direct. Sincere. Unencumbered.

Lessons Learned

As we’ve moved to the end of the project, I’ve thought a lot about what has made it so exceptional and why. It is clear that these young men and who they are has been the key. Their intelligence, ingenuity, and energy have been critical elements of a successful project and a successful internship. However, looking a bit deeper, I see additional factors that serve as powerful reminders to each of us no matter where we are in our journey.

  • Boundless curiosity. Our summer with these young men has been underscored by endless seeking. A conversation with any one of them led to a series of riddles and answers resulting in additional questions. They were always asking why? Or, why not? The beauty of this curiosity is that they were seeking for the sake of seeking. There was no positioning, pandering, or politicking. Their goal was discovery – not compensation or promotion. Their curiosity and effort were rewarded as they ran into obstacles and found ways around them. Along the way, they not only found many answers, they discovered success.
  • Youthful innocence. Throughout my time with this team, I found myself smiling at, and with, them. Sure, they were funny and goofy in an endearing way and as only young people can be. But there was something more. Underpinning their effort, attitude, and energy was a refreshing innocence. They were not burdened by compromises, falsities, or hidden intentions. Throughout the project, they displayed a pure idealism in seeking the best solution, the right path regardless of anything else that might normally influence such decisions. As a team, they saw and expected the best in each other and truly appreciated the differences of, not only their other team members, but of other employees. They laughed at each other’s quirks and were quick to make assignments based on what they saw as strengths in each other. They were open to different ideas and I always had a sense that they truly willed the good of the other – for not other reason than that is how they viewed the world. I suppose the more cynical among us might call some it naïveté, I would call it purity. Their innocence was powerfully inspiring, and refreshing.
  • No baggage. From the start of the summer, it was clear to me that these young stars came in with a blank slate. No mortgages. No grudges. No damage from past failure or betrayal. There was nothing to prove, only puzzles to be solved. This is not to suggest that none of them have known adversity. Interestingly, I picked up on a number of personal challenges that were being dealt with but none of it ever showed up at work. In fact, I never heard a complaint (other than the occasional frustration when a ordered part did not show up when expected) nor negativity. These young men weren’t problem free, but they were unburdened in their approach and focus.
  • Pride of ownership. Tying-in to the factors above, was a healthy pride. The pride I witnessed was not an ego-driven pride. This team’s pride stemmed from the basics. Theirs was a pride…
    • Of owning the challenge
    • Of owning the solution
    • Of being part of the team
    • Of being on the journey
    • Of accomplishment
    • Of giving it all
  • Gratitude. These young men were truly grateful for this opportunity. How do I know? They didn’t have to tell me, it was obvious. Their motivation, enthusiasm, and energy were on full display. Every day.  They didn’t have to say anything, their behavior was in itself effusive. In watching them, I realized how easy it is to forget the power of gratitude for shaping our days. They walked in every day with gratefulness written on their faces and in their actions. They were grateful for the opportunity and all of its challenges. They were grateful to be fully engaged. They were grateful that we entrusted this project to them. Innocence and gratitude. Very powerful.

In all honesty, our project for these interns was ideal. We gave them a big challenge and complete ownership of figuring it out. They were (mostly) self-directed and self-managed. They had their own space, tools, and time to get tasks done. The objective was fun, exciting, and challenging. With that said, they still had to choose to engage. They had to choose to commit to making things happen. They had to choose to show up every day and work hard to meet the objectives. They made those choices and it made all the difference.

Back to Basics

Our lives have a way of making us forget these basics. Yes, we recognize them intellectually but it is the fundamentals that get lost when things get tough or when we allow the complexities of life to draw us further into their shadowy layers. With a simplicity that was not simpleness, our interns swept-in and reminded us of the importance of these basic principles and their power for fueling a good life. We don’t have to get lost in the difficulties or in the noise between our ears. Much of it is camouflage designed to hide the simple joys from us.

This Friday, our interns will complete their time with us. They have successfully met the objective of their summer internship and developed new technology that has numerous applications in our business. We are excited to take what they’ve developed and refine it and hopefully apply it commercially. As I consider the project, the summer, and these young men, I realize that they gave us far more than the technology they developed. The impact of their example and it’s reminder to reconnect with our youthful innocence, and the joy it engenders, is a most profound deliverable. One which won’t show up in any project charter.