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Starting Out: Hope for a New Generation

The first day of school is hardly the last time I will be reminded of what I want most for my sons. But it is an important milestone that helps me also reflect on what I want most for our world.
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Back-to-school excitement is in our household these days. Or maybe I should simply say To School Excitement, because neither of my two boys are actually going back to it. No, how can they? My youngest son, at 2, hasn't even started school, and my oldest son, at 4, has never been to school. Until now. Tomorrow is his first day of preschool, and I suddenly feel completely unprepared.

While the first day of school is as routine and as predictable a rite of passage as losing one's baby teeth and learning to read, as I considered the deeper implications of this first of many firsts, I am struck by how much this journey of education will serve as the foundation upon which my son will build his self, his community, his opportunities and his future.

And somewhere between Miley Cyrus's public twerking episode, an emerging national affliction of Pinterest-stress and Facebook Addiction Disorder, this causes me to be circumspect. Suddenly, playground bullies have become the least of my worries. I am left wondering whether my son's first day of school will lead to anywhere other than a whimpering path of banality. Never mind moral profundity here. Are we really that bored? Or unimaginative? Or uninterested?

Nearly every parent wishes for their children to succeed and prosper, and I'm no different. I hope my sons grow strong in body and mind, become intelligent and gifted and one day receive an acceptance letter (acceptance emails, tweets, or other modicums are fine too) from a Duke, Tufts or University of Michigan. Hey, I'd even be happy with a Harvard, Princeton or Stanford. After graduating with honors, I'd wave my maternal magic wand and have each son catch a break, after of course spending their "gap year" serving the underprivileged in a politically important emerging market country, and then become a rising star with a prodigious hedge fund or iconic startup, the IPO or sale of which would ensure their ability to retire at 25.

Or would I?

I know about this career trajectory well. Follow the money, and you will find some of America's most talented students-turned-professionals making top dollar at well-heeled consulting and law firms, investment banks -- or, for the really enterprising, awaiting top-dollar at a build-to-sell startup. Follow the top-tier educational institutions, and many of their top students are headed in this direction.

To be clear, I am not criticizing these career paths wholesale. I have worked for a consulting company and financial services firm in the cosmopolitan cities of Washington, DC and London, and I believe both institutions -- and most of the people in them -- are adding serious value to the world. What concerns me is not that some work for these institutions or pursue careers that make a lot of money. What concerns me is the diversion of substantial talent into these industries to the exclusion of other areas of remarkable need. I was taken aback by the recent article, "The Unexotic Underclass," written by C.Z. Nnaemeka for the MIT Entrepreneurship Review. Nnaemeka, who is an MIT grad and has worked for a hedge fund, observes that many of our most talented graduates are not focusing on what she calls big problems "little b, little p." These include finding solutions to helping out-of-work war veterans and assisting single mothers in their exhausting task of working full-time and raising children on one income. The unexotic underclass, as she labels them, are legion, as are their problems. Yet, we have "too many smart people... chasing too many dumb ideas" not using -- or not trained to use -- their many skills and talents to solve these unexotic problems.

The impact that my son and his generation will be close to nil if we just continue to concentrate on self-centric apps, ones that focus on me, myself and I. While there is nothing inherently wrong with Pinterest, Instagram or Facebook, what does baffle me is that with all this technology, intelligence and creativity, we have not been able to look past the navel and across the table. To serve not only ourselves, but also, those who desperately crave, and need, our creativity, passion and talent.

The first day of school is hardly the last time I will be reminded of what I want most for my sons. But it is an important milestone that helps me also reflect on what I want most for our world. With the brimming, booming and banging caused by the economic and political conflicts and problems around the world (e.g., Syria) and down the street (e.g., Detroit), there is ample opportunity for big minds to find big and creative solutions. Theologian Frederick Buechner has written that vocation is where our greatest joy meets the world's greatest need. I pray that this teeny, tiny generation will grow into their talents and passions with a heart for creatively solving problems, be they merely "big."