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Generations X and Y: Grit, Freedom and Triumph

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The film Act of Valor opened this weekend with an unprecedented cast. Active Duty Navy SEALs star in the gripping tale of global terrorism and heroic acts undertaken to stop it. The tag line, "The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday" rings true for children, teens and young adults in Generation Y. Their childhood has been dominated by images of war and terrorism. Their fathers, brothers and friends have fought and died, fought and lived and protected freedom for their fellow Americans and our Western Allies.

Their emotional palate is complex. More than any previous generation, the sheer volume of information via media, social networking and the capability for near-instant communication around the clock are the norm. On Act of Valor's soundtrack is a young man named Hunter Hayes whose insightful songs lend a glimpse into the hearts of Generation Y.

They are the children of Baby Boomers, Generation Jones and GenXers. More than anything, they are fearless creators of content. They are brave souls looking to make a difference. In 2008, so many were inspired to believe in Obama's youth appeal. Because they are saturated with information but also, so very young and naive to dangerous behavior that seems enshrined by reality television. We must look at what tomorrow's leaders need from us, their parents and mentors. Not everything they hunger for is base and vulgar. The stratospheric success of Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and other crossover musicians as well as scandal-free movie stars like Rachel McAdams and others bends the curve.

Generation Y isn't buying what the rest of us are selling. Not every kid is lining up to be a ne'er do well.

Listening works. It's the best way to earn trust, build rapport and develop insight. I had a conversation recently with country music's sensational new face, Hunter Hayes, and was impressed. Our wide ranging discussion about fame, hard work and creative vision was remarkable. This talented young man is a force to be reckoned with.

At age two, he was tinkering with instruments. At age four, he had already been on stage with Hank Williams, Jr. He knew from age six how to articulate his path from music prodigy to professional, working musician. He wrote his first song. He envisioned learning every instrument he wanted and needed to play to achieve his dream.

While in high school, he spent free time on his craft. He played the guitar, the drums, the bass, the piano and many other instruments. In class, he would get through his day by self-encouragement. I asked him what that looked like, "I would look at my watch, if it was 10:00 AM, I knew that I would just be rolling into town on my tour bus. If it was 2:00 PM, I knew it would be just about time for sound check."

The uncanny similarity to other youth rings true. Other students and youth I have interviewed in recent months exhibit a similar drive. One young woman I recently spoke with has known for years what her path will be. Every step she takes is with an eye towards graduate degrees and a spot as a curator at an internationally renowned museum. Her friends have similarly ambitious ideas. One wants to be a designer and founded a successful youth group, partnered with nearly a dozen stores and is launching her career. Another young man I recently interviewed at a Global Studies program in Virginia has known for years that he is destined to attend a service academy, preferably in Annapolis, so he can become a pilot. He knows the salary, the benefits and when he wants to get married. Another wanted to attend Annapolis, serve in the U.S. Marine Corps then become a criminal defense attorney. Another wants a career in the music industry and works daily at her craft, writing and devoting every free moment to the development of her angelic voice. These are Hunter Hayes' constituents.

Hayes' work ethic is clear. His "brand" did not require the careful hand of a studio head. He is authentic, down to earth and genuine. He spoke of living his dream and coping with fame, "It's very freeing to know nothing has to go the way it did yesterday." Of finding calm amidst the storm he created with hissmash single "Storm Warning," Hayes mentioned how grateful he is to be living his dream. His competence as a composer, writer and leader have drawn together a group of musicians that highlight his prowess. Hayes dominates without being dominating. He is also a savvy leader, noting his father's advice to "never do business with anyone you wouldn't do dinner with."

His music is real, and his incredible gifts are on display. When we spoke, he was just wrapping up a tour with Rascal Flatts and playing a solo date at The Norva in Norfolk, Virginia. The room was filled with young women, men and their families. He scoffed at the pressure to "write, record, sing, do the perfect song." Instead he noted there is a "desperate call for an honest song."

With all the grit, the coarseness and lowest common denominator on offer much of the time, Hayes gave this GenXer hope. The youth, they are our tomorrow. Trusting in their vision is sometimes the right thing to do. This young man, nominated for an ACM, who once opened for Taylor Swift now sits on the precipice of his own meteoric rise to the top. Just like the rest of the young men and women in Generation Y who will be tomorrow's leaders, tomorrow's diplomats and iconic artists, Hayes' clean, honest brand is like a fresh warm breeze right before the storm.