06/21/2012 03:38 pm ET Updated Sep 12, 2012

Millennials: Make A Living, Make A Difference


Two out of three college students who are graduating with debt are doing so with an average of $25,250 in education loans plus another $4,100 in related credit card debt (per The Project on Student Debt and SLM Corporation, respectively).

So it comes to no surprise that the most frequent question we hear from recent graduates is "How can I stay true to my values, given the pressure to adopt more 'self-serving' opportunities after graduation?"

According to the Pew Research Center, generations, like individuals, have personalities, and Millennials -- Americans teens and twenty-somethings ages 18 to 29 -- have begun to define theirs: confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change.

Working at the Hesselbein Institute -- and accompanying Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Frances Hesselbein to college campuses (where she spends one-third of her time) -- I've also observed that this generation is looking for evidence of values-driven leadership because they see too many examples of people in positions of authority who are self-serving, focused only on financial lines, or simply indifferent to others.

A range of economic and social influences have shaped their attitudes, beliefs, and expectations. Those who grew up in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, saw the wreckage of hurricane Katrina, and searched for jobs during a recession, are not only volunteering at home and abroad in record numbers, they are looking for meaningful career opportunities.

Find an organization that aligns with your values

Working for an organization that aligns with your values does not mean you will have to sacrifice financially.

There is certainly a great need for leadership in social and public sector organizations, and this increases the ability for competent, passionate, emerging leaders to take on a greater amount of responsibility sooner with unique benefits.

Alternatively, the number of private companies focused on social issues is rising: Sseko Designs, Warby Parker, Look for positions that offer projects that utilize your knowledge and skills, that connect with your philosophical interests. Buddy Media, a social enterprise software company (recently bought by, profiles a list of founding principles prominently on their website, including: "Do good and give back. It's a simple idea that can change the world." According to the Pew's Confident. Connected. Open to Change study, Millennials are more likely to leave a job they think has become meaningless or if they are no longer learning and growing.

Also, don't forget to take advantage of income-based loan repayment. Because most student loan debt is federally guaranteed, most is eligible for a federal assistance program, in place since 2009, called income-based repayment, which only about 2.25 percent of borrowers use, primarily due to lack of awareness.

Share what you love

"SOS Outreach began as a way for me to get kids on chairlifts and snowboarding," explained Arn Menconi, who created an opportunity in Colorado's Vail Valley for at-risk youth to participate in snowboarding lessons while engaging in a leadership program focusing on five core values: courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom, and compassion. "Years later, I see that this involvement creates passion, which leads to greater self-confidence and empowerment."

"I never dreamt that what started with a few snowboard instructors giving back would lead to youth doing the same at 45 ski resorts across 16 states and through summer programs," said Menconi.

Realize the power of your strengths

Christine Marie's skills were always linked to performing: theater, dance and music, but only after losing her younger brother, Anthony, did these personal strengths take root as a career. To grieve, Christine wrote, produced, and directed "Elijah."

Today, Christine is artistic director and owner of Industrial Gardens, a performance company she founded. Ranging from the dramatic to the comedic -- performances incorporate social issues through film, theater, photography, and art while benefiting causes including AIDS awareness, LGBT rights, and leukemia research. Christine's performances are hosted in unusual spaces: empty storefronts, record stores, coffee shops, and historical sites. Her advice to young people: "Begin! You will find the people who know what they're doing and as long as you are always willing to learn -- and fail -- ultimately, you will succeed."

Determine what it is that you do uncommonly well.

Cut down trees!

Priya Parker, an expert-in-residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab, and the founder of Thrive Labs recently completed a year-long study of the values and behaviors of Millennials.

"Life for this group is diminished by the presence of so many options one click, one job switch, one social connection away. Though many of these young people described themselves and their cohort with words such as 'passionate,' a commonly cited fear was 'being too afraid to take the leap.'"

Too many options, in some cases, are causing young leaders to stand still rather than act.

Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., a psychology professor at DePaul University, in Chicago, and the author of Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done says inaction is a case of "seeing the forest and forgetting that it's made of trees." His advice: "Cut down one tree. And if you can't cut a whole tree, cut three branches."

In Moving Beyond Uncertainty: Overcoming the Resistance to Change, founder of the Global Dialogue Center, Debbe Kennedy reveals that taking action -- particularly when the future seems uncertain -- often requires paving a new path, in other words: Risking.

"We often shelter ourselves with talk and task forces. Because the longer we talk, analyze, work to crystallize the perfect words to describe our unique issues (the bigger sounding and more complex, the better!), the longer we avoid having to act -- having to figure out what to do -- and then risk doing it."

How are you staying true to your philosophical and professional values, given pressure to adopt more self-serving values? What is your advice for finding a meaningful career? Taking a risk?