How to Leverage Addictive Tendencies in Students by Tim Elmore

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We live in a day of human appetites. We hear the words passion, obsession and addiction more than any time in modern history. It seems everyone is looking for his or her “passion.” Parents push their children to find them early, and coaches now lead young athletes who play only one sport, all year round. Gary Hamel writes, “If corporate leaders and their acolytes are not slaves to some meritorious social purpose, they run the risk of being enslaved by their own ignoble appetites.”

In other words, Hamel tells us we’re going to be a slave to some appetite. In the lyrics of Bob Dylan, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” More than one hundred years ago, Charles Dickens wrote, “Subdue your appetites, my dears, and you’ve conquered human nature.”

How Appetites Affect Us

Appetites work like this: the more you feed them, the stronger they grow. You can’t satisfy an appetite for very long. You may momentarily, but when you give in to them, they come back stronger than before. In other words, when fed, they only grow larger. They’re not placated; they’re never quenched permanently.

Every commercial we watch taps into our appetite for immediate happiness. Our students are growing up in a day when they’re pushed to obtain something external to make them feel better. It’s one reason why we are the…

  • Most medicated,
  • Most addicted,
  • Most obese,
  • Most divorced,
  • Most entertained

…generation in modern history.

Do Our Appetites Lead to Addictions?

When I give in to an appetite, it can become a habit. We can have good or bad habits.

Take a look at the statistics. While marijuana use has declined among teens, it still remains an issue. In 2014, over 21 percent of teens admitted to have tried it by the time they finished high school. What’s more, close to 6 percent of 12th graders reported daily use of marijuana, while 81 percent of them said the drug is easy to get.

While we can celebrate a small drop in illegal drug abuse, I’m sobered by the fact that teens and young adults have simply discovered new addictions. Too many abuse prescription drugs or are addicted to video games or gambling. A survey of adolescents found that more than 80 percent of those between 12 and 17 say they have gambled in the last 12 months, while more than 35 percent say they gamble at least once a week.

Not surprisingly, video games continue to expand among young people. While not all video gamers are addicts, studies estimate that 10 to 15 percent of gamers exhibit signs that meet the World Health Organization’s criteria for addiction. We definitely have a hearty appetite.

Why Are Appetites an Issue For Us?

The big question is, why are we so inebriated by our appetites today? Pause and reflect for a moment:

  • We enjoy an “on demand” society that enables us to feed our appetites now.
  • The media pushes pleasure and leisure, telling us we “deserve” such benefits.
  • We have created more artificial stimulation to help us cope with stress.
  • Often, feeding our appetites is intoxicating, easing our dreaded boredom.
  • We have access to more medication that will ease our pains and struggles.

The fact is, too many of us (both adults and students) are slaves to our addictions. We don’t live life to the fullest because we’re at the mercy of a compulsion or an obsession. We are not free to pursue what we really need or want because an appetite has become a master, not a servant.

Obsessions sponsor addictions. When pursuing a behavior repeatedly, humans naturally become slaves to it. We are creatures of habit and addiction. Some are obviously more prone to this, having what’s called “addictive personalities.”

Helping Students Leverage Them

When it comes to leading the next generation, the best way to help students overcome unhealthy appetites is to leverage their predisposition toward appetites and use them. In other words, we can help them develop an appetite for the right things.

This is what I’m lobbying for: What if we admitted our obsessive ways and leveraged them? What if students cultivated healthy addictions? What if they built habits that:

  • Drove them to read and learn more
  • Moved them to better self-care
  • Pushed them to plan and prepare better
  • Empowered them to be a problem-solver
  • Even enabled them to get over themselves.

I met Rick more than twenty years ago. He was a college student at San Diego State University, and, at the time, he was prey to several addictions. He succumbed to them after a breakup with his girlfriend—finding solace in alcohol, cocaine and gambling. It was his way of escaping his painful reality. He told me he was a victim.

In one sense, he was a victim—but I told him he didn’t have to be. We brainstormed ways he could channel his predisposition toward addictions. Rick committed to a Twelve Step Program, but that wasn’t all he did. He eventually got involved with two volunteer outreaches and invested his energy and passion toward helping others. He ended up positively changing the lives of hundreds of younger students by leveraging his appetites for something redemptive (instead of something destructive). I love it.

Yesterday, I wrote about appetites. We live in a day of human appetites, using words like passion, obsession and addiction more than any time in modern history. For many, addictive behaviors have become all-consuming: our culture now offers more Twelve Step Programs and Support Groups for addictions than at any point during my lifetime. It’s good that we do… but it’s sad that we need so many.

During the 19th century, author Charles Dickens wrote, “Subdue your appetites, my dears, and you’ve conquered human nature.”

The Law of Diminishing Returns

We pursue our appetites because we hunger for pleasure. We often seek it above happiness or fulfillment. We may understand happiness is a by-product of sowing the right seeds (See Mistake #3 in Twelve Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid), but our appetite demands that we have it now. So our hunt for pleasure circumvents our happiness. For example, instead of a sharp student positively influencing her peers, she lives “under the influence” of a substance, an addictive behavior, or a boyfriend.

My concern is—we have a huge population of students, loaded with leadership potential, who run the risk of becoming slaves to their appetites. At Growing Leaders, we believe the leadership journey begins with “self-leadership.” In other words, before a student tries to lead anyone else, they should learn to lead themselves. Because of our predisposition toward our “appetites,” I believe leaders should dedicate 50 percent of their time to self-leadership. When addictions and obsessions take over, our appetites became our master instead of our servant. Our potential is sabotaged, and healthy leadership is not realized.

Today, I want to reflect on how we can leverage our appetites for good. Since we are creatures of both habit and addiction, why can’t we turn those habits into behaviors that are healthy and productive? What if we simply re-directed them?

Three Truths About Our Appetites 

  1. If you want to get rid of an appetite, you have to starve it, not feed it.
  2. If you want to get rid of an appetite, you must be intentional, not accidental.
  3. If you want to get rid of an appetite, you have to replace it, not ignore it.

It’s been said for years: If we tell a student to not think about pink elephants, what’s the first thing he or she is going to think about? A pink elephant. In the same way, we don’t get rid of a habit or an appetite by simply trying not to do it.

After more than three decades of teaching and leading students, I’ve concluded the only way we can curb their poor or unhealthy appetites is to re-direct those appetites. We cannot remove them; we can only replace them. We must put new ones in place of the old ones.

Building an appetite for a good habit requires:

1. Exposure

Students need to be exposed to people who practice good habits. They must see others do the very habit they desire and thereby cultivate a hunger for it. When living in San Diego, I took a group of college students I was mentoring to meet with successful business professionals on a regular basis. They saw sharp adults who practiced good habits—and developed an appetite for them. Those students reduced their partying and expanded their planning.

2. Explanation

Students need us to debrief with them why a new habit is important and what it can do for them. They need conversations that persuade them to change. I invited students to meet with me and a group of seasoned veterans who’d given up smoking, pornography, or gambling, and the conversation was incredible. It was done tastefully—and helped the students desire change.

3. Experience

Students need to actually experience new habits, even if they only try them once at first. Practice makes perfect and practice makes permanent. The student group I was mentoring began holding each other accountable to the new practices. The more success each one achieved, the more appetizing it was to continue in the new habits. We met weekly and the first third of our meetings was about reporting how we’d directed our appetites.

Ralph Sockman wrote, “Good habits, which bring our lower passions and appetites under automatic control, leave our natures free to explore the larger experiences of life. Too many of us divide and dissipate our energies in debating actions which should be taken for granted.”

Here’s to re-directing your students’ appetites.

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