Three Birds

There are three types of young professionals — and one worth mentoring

Back Commentary Mar 10, 2016 By Chris Johnson

Many people ask me how to find, keep and inspire young professionals. In response, I like to share a story of “Three Birds.” This is actually a true story. My wife and I were having lunch at Chipotle while sitting outside on a nice sunny Sacramento day. We had some left- over chips, and there were three birds a few feet away from me. I broke a couple of chips into smaller pieces and threw them toward the birds. One bird, scared for his life, flew away never to be seen again. The second bird hopped a few paces towards the chips and then stopped to watch. The third bird went right after the chips and started to eat hastily.

I stared in amazement as I watched these birds. Their different actions are analogous to life and people, especially young professionals. You see, the broken chips are opportunities. When opportunity presents itself, people either run away, watch others become successful or go after it with fearlessness. 

The bird who flew away:

These birds are consumed by fear. They know exactly what they should do but doubt themselves, causing them to run from opportunity. They are just as hungry as the other birds, yet avoid risk at all costs. They brag about the successes of people in their inner (or outer) circles but never take a leap toward their own success. These birds love to make excuses as to why they haven’t achieved more. To avoid the pain of unfulfilled ambitions, they bury themselves in television, YouTube or social media. They have great ideas and the potential to make important contributions. However, they hold them in, too afraid to fail. Sadly, they adjust their expectations to minimize what they want out of life and avoid disappointment. 

The bird who watched:

Many will see the bird that flew away as the worst of the bunch; however, this is not true. The worst is the bird that takes a few steps, then stops. This young professional is filled with potential but still does not act. They do enough to survive or keep their jobs. They are consumed by mediocrity. Despite their amazing talent, they do not give their best because they prefer comfort over success. These young professionals only kind of want it. They may want the success but are not willing to do everything necessary to achieve it. They have just as much talent as the other birds, sometimes more. However, they wallow in a world of complacency. These people allow laziness and inaction to overtake them and are the most frustrating birds. Typically they are filled with amazing potential, and it drives leadership crazy with a desire to unlock it. Sometimes, these folks are at the verge of getting fired but show sporadic spurts of brilliance to avoid termination. What I have realized about this type of young professional is that, despite their amazing potential and raw talent, you cannot make them eat. 

The fearless bird:

This young professional is filled with ambition backed by a determined work ethic and chooses faith over fear. These people know exactly what they want out of their careers. While many others travel through life aimlessly, accompanied with a dusty goal sheet that is more like a wish list, these young professionals arm themselves with a clear vision of exactly what they want out of life. After identifying that vision, just as the bird, they pursue it with an unbridled passion. These people take calculated risks instead of being frozen by self doubt or third-party noise. These young professionals are leaders; they do not wait for a crowd consensus to make a move. Novelist E.M. Forster said, “One person with passion is better than 40 people merely interested.” They are a mentor’s dream. You do not need to micromanage them. Don’t provide them tasks — give them projects. Point them in the right direction and let them fly. These birds are the most successful in their peer group, referred to perhaps as “fast-trackers,” “beyond their years,” and “the next to take over.” They are mentally tough and walk with a spirit of gratitude. They count their blessings while others add up their problems. They are often envied and receive animosity from the people on the sidelines. However, these birds remain unfazed. They are too focused on their goals. Their ears are listening attentively to successful mentors, and they are busy eating while others watch or fly away. 

Young professionals should ask themselves, “Which bird am I?” And remember, it’s not too late to change. 

Managing Young Professionals

To achieve success, you have to choose the right people. I choose young professionals not based simply on their experiences or the college from which they graduated, but on their desire. You cannot teach desire. You can’t teach someone how to want it. When you identify the bird with limitless ambition, as a mentor you have to throw the chips. You have to provide them opportunities to succeed. Here at Rapid Brands, Quynn Meyers-Keller is only 24-years-old and two years out of Sacramento State. He is building and managing a $15-million e-commerce program for the company. Josh Cosico, also only 24-years-old and also a Sac State graduate, is our innovation manager. He leads the innovation of our 25 new products, is creating a pet division, and manages our designs for Disney, Nickelodeon and Collegiate licenses. These young professionals are a few of the pinnacles at our company and are realizing major success. 
However, in order for them to reach these heights, I had to throw the chips. The best mentees need projects over which they can take ownership. They need space to try new ideas and provide feedback that is valued by leadership. If you’ve selected a brilliant team full of potential, you needn’t be afraid of doling out projects that require a more complex execution. By empowering your team and offering experienced guidance, these birds will soar.


Dina Kimble (not verified)March 14, 2016 - 9:41am

Excellent advice for young professionals and those who lead them! I'll be sharing this article with the young leaders in our company, so they can decide which bird they want to be.