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Speaking the language of high school

January 31, 2009
Close to the site of the opening story from my presentation

Close to the site of the opening story from my presentation

All right, folks, fair warning: This’ll be a long one. So sit back, relax, grab a cup of coffee and enjoy!

Yesterday I spoke for almost half an hour with a group of about 25 high school sophomores and juniors from Newton County, GA. They were at UGA on a leadership tour, which involved multiple dining hall trips (jealous) and a low ropes course adventure (more jealous). And for some reason, their coordinator — a Mr. Ted Wynne — contacted me a few weeks back to see if I’d be interested in sharing a few thoughts with them.

I struggled with the initial guidelines for my topic: myself, my major, my study abroad and my leadership experience(s). I figured if I were a high school sophomore or junior, I’d want a college student speaker to actually engage me instead of simply speaking about him- or herself the whole time. So I had to figure out what exactly this would mean for my own presentation.

Obviously, I would need some visual enhancers. Below is the slideshow that I showed the kids. The majority of pictures come from my Tanzania trip, but some are just random ones. Sprinkled throughout are four of my favorite quotes of all time. It all made sense in the context of the actual presentation, I promise.

For download: Slides for Newton County High Schoolers

Anyway, I mind-mapped any and all ideas for my talk for nearly two hours and eventually realized that what I was really getting at was one central them (luckily): adventure.

I was thinking of Tanzania, of being an Orientation Leader, of playing my guitar and singing, of enrolling at UGA to begin with. And everything came back to this sense of adventure that I’ve recently rediscovered. And adventure tied everything that I’ve accomplished and attempted over the past few years…I just never really recognized it for what it was.

So I had my central theme. And I quickly had an opening story, a “hook” if you will. Here it is, in a semi-nutshell version:

Myself and five other guys were trying to figure out how to kill our extra three or four hours off the coast of the island of Zanzibar last summer, and we decided that we would try to reach the breakers of the waves of the Indian Ocean. Now, this would be no small feat, as the breakers themselves were probably more than a mile-and-a-half away from the shore. There was a coral reef at that distance that kept the waves from traveling all the way to the shoreline. And this space of a mile-and-a-half was filled with three- or four-foot-deep water for almost as far as we could see. So we set off to conquer the ocean. Almost two hours later we still hadn’t reached them, my feet were throbbing from the sea urchin spines and storm clouds were gathering quickly. But in those few moments of indecision in the ocean, I realized something: I truly felt connected in that place. To myself, to those guys, to the culture, to the world and — most importantly — to God himself. It was the most amazing feeling. And it was the moment that I realized my desires were leading in a different direction that I thought, not into the corporate world of cubicles and expense cuts, but into the wilds of the world itself and the panoply of colors that inhabit it. It was a strange, exhilarating feeling to be certain.

So I opened with that story. And I could see that this wasn’t at all what the high schoolers were expecting. A few of them looked confused, a few looked bored, but the majority looked intensely interested and surprised. I chugged on.

The rest of my talk centered on a pair of related questions: “What is college? And how can I make the most out of it?” Simple questions, surely, but they can have very complicated answers. I asked the group what they thought of when they hear the word “college,” and these were their responses: hard work, parties, freedom, maturity, responsibility, fun. I was surprised and encouraged by these answers, especially by the fact that they seemed to grasp what I was already going to tell them: there’s a balance and college can be fun if you want it to be.

The key, I told them, is to embrace the adventure that’s inherent in your college journey. Since they were specifically interested in the leadership aspects of college life, I told them about my biggest adventures, which just so happened to all be fairly large adventures in themselves. And that was the first tie-in that I revealed: Leadership is an adventure in itself.

That point is something that I think a lot of leaders, especially in college, often overlook. Leadership is a journey. A journey from challenge to opportunity to success to failure and everywhere in between. Every action, every result, every consequence hinges on your decisions as a leader. And if you don’t think that’s an adventurous concept, I don’t think you’ve ever been in the situation.

The second major tie-in between adventure and leadership is almost as basic as the first: Adventures exist so that you can know yourself more intimately. And when you know yourself, you can begin to know and understand others. And when that happens, you can lead much more effectively. But the key is to know yourself. I think I stole this quote from somewhere, but I’m not sure where:

“The only way to lead is from your own heart because that is all that you can truly know to begin with.”

I may have made it up, but it sounds more intelligent than something that would come from just my thoughts. Either way, you have to know yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses, your talents, your fears. That’s probably the most crucial part of leadership; it’s also the part that can become most apparent in a group setting if you don’t emphasize it enough in the beginning.

I wrapped up the talk with the question that’s on everyone’s mind when you introduce the idea of leadership and being bold: “What if I fail? What if I screw everything up?”

And, as this is something that I’ve been both cripplingly afraid of and openly embracing of at various points in my life, I enjoyed talking about this immensely. You see, nobody really cares about a straight success story anymore. There are way too many of them. Take The Pursuit of Happyness for example. It’s all about one man’s failures to begin with. It’s the failures and mistakes that give the movie and book their humor and their appeal. The failures make the successes much much sweeter.

In the end, failures give your life a much more humorous and engaging trajectory. They will open you up to things inside of you and to the love of others. It really is one of the most wonderful things in life: to fail, to fall and to rise again.

So embraced the failures and face the challenges. That’s what I left them with. And they were smiling by the end.

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