This lunchtime, I addressed a large room of leaders: the 150 or so incoming freshman at The Ohio State University who have been identified as the students most likely to build community on campus.
Here's what I said.
You can click here to download an audio version (mp3), which includes my mistakes — as well as the questions and answers.
Or you can simply read...
"Around These Tables"
A Keynote Speech
For the Participants and Community Leaders
At the September 8, 2010 Luncheon of the
First Year Leadership Collaborative
at The Ohio State University
I need to start by asking if there is a behavioral psychologist here. Is there a behavioral psychologist in the house?
I ask because I'm going to give a very short lecture on behavioral psychology, and I am wholly unqualified. I am not a behavioral psychologist. I am a liberal arts guy. I can only speak of my own experience. At a research university, that's malpractice.
But seeing as how there is no greater authority here, I will now present my opinions as if they were facts.
The beliefs and psychology that got you to
this moment have been very functional beliefs.
You've been driven to great achievement by your steadfast adherence to a core set of beliefs that have proven very functional and have delivered you to this moment, this recognition of your leadership and great potential. These beliefs have been placed in you by your parents, you siblings, your church, your reading, your friends — the better friends — and these beliefs have been very great assets to you.
I come to you today to identify some of those beliefs and to demonstrate to you why they are no longer functional. Many of them, in fact, will prove dysfunctional from this point forward, and they must be destroyed.
A First Example.
"Louie," — is there anyone here named Louie or Louise? — "Louie, if you want to see something done right, do it yourself." This was a highly functional idea and it became a deeply seated belief for you. But now you enter a time of collaboration, and if you believe that "if you want something done right, you must do it yourself," you will leave Ohio State not trusting people and not having learned to delegate or collaborate. So now, if you want to see something done right, work with others, see what others can do with you.
The next belief.
I remember when our daughter came home from her first day at school. We asked her, "What did you learn today?" She said, "I learned that I am not the teacher."
Well, I don't know what classroom mayhem led up to that. But I know that you have been identified as leaders because you're strong willed, stiff necked people. You must have demonstrated many times a desire to be the teacher, but you were not the teacher.
Now welcome to Ohio State. Welcome to the university, to the college where we are collegial. We are colleagues of each other. We are each other's teachers. It is essential that you figure out what is it you're learning — and, at the same time, what it is you're teaching.
By teaching others what you have just learned, as you leave class and go into the dining hall, by sitting down with your friends at dinner and saying, "Here's what I learned today. Let me teach it to you," you will increase your ability to retain what you have learned. You will greatly increase your recall of what you have learned, if you teach it to someone else within 48 hours of learning it.
The old belief: you are not the teacher. The new belief: you are the student and the teacher.
There was a belief that tattoos will make you unique.
You learned this from watching people on television and in water parks. Tattoos do not make you unique. Tattoos make you like others who have tattoos. It's so similar to branding of cattle. Yes, it might help us tell one herd from another, but this is a bovine way to distinguish yourself.
I strongly discourage you from getting a tattoo, not just because of fashion or my own peculiarities, but because, if you get a tattoo, you will be prohibited from time to time from donating blood. When you donate blood, you save several lives. If you believe that getting a tattoo is more valuable than saving lives, then it is time for a new belief: Saving even one life is more valuable than any tattoo.
If you leave Ohio State with a fresh tattoo, then you have failed a simple measure of education. Let me apologize in advance to those students who don't understand that life is more valuable than getting a tattoo. I apologize because I'm a teacher and responsible for conveying such ideas.
Even if you can't give blood because of anemia or pre-existing condition or low weight, still don't get a tattoo. By getting a tattoo, you as leaders, say to others that tattoos are fashionable and you are leading people the wrong way. You are leading against saving lives.
The measure of a leader is not his or her ability to lead. It's where he or she chooses to lead others.
An old belief: leadership is being strong.
That belief is now being replaced by a new belief: leadership is being authentic. Which means: being true to yourself. Others can then know who and what you are. The more you reveal of yourself, the more powerful a leader you can be. This is a challenge. Strength is relatively easy to find and exhibit. Authenticity is elusive. How will you find who you are? College presents four years, a rare opportunity to gather self-knowledge.
"Louise, anything worth doing is worth doing right."
This was a highly functional belief and was given to you because we were afraid that your early work was sloppy.
But ask any artist or writer: the first mark on the canvas, the first word on the screen is quickly erased or changed or covered up. We told you anything worth doing is worth doing right, but if you hold onto this belief, your creativity will suffer because you won't try new things where you might at first fail. In the classic Buddhist text Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, the author Shunryu Suzuki teaches us that our desire to become expert in what we do creates a tension between our expertise and our true productivity. As we seek to become experts and to do things right, we must also seek to remain beginners, open minded to the unknown possibilities.
Anything worth doing is worth doing wrong.
Here is a belief that hasn't become dysfunctional. It's changed by becoming even stronger.
"No" means no.
Now, at college, "no" really means no. Say "no" when you mean no. And say it clearly. If you are hear "no," understand what it means. It can mean: "Stop. If you continue, it is assault." "No" means no.
Our prisons are filled with people who don't know that "no" means no.
Many of your beliefs come from parents who are afraid.
They are afraid that you will not launch. They are afraid that you will forever be takers of their resources. And they're afraid, not just because they might run out of money, but because they know that in the best case scenario, they will die before you. So you must develop self-sufficiency to survive that death.
So a belief was created in you by your parents that self-sufficiency, the ability to take care of yourself, is the goal. Self-sufficiency is not the goal. Self-sufficiency is the byproduct. The goal is authenticity, leadership, and engagement in your life. Self-sufficiency will be the result.
What is fun?
There is an old belief from high school that the people who were out late at night are having fun. This is sometimes true, but often they are simply self-medicating their pain. You will see the difference. You will see people staying up because they have not learned how to be alone. The people having fun are the people who are with people when they want to be with people — knowing that they can always retreat into their solitude where they will find someone — their own selves — whose company they also cherish.
As my father told me, "Artie, if you're not in bed by 11, go home." (He actually never said that and he would be horrified to know that I have attributed that to him.)
There is a belief that evil people have placed in your mind. That belief is that smoking makes you look sophisticated, makes you look grown up, is an accessory of adulthood. Clearly, this is not true. If you smoke now, stop. If you graduate from Ohio State smoking, I'm sorry, because I am a teacher of yours and I have failed to teach you a basic fundamental fact. Smoking is, at its best, an ignorant act. Don't date smokers. At its worst, it is profoundly selfish.
Speaking of selfishness, there is a belief that you should not be selfish. That belief is dysfunctional and it must be destroyed.
The new belief: make yourself strong, so that you can change the world. We were afraid about selfishness when you were young, because it drove you to unhelpful behavior. A complete half-gallon of ice cream?
But now, you are a leader, and I think you should follow your selfish impulses, because at your worst, your behavior will still be nutritious and life-affirming. (I call this "selfish altruism." Getting strong so that you can change the world for the better.)
A Short Message on Sex
I don't know if your generation is smarter than my generation about unprotected sex. Whatever belief you bring to these table and to your beds, be protected. Understand the technologies of love. I won't be covering it in my class. That is why my generation invented the Interwebs.
Many people have the belief that voting doesn't matter. Let me quote the great American essayist, David Foster Wallace:
"If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don't bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don't bullshit yourself that you're not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard's vote."
Register to vote. Now. Beat the rush. The deadline is October 4th for November's General Election. I have voter registration forms right here. Just ask me. They're free.
If you are eligible to vote, but not registered to vote in November, you are not a leader. You are an idiot.
Feel the pain.
When you were grumpy and threw fits of temper, you were sent away with a new belief: go to your room and don't come back until you're happy. This was because we were afraid that your emotions would get the better of you and you would never develop a logical view of the world. We wanted your id to become an ego and superego. But now, possibly, we have turned you into a zombie, someone who has suppressed his or her emotions as if they are no longer relevant, as if we are computers walking around on body stems.
Emotions are relevant. Emotions are Mother Nature's way of saying something is going on here that requires your attention. Emotions are your radar, and your radar is picking up signals. You are an adult now; trust your radar. Feel your emotions. Understand what they mean. Real leaders are not unfeeling. They are whole humans with emotional intelligence and deep emotional feeling.
"We are not creative."
Perhaps it was at Halloween, when your parents gave you this next dysfunctional belief. The neighbors made their own customs. Those neighbors were goofy and strange and to be avoided.
A local, broadly published artist named Christopher Canyon says that when we are young, if we come home from school and we don't add or subtract well, they drill us with flashcards. If we don't spell well, they drill us with word lists. But if we don't draw well, they say, "Well, we're not creative."
This is not true, Christopher Canyon teaches us. Creativity is learned. Drawing and art are learned.
Be the creative person you were once, when in middle childhood — at, say, the age of 12 — you got up, you grabbed a sandwich, you hopped on your bike, you rode to that place, you climbed that tree, you built that fort.
Your creativity is not gone.
You simply aren't working actively enough on it. Your creativity is waiting for your attention.
A related belief, is that fitness is more important than creativity. In middle school, we gave you a presidential fitness test, but no presidential creativity test. We opened health clubs and fitness centers, so that you will spend time there working out. We have a sports section in the paper and a sports network on television. We do not have a creativity section in the newspaper. And, unfortunately, watching television doesn't make us more creative.
You know what it takes to be fit: don't smoke, eat right, get plenty of sleep, and work out. You know it takes time and work to be fit.
To be creative takes time, too.
I teach a class in how to invest time so that we can become our most creative selves. Being fit will keep you alive, but for what? Being creative is what you want to stay alive for.
People tell me that they are not creative. I reject that. I tell them: to never work on your creativity and yet expect a spontaneous moment of ingenuity is as silly as never working out and expecting a spontaneous moment of fitness.
Three more beliefs.
"Louie, finish your homework before you go out to play."
This was highly functional and you ended up with good scores and you got into Ohio State and you are a leader now. La de dah.
Now the very idea of Finishing Your Work is dysfunctional and must be destroyed. In college, you will be assigned more homework than can be done. Even if you spend 24 hours a day and take all the off-prescription Adderall and Ritalin you can get your hands on — even if you drain the local Starbucks — you still won't get this work done.
Therefore, a line must be drawn. And either that line is drawn at your complete exhaustion. Or that line is drawn leaving some room for play.
This is not just a recommendation for fun. Plato said, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of work." I will add you can learn more about yourself in an hour of play than in a year of work.
There was a belief given to you early on about playing nice with all the children. "Be nice, Louie. Make friends with everyone." That was a lovely belief at the time. Now is dysfunctional and must be destroyed.
Not everyone is worthy of your friendship.
How are friends created? Are they randomly generated as roommates or someone you might be sitting next to in class? Those are acquaintances and might become friends.
But learn how to quickly discriminate — not along gender, racial, religious, socio-economic, or sexual orientation lines — but discriminate against those people who bring you down, who encourage your worst behavior. Discriminate in favor of those who lift you, expanding your mind and helping you become your best self. Those people are worthy of being your friends and the others are to be avoided. That might sound cruel and soulless and sad, but unless those people are your project — someone you are working on helping — they are not worth your time.
Speaking of friends, leadership doesn't make a friend of everyone. Dale Carnegie's famous text is called, How To Win Friends And Influence People. Be prepared. It might actually be "How To Win Friends Or Influence People."
As in most subjects, we can learn from Shakespeare. In this case, let us consider the plight of the dread Richard III. Richard is a man who doesn't change his beliefs to match the times. Bred in war, we meet him in a time of new peace. But his beliefs are those of war: find enemies, kill them, conquer. His thirst for destruction is poorly suited for a time of love and growth.
(Spoiler alert: it doesn't end well for King Richard. He's the one who is left alone, calling out: "A horse. A horse. My kingdom for a horse.")
You come to college and enter a great time of love and growth.
Though we think you have come to college for your degree, because that is the belief that drove you here, what you will leave with, in the best of all cases, is some knowledge of yourself, and four or five really good friends. Those friends are what you came for.
And at the end of life, contrary to the beliefs we may hold valuable — what King Richard learns far too late — at the end of life, all we really have are our relationships. So do not confuse the subject matter of college. It is found in the books and the lectures, but it is also found within yourself during moments of solitude and it is found within your community, a community that craves your leadership, around these tables.
[A benediction for leaders.]
[Question time. During question time I mentioned the brilliant collaboration website hitRECord.org]
[Remind everyone of the voter registration materials.]