Sunday, May 19, 2013

Academic Award Winners, The Medici Effect, and a Kenny Chesney Song

I recently had the extreme honor of speaking to the Truman State University Academic Honor Award recipients.  These young men and women were honored as the outstanding students in their respective disciplines.  I was asked to tell them what my liberal arts education has meant to me.

Now let me be perfectly clear here, this was the first Academic Honor Award ceremony I have ever attended.  Most of the winners had minors and/or double majors.  Some of the winners were honored as the outstanding student in two majors!  If statistics prove right, most of them will go on to earn advanced degrees.  I wondered for weeks what knowledge I had that would ever be of any use to them.

And then it hit me, for most of them, the career at which they will excel and be on the leading edge of, probably doesn't even exist yet.  So I gave them advice that would prepare them to spot and to act on the opportunities I can't even comprehend that will take them on their journey.

Here are the five things I think my liberal arts education taught me that far outweigh any class I have ever taken.

1. View Learning as a Lifetime Pursuit

Working with senior leaders and executives everyday I see that the individuals who excel in an area are the ones who are constantly honing their craft, be it technical or leadership.  I myself am far more energized when I am learning something new than when I am stuck in a rut doing the same thing over and over again.  And life with a toddler is certainly a constant learning experience.

2.  Don't Let Anyone Box You In

This one is particularly hard coming out of college when everyone asks you what school did you go to?  What was your major?  What was your GPA?  and What were your extracurricular activities?  All questions designed to put you in the box of "fits with us" or "doesn't."  Once you are in, people want to tag you as the "X" person.  Even if you HATE "X."  When you apply for a different position, the answer is always "but you don't have any experience in this area!"  Or worse yet, if you try that lateral position you will fall off the career ladder forever.

But this one is important.  You make your brand by the things you do, the questions you ask, and the attitude with which you do both.  Keep your attitude open to new things and you will never be boxed in.  I once heard someone explain it as "I can do anything for three months? Right?"  And you never know when that three month "detail" will turn out to lead you to your life's passion.

3.  Never Settle for Good Enough

I type my blog posts and work reports so I can go back and add, delete, move things around, etc.  For speeches and teaching, I write long hand on paper or note cards and am constantly changing right up until the last minute.  (As was demonstrated the night of my speech.)  When I am teaching a class that I will re-teach, I will make notes while participants are working on an exercise.  I have a running joke with my boss who thinks that this makes me a perfectionist.  I constantly point out that the sheer fact that it isn't perfect yet means I can't be a perfectionist.  But that was another blog post...

When I say never settle for good enough, I don't mean in a perfectionist-stressed out way.  I mean always push yourself a little out of your comfort zone to do something better than you did before.  Think of it as small steps forward, not a brick wall you can never climb.

4.  Learn to Build and Use Your Network

This is more than just your social media network.  It is also that teacher that you could always talk through an idea with.  That aunt who always has sage advice.  That friend who will listen night or day. Some call them your "Personal Board of Directors," but they really are an extension of your network.  Build them, cultivate the relationships, connect people who do not know each other, and let them help you in your pursuits.  It is often who knows "of" you and what they know that matters when your resume is one of hundreds.

5.  Constantly Strive to Make Connections Across Disciplines, Departments, and Projects to Innovate New Ideas.

The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson posits that "great innovative breakthroughs can be explained by the intersection of disciplines and cultures."  That is the essence of critical thinking, the foundation of the liberal arts education, and the skill that serves me daily, long after people have stopped asking me where I went to college and what my major was.  

When I look back over the last twenty years and reflect on my time at Truman State University, I am reminded of the lyrics to a Kenny Chesney song...

     A white frame house in a college town,
     A bunch of people always hanging around...
     We all went our separate ways,
     But I swear it seems like yesterday.

It is the people I met there who forever imprinted something in my heart and mind, it is the constant search for knowledge in a safe environment, and it is the ability to connect people and concepts that I treasure from those days.  

Until I was asked to give this speech, I had never really thought about my education in terms of being a "liberal arts" education.  Now, I realize I literally lucked into the best decision of my life.  I am thankful to the staff, faculty, students, and fellow alumni at Truman State University for the amazing insight I received through their request.  I congratulate the parents of the honorees on the intelligent and ambitious young people I met that night.  I wish the honorees the very best in the future (and that offer still stands if you haven't had time to take me up on it yet!).  And for the rest of you...I give you our secret to success in five simple steps.