I remember the feeling when I waved goodbye to my parents as they left me at college. The opportunities. The possibilities. The freedom. And then came the mistakes.
Sleeping in and missing a class (or two). Having too much to drink at a party and totally throwing up on a cop’s shoes. Getting a D on a test. Pledging a fraternity and within three weeks dropping out. Running for a position on student government and losing, by a lot. There were times where I felt overwhelmed. Times when stress took over and I just wanted to sleep. Times when I felt like I just couldn’t do “college” right.
Then I realized there’s no right or wrong way to “college” – you just have to experience it.
Looking back there are a ton of things I would tell myself to do differently. But then I wouldn’t have learned as much. Learned about myself and my worth, about my abilities and my potential, about life and relationships. We’ve all failed. Being in college is about failing (hopefully not in classes though – you need to get that degree).
As a total comic nerd there’s an amazing line in Avengers: Endgame when Thor is talking with his mom and she tells him:
“Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be. A measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they
succeed at being who they are.”
You see that’s the thing – too many of us try to be something we aren’t. We are not perfect, and that’s amazing. We all have failures – and it’s time to own them and learn from them.
All of this being said, with the start of the academic year right around the corner, I thought I provide some anecdotal pieces of advice. Take it or leave it, but you’re the one still reading so you must be relating to something I am saying:
What’s something that scares you the most? For some it’s public speaking, for others, it’s being alone, and for some, it’s the fear of failure. It seems like we’re too afraid to fail and too scared to show our flaws or imperfections. But that’s not life, that’s not real. What if, and just go with me on this, what if when we fail, we succeed?
You’ve heard it before: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Ugh, I despise that question. And even though it makes perfect sense on a motivational poster, what if it actually demotivates us? Of course, you’d try anything and everything if you knew you could not fail! And while the whole concept is ideal, I postulate that the reason we don’t try is that we are worried we will fail. I know some people who are afraid of a project failing, so they never start. I call it the “analysis paralysis.” We feel so burdened by all of the possibilities that we opt never to try one and move on to the next. We’ve become so paralyzed, so fearful of failure, that we don’t see it as what it is meant to be – a possibility. What’s that saying? “The possibilities are endless.” It’s true, and so are failures.
I remember the first day of English my sophomore year in high school. My teacher greeted everyone with “Good morning, and welcome to English – at some point in this class; I hope you all fail.” As a fairly decent student, I remember thinking to myself that this woman had lost all her marbles! Here we have a teacher, whose purpose is to educate the next generation of great thinkers, hoping we fail?! Not until later did I understand what she meant. She wanted everyone to fail because at that point something magical happens – you learn.
Believe it or not, what if I told you that you have failed thousands upon thousands of times in your life already? I guarantee there’s an embarrassing home video of you learning to walk because there is nothing funnier than watching a wobbly toddler bobbing around milk drunk, and then falling down. But then what happens? They get back up. And they try again. And they get better. Whether it’s crawling, walking, riding a bike, reading, or writing, no one is perfect when they start.
Taking the notion that no one is perfect, what if we could own our imperfections? And in our imperfections, what if we tried new things? And by trying new things, what if we fail? Wait, what if we fail? So, what?!?! The best part about trying new things is figuring out what you like, what you don’t like; what you’re meant to do, what you’re not meant to do; what potential you have in something you had no idea existed. There’s freedom in failure. There’s self-discovery.
Next time you fail, don’t think of it as a setback. Think of it as a fail forward. You’ll be happy you tried and failed.
I remember attending conferences as a student leader. I represented my chapter at fraternity conventions as president, and I represented my community as an officer on IFC. Years later I would take students to conferences so they could have an eye-opening experience to bring back to campus. Now I serve as a speaker and lead sessions at conferences across the nation to help inspire the students like I used to be. With a couple of decades under my belt of attending these conferences, allow me to give you some tips, tricks and hacks to make conferences and conventions a little more manageable.
Grande Coffee, Venti Knowledge
If you’re anything like me, before you can properly tackle the day and deal with other people, you might need a little nectar of the Gods pick-me-up in the morning. However, the lines can be downright atrocious. If you’re not a fan of the hotel room coffee maker and simply must have your morning fix, head down first thing in the morning before you get ready. I usually pop down as soon as they open and order my coffee extra hot – that way when I take it back to my room and get dressed to impress it’s at a regular temperature when I need it. Plus I’ve avoided the asinine line that always forms 30 minutes before the opening session. (Extra tip for #AFLVCentral attendees: when you order your coffee extra hot, head over to the College Moxie booth across from Starbucks to get your coffee sleeve).
Mind your gap to plan your day
There are a plethora of sessions at conferences that will interest you. However, take a moment to review the sessions and pick ones that will challenge your way of thinking. Identify areas where your knowledge isn’t as deep and you could learn more, maybe about a different council. If you are attending a joint conference such as #AFLVCentral and #NBCLG or #AFLVWest and #NCGLC, there are amazing opportunities to do this. If you are a member of an IFC or Panhellenic organization, this is a great chance to show your peers from other councils that you’re interested in learning more about NPHC, NALFO, NAPA, MGC, UFSC, or vice versa. You can also learn more about planning your day from CAMPUSPEAK’s Conference Impact Guide.
Your Friends Will Still Be Your Friends
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the size and crowds at a conference. When we feel this way we immediately gravitate to our comfort zone – our campus delegation. However, I cannot stress the importance of introducing yourself to others that are not on your campus.
Take Notes (actual notes)
For some, this might seem odd but just go with me for a second. Research has shown (NPR article, 2016) that students who take physical notes during lectures retain the information better. This is because you’re taking the content and breaking it down in such a way that makes sense for you, rather than just typing notes. Plus, the clickety-clackity of typing notes is distracting…
In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” It’s incredibly easy to get caught up making sure our social media game is on point and we’re posting about all of the incredible things we’re learning or heard keynote speakers say, or maybe we just look fly AF and want to capture that moment too – however the experience can’t be summed up in a tweet or post or filter. Allow yourself the chance to truly experience the education and knowledge being dropped.
Think Outside the Box
You might find yourself in a workshop and wondering how in the world you could apply what you’re learning to your position or campus. Don’t get stuck or fixated on the exact words of presenters. Think about the concepts or spirit of the presentation and how you could adapt it for your position or campus.
Reflect, Plan, Shift
At the end of the conference be sure to set aside some time to reflect on the overall experience. Look back at your notes, compare your notes and sessions with others that attended the conference, and determine what you were inspired by and how you could incorporate concepts into your role as a leader. Keep in mind that you not everyone on campus had the same impactful experience you did – so they might be resistant to some new ideas. But remember: shift happens. You can’t make every change you want, and you might even fail a few times. Go back to your notes, the delegation that attended the conference, or the friends you met at the conference for inspiration. You got this.
– – –
I also asked the staff over at the Association of Fraternal Leadership & Values, the awesome people who put on #AFLVCentral, #NBGLC, #AFLVWest and #NCGLC, for some of their thoughts and here’s what they shared:
I remember being a college student not too long ago, and I thought I was busy running around being involved and keeping my grades up, but I had nothing on today’s college student. Their email signatures read more like the preface of a novel, with a checklist of leadership roles, organization involvement, honors and accolades.
In a day and age when we encourage students to get involved and to try everything, I think we’ve done a disservice. We’ve encouraged students to get their feet so wet with everything that they never really try to dive deep with anything.
When you go to the pool you tend to dip your toes in the water to see what the temperature is like. And if it feels good, maybe you cannonball into that thing like there’s no tomorrow. Maybe you ease your way in via the stairs and incredibly hot metal hand bar. I’m willing to bet at some point you go all the way in – truly immersing yourself in the water.
The same is true in organization involvement. When you come to campus most students are bombarded at an organization fair of some sort, receiving countless of flyers and signing up for interest lists of hundreds of organizations. It’s overwhelming – an extroverts dream and an introverts nightmare. From the get-go we show students all of their possibilities without talking about any sense of time management or specific values or interests first.
Because we, the college campus, have told them to try everything and get involved so you feel like you belong. We created the ball of stress and turned it loose upon the unsuspecting kittens. But what we haven’t done is given students the freedom to fail, or given them the permission to not be perfect, or given them the permission to simply be truly involved and engaged in one or two organizations. We, the college campus, often lift up the same dozen student leaders as beacons and examples of leadership. We’ve set up everyone to keep up with the Jones’s, when in fact the Jones’s would like to scale back, but feel like they have to keep up with you.
What if, when you wade in the water of involvement for just a little bit to see if you like the temperature, you chose one or two things you’d like to truly dive deep and immerse yourself? Rather than doing laps around people who aren’t even trying to race, what it you appreciated who you’re with and what you’re doing? Slow down. Look around. Focus. Do you like what you see, who you’re with, what you’re doing? Are you taking up too much space in the shallow water? What if you dive into the deep end, picking the perfect spot to do so?
There is a pop-up museum in Los Angeles called the Museum of Failure. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling failures, filled with testaments of attempted successes and abysmal failures. As I walked around, it was amazing to see inventions that never really “made it” and to discover the Oreo flavors that I never knew existed. All of this, all of these supposed failures, got me thinking – “at least someone tried.”
But it’s nothing like the old quote “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” If you knew you couldn’t fail would you ever actually learn something new? It isn’t knowing that you can’t fail that’s stopping you – it’s fear of failure. But what if each time you failed, you learned? Think about learning to walk. You fell down thousands of times, but you eventually got the hang of it. Inventions rarely start as successes, there are a plethora of attempts and refinements made to make a final product. Things take time, but it’s perseverance and a willingness to learn that move us from failure to learning.
The same concept can be applied to leadership. Here are a few ways we can learn from failure in our organizations, and truly fail forward:
Pass the power, not the blame.
I remember being president of my fraternity and finally being able to use the all-powerful gavel to call meetings to order. Whether it was to adjourn a meeting or to get a roomful of guys to quiet down, I used it often. Sometimes too often, and I let that power and authority go to my head. Then the next president, in his first meeting, decided to pass the gavel to another member in the chapter and have him use it to keep track of time during discussions. He passed the symbol of power and leadership to another member of the fraternity in an effort to involve more people, so it wasn’t just the leaders at the front of the room.
Think outside the box.
We do the same events, semester after semester, year after year. Rarely do we make any changes to the event, where it happens, or what we do. It’s the same philanthropy, the same social, and the same formal. It gets mundane for our members. We’re not trying anything new because that takes work, and people may not like it. When I was a fraternity/sorority advisor, I had a sorority come to me complaining that all of the socials with the fraternities were the same: pregame, bus to event, dance floor with a DJ, and bus back. They told me they wished a fraternity would be more creative. And someone overheard that – the next month the fraternity approached the sorority to do an afternoon carnival. No alcohol, no buses, no DJ. Just bounce houses, sno cones, and a life size inflatable foosball court. For about the next three years members of both chapters would repeatedly say how much fun that one social event was because it was different. And, because someone thought outside the box of our usual events.
The Rule of 3%.
I believe that we, as leaders, should only strive to create 3% change while we’re in office. Only 3%? Yes, you read that correctly. Sounds silly right? We dream big as leaders, and when we fail, we take it hard, often forgoing any more attempts to do something new or innovative. Go with me on this – rather than trying to shift everything in our chapters or councils, implementing whatever new programs/events/policies/etc. we can think of in order to leave our mark – what if we just focused on shifting little things to make them better? If you made your organization 3% better this year, and next year’s leaders focused on 3% as well, then you’ve made 6% change in two years. All it takes is a little bit of change. A little bit of trying. A little bit of failure. And a little bit of learning. It all adds up.
Trying is easy. Failure is a given. Learning takes practice. But in the midst of trying and failing and learning, you’re moving forward and becoming better.