Hacked By Imam with Love
My wife asked me recently if I thought I was successful. I thought about it for a minute and I said, “No…not yet.” August 17th was my two-year anniversary of being out on my own with my speaking/coaching business. In the past two years I have doubled the amount of speeches that I did before being solo. I actually have coaching clients, whereas before I just said I was coach but did not actually have anyone I was working with. I am married to a brilliant woman who loves the hell out of me and together we parent two adorable puppies, Kyra and Sophie (note: they are 4 and 6, but they will always be puppies). Jacqueline has a great job and with our combined incomes, we are able to live comfortably in a beautiful home built in the 1800’s. Oh, and I just wrote a book. But when asked if I am successful, I have the audacity to say, “no.”
I personally suffer from what’s known as ambition. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you have it, too. It’s a pretty cool thing. Here’s how it works, I think of something I think would be really cool and meaningful to do, and then I figure out how I can do it for a long time. I sometimes also try to figure out how to monetize it, though that is not always necessary or the purpose.
The brain is a fascinating place, however. There are two sides to everything. So, for me, what also comes along with ambition are the feelings of: not being successful, wanting to do or be more, and not being enough. It also means that sometimes I take my relationship and my beautiful home for granted – I do not prioritize them enough. It means that the idea of having children is even scarier than it already is for most because of my selfishness for what I want to be and do. I am sure I will eventually write longer posts about each of these things because they each deserve more time and words but to keep this post reasonable I am going to attempt to stick to one point – feeling successful.
We are all climbing a mountain. At the top is our ideal version success, our definition of forever happiness, our dreams. For few the peak is clear. They know exactly what they are striving for and what their end goal looks like. For most of us, however, the peak is covered in some light clouds. We have idea of what’s up there and what we want our lives to look and feel like, but for the most part we are climbing toward an idea of our ideal. The steps that we are taking today – gaining confidence, developing competence, getting promotions, hitting goals, shaking hands and kissing babies/developing connections – are all ways that show we are climbing.
The advice that I give others that I rarely, if ever, listen to myself is that every once in a while you must stop, turn around, and look at how far you have climbed. Take a moment and realize that you have done more than you thought you had. Maybe you have even done more than you thought you could. Treat yourself, pat yourself of the back, be proud of yourself for a moment. Then turn around and get back to climbing. Get back to climbing because settling is one of the worst things we can do in our lives and, since you have made it this far up I know you are capable of more. Keep climbing your mountain and try not to worry about where others are on their mountain. Comparing yourself to others too much is just not healthy and you don’t know their story, their background, or their struggles which highly influence where they started their climb.
For me, however, I just keep climbing. I have my head down and I refuse to recognize my success. I have no idea how far I’ve come and even if you told me how far I’ve climbed I’d be quick to point out that because of my privilege I was able to start at a higher elevation than many others. Because of where and how I was raised combined with the color of my skin and the fact that I’m a man, I got a free helicopter ride to a higher elevation where I then started my journey from. So let’s not applaud mediocrity, is how I feel.
Fortunately I have people in my life that force me to stop and think about what I have accomplished from time to time. I am grateful to these individuals and a lot of the time I try and believe what they say to me – but I get in my own way too much so I am not very good at that.
How about you? Are you successful? How do your determine whether you are or not? Who do you have on your team and in your life that supports and encourages you? Who reminds you to reflect on what you have accomplished?
We are all climbing our own mountain. But every once in a while let’s take a moment to turn around and look back at how far we have come. Look back at it. Be proud of yourself – allow yourself to feel successful for a little while. Success is not only at the top, it has been occurring throughout your journey…whether you chose to admit it or not. Whether I chose to admit it or not
What if you could spend a moment each day saving a life? I’m in no way implying that it’s expected of you to be a superhero that flies around, saving people from danger each and every turn, but I am asking you to be a different kind of superhero. What if you were the kind that could save them just by looking at them?
I have always bought whole-hog into the phrase “the eyes are the window to the soul” and feel there is something deeper there. There’s a reason why people don’t maintain eye contact as well as they could when communicating with others. You mess up as a kid, smashed a baseball through a window or didn’t perform as well as expected on an exam. You come to your parent or legal guardian afraid to face them, perhaps even head facing downward. You might argue that you couldn’t even bear looking at them in the eye because you knew that you had failed them in some way. Other times its just nervousness or fear. Some of it is “If I lock eyes with this person, then they’ll see my secret” (I think if you wear glasses or contacts, then you get a leg up on peoples superpowers, it’s a little harder to get through your “wall”). What if you could be a superhero for others with your eyes?
I couldn’t tell you all the moments when I have had people save me, far too many to count. I will spend a lifetime thanking others for just looking at me when I needed it most. It could be in high school standing in a huddle before a big play. It could be when I was up & ready to quit my job to start a burrito restaurant and at that moment having a student or staff member look me in the eye and help me realize that me and all my thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, fears matter in this world. It could be anything you want it to be. To me, it’s hard to describe this sentiment of appreciation in any other way than thanking them for being a “lifesaver” or call these moments “lifesavers.” A personal superhero that has helped me pick myself up and dust off. Bear with me here. I’m not mocking the struggles that others face each day, each person has their own journey, but its essential to examine how we open ourselves up to others and allow others to feel like they can open up to us.
Often times its too easy to walk past the person asking you to spare a dollar or a person that you pass in the hallway and offer a half-hearted greeting and “how’re you doing?” as you mosey on throughout your day. What if that wasn’t the case? What if you made a point to spend just one time a day to look someone square in the eyes and, better yet, tell them what they mean to you. To take the chance on looking them in the eye, sharing a breath, and a conscious moment of empathy and happiness that says “HEY! I SEE YOU! YOU MATTER TO THIS WORLD!” The world is a strange and scary place. What if you did something a little less scary and helped someone not feel so alone in it, if even for a moment?
James Crawford serves as a Coordinator of Greek Life at Vanderbilt University and is a graduate of the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of South Carolina and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington where he majored in Athletic Training. James is a member of The Delta Chi Fraternity and enjoys spending time with his fiancée, his corgi named Pancake, and loves photography. He has a blog that he loves to write about leadership and life at https://darwinizms.wordpress.com/ and follow him on Twitter!
Got to love the emergency exit row on the plane, aka “1st class for the working class.” I’m what you would call an “extra healthy” American so I greatly appreciate the extra legroom. Call me weird but getting my knees crushed milliseconds after takeoff by a rambunctious seat recline by the 5’2” middle-aged kindle-reading individual in front of me is not my idea of comfort.
The exit row comes with its responsibilities, though. You have to read the safety brochure to know how to throw the door out and you have to get the rafts floating. You have to actually pay attention to the flight attendant safety briefing because they give you extra guilty looks if you don’t. One of the most disregarded parts of the emergency exit row experience is the question they ask you before taxiing to the runway: “Are you willing and able to help out in case of an emergency?”
That question got me thinking…what if we asked a very similar question to students and our newer employees?
“Are are you willing and able to lead?”
I am very fortunate, I get to speak to thousands of individuals every year and one of the questions I most consistently get asked when I speak at colleges is, “We have a lot of students in our organization who are not stepping up and taking leadership roles when they are available. So what should we do?”
Let’s have a quick moment of honesty; not every student or newer employee is ready to be a leader, at least in the capacity or at the time that we may want/need them to be. And that is OK! Please note: this means students and new employees should still be sought out and empowered to take leadership roles but we need to realize not everyone is looking or ready for that experience. So you need to use your time and resources wisely. That is why I think we need to ask: Are you willing and able to lead? Let’s break that down.
First: Student/Newer employee, are you willing to lead? When we ask this question we are also asking the following questions: Are you excited to lead? Do you have a vision? Do you care enough to prioritize this role? Are you prepared to hold others accountable? Are you ready to make potentially unpopular decisions?
Second:Student/Newer employee, are you able to lead? In asking this question we are also inquiring: Do you have adequate time in your schedule for this? What other leadership experience do you have or have you observed? How do you handle conflicts? Are you good at saying “no?” How do you handle politics and straddling the line of appeasing those above you and pushing your organization’s agenda?
All of a student/newer employee’s answers do not need to be perfect or fully flushed out. There is a lot of value in attempting to lead and struggling at it, as a way of experiential learning. Also, as we all know, we are good at getting in our own way and sometimes we need someone to motivate us to try something new. A good advisor can tell the difference between students who will be overwhelmed by a position and students who are just unsure of themselves. I firmly believe that student/newer employee’s roles are a valuable “leadership residency,” equivalent to a medical residency – just with less blood…hopefully. But rarely do we ask the questions above before a student is in their position. If we did, we, as supervisors and advisors, would be better at setting up our organizations for success because we bring expectations to where there is blind optimism, more concrete thoughts to dreams, and the idea time management into seemingly never-full-enough calendars. If we approached our teams differently, we would see an increase in forethought among our students individually and collectively, as well as a likely decrease in burnout among our student leaders and newer employees.
Supervisors, advisors, and experienced student leaders, it is time to have more honest conversations with your newer employees, students, and peers, respectively, before they take on leadership positions. A little more work upfront will better set up our organizations and communities for greatness. We should ask would-be (or should-be) interested students and newer employees: Are you willing and able to lead?
There are many ways to build clout as a leader. You can be intelligent and competent, have a record of success, talk the talk and walk the walk, get praise from others who are respected, etc. But I think there is one often-overlooked way to earn respect: be relatable.
If you are a “Humans of New York” fan as I am, perhaps you already saw the picture and caption below. Either way, it deserves another look/read because I think it is a perfect example of the power of relatability.
As you can already guess, I LOVE THIS. This teacher gets it. That last line, “And I want them to know that I cared about them before there was a problem.” gives me goosebumps. Tough conversations are bound to happen. However, if you earned the respect of your team, students, and/or children by putting in the work to connect with them and meet them where they are, those conversations are met with more open minds and less resistance.
As a leader it is imperative we remind those around us that we are human. It is also crucial we remind ourselves those around us are humans, too. If we do not, then we place unrealistic expectations on our team and wonder why there is a lack of motivation to go the extra mile. A good friend of mine, CEO of Sunshine Brands and author of CARE Leadership, Peter Van Stralen, recently said, “Care for your teams’ wellbeing and they will care for yours.”
Striving to be more relatable looks different for every population, but it is worth the work. Here are some things I do that students I speak to say they appreciate: I listen to Taylor Swift’s latest album, try to have an educated opinion about the NBA and NHL playoffs, I am on Pinterest.com to see modern design and fashion trends, I use their slang, and I like and listen to “trap music” and “EDM.” Not all of these things I care deeply about, but if you do not like Taylor Swift, we may have “bad blood” (#nailedit). Please note: you do not have to make your student, supervisee, or child’s passion your passion. But you must at least be open to learning and/or experiencing it.
How do you intentionally connect with others you work with? What steps do you take to let others know you are human? If you have not tried to be relatable, what roadblocks keep you stuck in your lane? Who is someone in your life that let you in a little and now you respect him or her more because of it?
Be that person for someone. Be relatable.
I am super excited to say that they TEDx talk I did in Tucson back in December is now live! I hope you will watch it and share it if you think it’s an idea worth spreading! Here it is:
I recently was on a flight from Chicago to Charleston to perform in the Charleston Comedy Festival with my hip-hop improv team, North Coast. While on the flight I met a new airplane friend, Estelle. For those of you who don’t know, whenever I fly I attempt to strike up a plane-ride-long conversation with my seat partner. I document their stories on my blog here.
Estelle works in the corporate offices of a major fertilizer company – not at all where she thought she would be working. She asked what I do and I told her about how I speak to college and corporate audiences about authentic leadership and networking and how, this past year, I got into personal coaching. I finished by saying, “there is something special about doing what you love.” Estelle thought about this for a minute and then responded with, “I guess I am not doing what I love, but I love what I do.”
Some may look at that quote and think, “well, when life hands you lemons…” First off, I like lemons, so I prefer to say, “When life hands me douchebags, I make witty comebacks.” Secondly, I did not hear her quote that way. I saw her quote as a statement about how we can find happiness in unexpected places – as long as we are open to it.
Thinking about and pursuing your dream job is fine, but allowing yourself to think that’s the only way you’ll be happy is constrictive at best. On the path to your supposed dream job you are going to climb to a bunch of different platforms. Some of those platforms are not going to be related at all to what you studied or to what you thought you would be doing. They will be in different place then you ever thought you would live, and you will be surrounded by people you would never pick out of a lineup to be friends with. Will you be open to happiness when that happens?
The phases we go through when we transition are cyclical. Here’s what I think they are:
- Call your parents or your friends from the last place you lived/worked and cry.
- Post on social media about your woes and how stupid things are where you now live/work.
- Suck it up.
- Put yourself out there.
- Find happiness.
- Post on social media about how awesome your life is and how cool things are where you now live/work.
- Learn about new opportunities.
- Take a risk
- Move to the next platform
In my opinion, if you never get to step 3, this thing called life is going to be quite hard for you and you are going to need to get over yourself. If you never get to step 4 then you are destined to be perpetually closed-minded and you will miss out opportunity and growth that lies in interacting with new people and trying new things. When we do not put ourselves out there then we settle, and there is a HUGE difference between being happy and settling.
One of my favorite quotes by Anonymous is, “Happiness is only place that you can visit but the smartest people go there often.” Estelle is not at all where she thought she would be and working in an industry she had no dreams of working in, but she is happy. Finding happiness in every stage of life is the key, and if you cannot then it’s either time to put yourself out there or move on. If you don’t, get ready to live a life full of what if’s, could of’s, and should of’s. Never settle.
What a significant time to be a student affairs professional! The past few weeks have been a very eye-opening time in the United States. I hope you have not turned a blind eye to it. Race relations and systematic oppression are still a prevalent issue in the land of the free and home of the brave. The two most recent injustices, the tragic loss of the lives of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of law enforcement, showcase the work that still needs to be done.
(Please note: Students, though this message is directed at your advisors and supervisors, I hope you still read it. Feel free to forward it to administrators on your campuses to start a dialogue on how they can better advocate for you. Or, send it to the administrators who have been active allies, to thank them.)
A relative at Thanksgiving Dinner asked me, “Are you ever concerned that putting your views on the internet would have negative ramifications for your business?” At first, I was a taken aback by his inquiry, but trust he had my best interest in mind. My answer, paraphrased, was: “NO.” No, I am not concerned that putting my views about high-profile, social matters will impact my business. In fact, if the core of my messaging to student leaders and professionals is about the importance of being authentic, then I had better be practicing what I am preaching (respectfully at the appropriate time and place) regardless of fear of being challenged, disliked, or losing business. I want and need to be a role model for standing up for what you believe is right.
I am not interested in stunting my morals to stay in my comfortable place of privilege, to sit on the fence and not show my hand, or to placate anyone. I AM interested in standing up for what I believe in through educated dialogue. I AM interested in challenging others’ flippant, uneducated, and frequently ill-informed remarks and jokes. I AM interested in using my own platform and audience, which I am eternally grateful for, to bring awareness, understanding, and action to these important issues. I AM interested in pushing you to find your voice of advocacy.
So, what about you? What do you advocate for? How do you use your platform? These past few weeks, have you spoken up? Or, do you hide your eyes during those awkward silences when a tense topic is brought up in staff meeting? Do you ask questions to become better informed? Do you do your own research? Do you listen to or read other’s perspectives (including varying news sources)? Or, do you flip through Instagram and try not to look at the person of color in the room?
As most of us know, one of the most widely accepted student development theories out there is Sanford’s Challenge and Support Theory (1962). In short, it states that for growth to occur in a student, the appropriate balance must be struck between challenging and supporting that individual. For a more thorough summary of his theory, check out this great article (don’t worry I won’t tell your grad professors you looked).
When it comes to advocacy I think student affairs professionals fall into 1 of 3 teams:
- Team Avoidance: I see there’s a social justice issue but I am choosing to do nothing about it. I am looking forward to the meetings I have scheduled when the protests and dialogues are occurring. I will not educate myself about the matter at hand or process how I feel about it.
- Team Encouragement: I will encourage my students to speak up if they would like to about the social justice issue but I will leave myself out of it because I want to cover my ass and not make waves. I will potentially attend protests and dialogues, if they fit in my schedule, but I will stand in the back. I may educate myself about the matter at hand and process how I feel about it.
- Team Action: I will discuss candidly with my students why the social justice issue is just that, an issue. I will respectfully and intelligently speak about the issue around my fellow Student Affairs professionals. I will move meetings to stand WITH students at protests and dialogues. I have educated myself about the issue and will continue to do so while processing how I feel about it.
So, which team are you on? I find that a lot of the student affairs professionals I have interacted with are somewhere on Team Encouragement. They hide behind the “challenge and support” theory and say they are their for their students but these SA pros rarely put themselves out there and stand up for what they believe.
What I am trying to figure out is, what keeps more of us from being on Team Action? It drives me NUTS to attend a social justice-related dialogue or protest students are putting on and seeing administrators standing around the outside or in the back. What is stopping you from being WITH your students? Is it fear? Are people afraid of ruffling the administration’s feathers and losing their jobs? Or is it a lack of education or training? Are individuals not confident in their ally abilities?
Athlete Ally founder and activist, Hudson Taylor, recently tweeted: “Ally 101: Understand your privilege. Do your homework. Speak up, not over. Apologize for mistakes. Know that being an ally requires action.”
We ALL, as student affairs professionals, have a responsibility to educate ourselves about issues that effect the members of our communities. It is an exciting time to to stand up and speak out against a flawed system and learned biases that are preventing everyone on our campuses and in our country from feeling safe and hopeful. So, I ask again, what team are you currently on? What team do you want to be on? Educate yourself and feel free to switch teams when you are ready to stand up for what is right.
Sincerely, your colleague,
James T. Robilotta
When is the last time you said that to yourself? I know I want to say it to myself all of the time but then I remember how much other’s opinions of me play into my daily life…and then I beat myself up about that…and then someone tells me I’m a good guy and I’m fine again, for awhile. Our minds can be quite the bastion for twisted self-defeatist thoughts. The stories we tell ourselves sometimes serve as excellent roadblocks to where we wish we were. It’s on that note that I want you to hear about Devonte.
Devonte (pictured) is a 12 year old boy “who was born into a life of drugs, extreme poverty, danger and destined for a bleak future,” as was stated in this Huffington Post article. When he was five, he was adopted by Jen Hart and her wife Sarah. I encourage you to read that linked article to hear more about his remarkable story.
One story about Devonte his mother, Jen, recounted was the following interaction he had at a grocery store earlier this month:
An elderly man was standing at the end of the bagging area conversing with the woman checking us out. He spots our son — looks him up and down.
Man: I can tell you are going to be a baseball player when you grow up.
Devonte: *Pauses, tilts his head and gives a closed mouth grin* Actually, no. Baseball isn’t really my thing.
Man: Well, I can tell you are going to be a ball player.
Devonte: (As his mom, I can tell there is a slight frustration inside of him) No, I don’t even play baseball.
Checkout lady: Oh, I bet you’re going to be a basketball or soccer player then!
Devonte: No, I don’t play any sports. It’s just not my thing. There’s nothing wrong with sports or anything, I just have other interests.
Checkout lady: (in a befuddled nearly astonished voice) WHAT!?!? I have NEVER met a kid that looks(!!!) like you that doesn’t play sports.
Man: *chuckling* Right?! Never. They all do!
***My face was as red as my hair at this point. It was so obviously clear what was happening. While I wanted so badly to step in and protect my son from the ongoing racial stereotyping, I didn’t. I let him step into his own power and he handled it brilliantly***
Devonte: Well, of course you’ve never met a kid like me. I’m one of a kind. There’s not another person like me.
Man: Well, what do you want to be when you grow up?
Devonte: I’m here to help people. I’m here to inspire. Now.
Man: Oh, so you’re going to be a doctor? (as he laughed while he said it — not kidding)
Devonte: No, I’m not.
Man: Well, being a doctor is the best way to help people. What are you going to do to help and inspire people?
Devonte: (putting the last of the bags in the cart) I’m going to be myself. No matter how much people try to make me something I am not. Have a great night! *flashes ginormous smile*
My first impression after reading that was, my dude, Devonte, is a boss! The second thing I thought was, the poise and patience that he demonstrated while positively educating those close-minded adults is something that I need to practice. My third thought was, I am stealing the s#!t out of this and writing a blog. Reason being, what Devonte said in his last point is something we all need to say to ourselves from time to time.
Last weekend I had the distinct honor of emceeing and speaking at the National Conference on Student Leadership (NCSL) in Orlando. While there I debuted a new workshop for professionals about the ever-elusive work/life balance and the importance of having a life outside of work and home. Besides maintaining our own sanity, the main reason I think this is important is so that we have more stories to tell, more experiences to pull from when we try and educate or role model for others. I asked the professionals in the room a question that I will now ask you:
What is the story you tell your students vs. the story you tell yourself vs. the actual story?
Now, not all of you have students, but hopefully in some capacity you consider yourself an educator. Whether you’re a parent, supervisor, student leader, peer, co-worker, etc., we all have the ability to pass on knowledge and develop those around us. Alas, I digress.
So what is the story you tell you students? Is it the one you think they need to hear, the example of perfection? Is it the “professional” or “mature” angle? Do you play it safe and cover your butt? Do they think you have everything together and figured out?
How about the one you tell yourself? Do you ever give yourself the benefit of the doubt? Can you handle everything? Are you really going to get it all done on time and to the best of your abilities? Do you have anything figured out? Is this where you thought you’d be at your age?
So often in our lives we struggle between being professionals and normal people because of the great divide we put between the two. Internally we feel the dichotomy between having to be a professional who is getting everything done efficiently and effectively in the work place and telling others to do the same VERSUS being a person who is still trying to figure out who they want to be when they grow up and beating themselves up in the process.
I think that’s where the actual story comes in. Allow yourself to be human and live authentically. At appropriate times and places share your actual story with individuals you can impact. Try not to hold people to standards you yourself aren’t meeting and every once in a while give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Be like Devonte and say, “I’m going to be myself. No matter how much people, [or I] try to make me something I am not.”
I was asked in a recent interview, “What advice would you give to educators who want to inspire students?” In short, my answer was: Stop telling other people’s stories and start telling your own.
Soapbox time. One of my BIGGEST speaker pet peeves is when I hear a speaker quote Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, etc., etc. I think it’s easy, hack, and cliché. Educators, we are better than that. I personally feel it’s not the best use of my words because I am none of those people, and nor will ever I be. If I hear one more time that Michael Jordan got cut from his high school basketball team or that Wayne Gretsky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” I may boil over. Shout out to Steve Jobs, Henry David Thoreau, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Everyone who I have listed is amazing. They are heroes, societal game changers, the best at what they did, the most innovative, stupidly impressive and worthy of all of the respect and admiration they have.
But here is what we have to remember, mentors. Today’s students will become us before they become the world’s future heroes. Trying to inspire someone with one of the individuals above makes as much sense as trying to motivate a small boy who wants to be a lumberjack with Paul Bunyan’s story. It’s an amazing tale but it’s unrealistic. Instead, introduce that boy to the local logger who is climbing the ladder of success. Or maybe stop cutting down trees…but that’s a topic for another day.
Please note: I’m not saying we can’t have our mentees and our audiences dreaming big. I am saying that we need to give them realistic palpable examples and steps of how to chase down those dreams.
Quotes are an efficient and effective way to springboard into a point, but speakers who quote these people and then drop the mic are doing it wrong. It is only after we break down quotes and follow them up with examples relevant to our audience that we can lead an audience member to water and inspire her or him to drink.
We do that by telling our own stories, where we succeeded, where we slipped and what we learned from both. Inspiring students with personal and tangible examples of things like: creating change, following passion, being better leaders, making a difference, and/or being more socially and globally conscious will expose them to more substantial true-to-life approaches with to how to start.
Here is the kicker, my fellow educators; your story is good enough. Sometimes we feel the need to tell other’s stories because we are self-conscious about our own not having enough weight. Believe me, that’s the exact reason I spoke for free for 3-4 years. Spoiler alert friends: your story is plenty powerful and way more accessible and therefore will be way more effective in inspiring others than if you try and tell someone else’s. So, tell me your story.