I recently heard Anthony Robbins say that as long as you have your attention on other people, and as long as you are making a difference for others, there is no way you can possibly be depressed.
He is so right. This past week, despite contracting a norovirus that gave me serious gastrointestinal distress as well as flu-like symptoms, I was in as good a mood as I’ve been in in a long time. Why? I was making a difference for a group of low-income high school students at College Summit, a national program that supports young leaders to create a culture where kids go to college.
I’m like a proud mother when it comes to the small group of four “peer leaders” I worked with in Berkeley. Every one of them surprised me in their own way. Let me kvell just a little (names are changed for confidentiality)!
Keylon wrote his first two “free writing” exercises about topics like his relationships with girls and how he was going to find one that would make him be the man he wants to be. I feared he was bland and would not identify a relevant topic for his college admissions essay. On a break, however, he shared his real story—a story about abuse and how he turned to destructive behaviors and friends to compensate for his pain. It was also the story of how he changed direction, in part through a music program that saved his life.
Keylon’s story surprised me when it came forth, and so did how industrious and focused a student he was. When I gave him questions to answer in writing, he sat down and didn’t stop until he was done. And when it came time to edit his essay, he was able to devise seamless transitions where they had been missing, and to cut out excess words without my even pointing out the spots where he could do so. Keylon says he wants to be a singer, and perhaps he will succeed. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds his stride as an editor!
Keylon was also a great sport when we got realistic with him about his college choices. His top choices were out of his reach, and he needed to consider community college options. He adjusted course without protest or external upset. We could all learn a thing or two from this young man about acceptance and adaptation.
Jaquon had a sweetness to him and a clear, passionate life purpose under his non-plussed attitude. On the first day, he slumped down in his chair, hood over head, clearly not 100% enthusiastic about being asked to write … anything. His first free write was not about much, and I had to remind him multiple times over the 10-minute time period to keep writing. Initially he would not volunteer to answer a question and would only participate if I called on him directly (though he always had something great to say when I did).
Jacquon’s second free write was the big surprise. A saxophone player, he hit on the theme of music, and I’m telling you, it was pure poetry. He called music a “20-20 all access path…” and spoke about his purpose in life being to connect with people off all cultures through his gift. This goal was not just a pipe dream; Jacquon has already performed both in concert halls and on the street in the U.S. and abroad.
Jacquon mentioned in his essay that he gets nervous when playing only because he is afraid people won’t connect with his music. When I asked him what it would be like for him if they didn’t connect with his music, his answer popped out: “It would be like I don’t exist.”
An excerpt: “[I] put my all into every breath, note and melodic phrase so that whoever hears that will feel my passion, my struggle, my story, and my dreams.”
That’s a man with a life purpose. A purpose, when not fulfilled, that makes him feel like he doesn’t exist. If only every one of us had one so clear.
Rodrigo was my volleyball captain. He was a meticulous, methodical worker who edited himself as he wrote.
The core story that emerged from Rodrigo’s free writes was about his father, who recently started working as a janitor in Rodrigo’s school. Although Rodrigo had weathered various insults as a volleyball captain for being short and young, he had a thick skin—until the insults started being aimed toward his father. Rodrigo wrote about how his father had taught him to stay positive and not judge others, and how ultimately he used what his father had taught him to rise above his anger toward his insulting classmates.
Another thing that came out of Rodrigo’s writing was that he liked to make up words and had a penchant for metaphor. In one of his last drafts, his creativity emerged in a surprise conclusion: “I’m like a volleyball. You may kick me, push me around, hit me, or abandon me, but in the end I’m still persevering and surviving the ugliest actions against me.”
Eager to participate and answer questions, Talisha was fast out of the gate but as the writing process went on, she somehow found a way to look like she was working when she really was spinning her wheels. I gave her what I thought were clear questions and instructions and she would nod and put her pen to paper, but 10 minutes later she would not have made progress.
In my mind, we finally reached a growth point when Talisha realized that growing up as the middle of two sisters and taking care of both of them gave her management skills that have helped her in her production design projects at school. I’m not sure I’ll ever see the essay she writes on this topic though, since she only saw this connection for herself literally at the last hour.
Really the biggest surprise from Talisha was what she told me at the end of the program: that I helped her learn things about herself that she might never have known—not just on the last day, but from the time we started doing free writing exercises. And all that time I thought she was refusing to let me make a difference for her.
As I mentioned, there was a norovirus that went around and knocked out almost every one of the writing coaches in the program for some period of time. I barely made it through my part of the Saturday night banquet presentations—but it was worth it to hear Rodrigo say in front of the entire program, “Your joyous, encouraging, and gentle nature brought us to fully understand how and what to write … [and] created a bond within our group that will never be forgotten.
I will definitely not forget the experience I had with these motivated leaders from the East Bay. And I will be back next year.