In February I’ll be anchoring the 2014 Georgia Collegiate Leadership Conference as the closing speaker. The theme revolves around building a legacy, specifically as a student leader. It’s not an easy task, building a legacy in four (or five) short years, but it’s certainly possible. This post is a precursor to my talk on how to do just that.
Act I: Explore the Possibilities
You show up to college and get assigned a dorm room. Instantly surrounded by people and places you don’t know, you have all the freedom in the world to explore and become whoever you want to be. Class, parties, studying, and student organizations vie for your attention and are at your fingertips. Your campus map is your best friend and that excited nervousness (bordering on anxiety) becomes a regular feeling as you get to know the place you’ll call home for the next 4-5 years.
If you’re like me, your first semester or two will be a difficult transition. I managed to join a fraternity, develop quite the drinking habit, and land myself in jail in the first 3 months of being at school. The rest of my year was consumed by mandated counseling sessions, AA meetings (yes, that AA), visits to my probation officer, and the stark reality that one more slip up and I’d be kicked out of school for a year. You won’t be surprised to hear that it wasn’t the most pleasant way to get my college career kicked off. If there were an ideal way to build a legacy in college, my first-year story probably represents the opposite of it. That’s one path, but it’s not the only path.
Many people experience what I would consider to be the ideal way to kick off a college career. You’re sitting in your dorm room one day playing Xbox or watching a chick flick to avoid studying and a hallmate drops by. “Hey, you want to come to this Big Brother, Big Sister meeting with me?” they say. Your first instinct is to hop up and get dressed, but then your lizard brain fires up. In your mind you run through all the reasons why you shouldn’t go: “What the hell is Big Brother, Big Sister?” “I’m not the kind of person who goes to that kind of meeting. I’m a younger sibling!” “I don’t even know this dude that well. What if he kidnaps me and locks me in his car trunk!?” Eventually, you realize you’ve been awkwardly silent for way too long, and response with the first lie you can think of, “No no, I gotta get past this mission in Call of Duty. See you later.”
Your hallmate walks off and you think to yourself, “Really, dude? Get past this level of Call of Duty?” As you sit there trying to conquer the game, you find yourself distracted by not having attended the event with your friend. You run a quick search on your computer for Big Brothers Big Sisters at your university and land on the student organizations catalogue. Down the rabbit hole you go, learning about the incredible opportunities all over campus. Before you know it you have 10+ organizations you want to become a part of and you’re wondering how you’ll fit the whole class thing into your schedule.
Next thing you know you’re inviting your roommate to go to an informational meeting with you. And another. And another.
You meet great people, have great experiences and become a part of true communities. Along the way, you meet a mentor (or a few) who begin to help you through tough decisions, struggles, and priorities. A professor, an older student, a graduate advisor — mentors take many forms. They become your guide along the way, using their life experience to give perspective to experiences you’ve never been a part of before.
Just like that, your first year becomes a year of exploration. Exploration of the endless possibilities around campus. Exploration of the groups of people you can consider your friends. Exploration of the talents and skills and experiences you’ll gain by getting involved. Exploration of your potential. All under the guidance of important mentors.
The first step to building a legacy is simple: explore the possibilities.
Act II: Invest Wisely
One day you wake up at noon, having slept through your morning classes. Exhausted, you realize all of that exploration has become a distraction. You’re involved in so many groups and activities that you’re spread too thin. You can say you’re a part of many things but a key contributor to none.
I found myself in this situation when I was serving as president of my fraternity, exec board member for Dawg Camp, orientation leader for the university, member of the Leonard Leadership Scholars Program, and double majoring in accounting and finance…. all at the same time. On paper, I was on top of the world, serving in more leadership roles than most people get to experience in their entire college careers.
But despite the glitz and glamour of the great opportunities, I was drowning. My to-do list required 48-hour days, two brains, and four hands to complete. I would pick up the ball to run with it for one of my roles and simultaneously drop the ball in two other roles. Meanwhile, my grades were suffering as I damaged relationships with professors and classmates who saw my potential but became disappointed in my execution.
While I don’t think this experience is necessary either, I think it is the norm amongst student leadership circles. It’s the leadership equivalent of binge drinking — we get so obsessed with getting picked for roles and responsibilities that we forget about the execution and delivery part of the equation. I think there’s a better way that will make you more likely to leave a legacy when you finish your college career.
The key to act II of building a legacy is to select opportunities carefully and pour into them. Unlike a stock portfolio, at this stage in the game, more diversification is not a good thing. It’s more like picking a few high growth stocks and investing heavily in them. Focus is everything as you narrow your scope from exploration to investment.
This is the point where you pick one to three opportunities that seem like they will afford you the greatest opportunity to leave a legacy you are proud of. You’ll use these opportunities to begin pouring the foundations upon which your legacy will be built. To do this effectively, you’ll have to seek out low level leadership roles in each organization. Become a committee chair, a VP, or take on a specific project — whatever you do, be sure you have an area of responsibility that allows you complete autonomy. Create goals that are specific, measurable, and attainable during your term while still building towards the larger mission and vision of the organization.
Investing wisely and heavily in a small number of important opportunities will allow you to do a couple of things:
- Prove to yourself that you are capable of setting goals, making plans, and achieving results
- Prove to yourself that failure is not fatal, but rather a valuable learning process
- Prove to others that you are capable of leading with integrity
- Prove to everyone you have immense potential to create a vision and build a legacy
This stage happens in your second and third years of college (for five year students, it can occupy part of your fourth year). It’s when you have some experience under your belt but you’re still learning.
Invest your time, energy, and resources in learning, working, and failing for organizations and projects you care deeply about. Choose carefully, but choose. Over-stretching your resources leads to disappoint.
Act II of building your legacy is an important one: invest wisely.
Act III: Build a Legacy
You’re tired. You’ve been through trials and tribulations. You’ve succeeded in grand fashion and you’ve failed in epic crash-and-burn style. You have scars along with the stories to back them up. You know what it’s like to lead and you know what it’s like to follow. Before you make your final push to build lasting legacy, you need a break to digest all that you’ve learned so you can put it to good use as you close out your college career.
I return to my journey along this path and an immense challenge I faced in my leadership development process. It came from my role as president of my fraternity. 6-8 years prior to my term as president, our group had been kicked off campus for a hazing incident that resulted in a member dying in a car accident. The culture of the group at the time was closer to animal house than to the leadership and Christian roots we had been founded on. As with many things in life, the life of a fraternity is often cyclical and I saw us heading back down the path that led to our removal from campus.
I had to fight a ton of hard battles to keep us away from going down the rabbit hole of hazing and drugs. By the time my term was over, I was simply exhausted. I had nothing left to give to the group, or any other group for that matter, which meant that it was time for a break.
My girlfriend and I took a semester to study abroad at Oxford University. On that trip, I focused on exactly two things: studying and traveling around Europe. We had an absolutely blast, but, perhaps more importantly, I also had time to process all that I had learned through my leadership activities. When I returned home I felt like a new man, reenergized and refocused on the things that mattered most to me.
I leveraged my energy to build what would become my legacy at UGA. The only group I was involved with upon my return was ODK, a leadership honor society which I had been tasked with rebuilding as the first president after it was refounded at UGA. We had a completely blank slate, and I was able to use all of my knowledge, skills, and experience to build a successful organization. The group now has a strong presence on UGA’s campus, with an excellent recruiting process, a strong leadership team, and a powerful engine for taking on new projects. In the semester after I left school, they were able to launch “The Chapel Bell,” a positive press publication that highlights the innovation, excitement, and positive stories from around campus. The publication had previously been a pipe dream, but with such a talented group of people it quickly grew a small but passionate group of readers. Now, it exists as its own organization completely external to ODK.
I tell this last story to emphasize the last stage of the legacy-building process, which is when you really leave your mark. You spend years during college developing interests, passions, skills, connections, experiences, and a vision. Your last semester or year in college is the time to leverage these things to make a mark on the group(s) that matter most to you.
Ultimately, building a legacy is about creating something that can function without you. It’s about building something that impacts real people and creates some change in the world. Only after you have explored the possibilities, invested wisely in the most important opportunities, taken a break to process, and come back to make your mark can you truly build a lasting legacy as a student leader.
The hardest part is this: the day you graduate, you won’t know whether you’ve done it. You may have put in as much time, energy, and resources as you possibly could have… But the day you know you built a legacy is the day you know the organization or project or thing you built is functioning without you — perhaps without even knowing you ever touched it.
So I leave you with this quote: “It is amazing what you can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit.” – Harry Truman.
When what you care about is the impact (not the credit,), and when that impact is being made without you present, that is when you know you’ve built a legacy.