I think that, at some level, we all want to make a difference for others. I certainly know that this is something important to me. And every now and then I get a beautiful reminder that I am, in fact, doing so - in my own weird ways.
Over the years I have been hired to speak to many diverse groups. As just a few examples; I have spoken to financial planners about ensuring customer service excellence. I have been in front of entire high schools, delivering a message about the value of designing a positive, intentional life. I have been keynote speaker at the annual general meeting of a provincial political party, with the topic being "how to fully engage people with a positive message and good energy". A major police force brought me in to reinforce, to their members, the importance of maintaining your own positive mindset in stressful situations. I have even led workshops for experienced baseball umpires making the jump to a bigger stage - helping them learn to stay calm and focused under all of the new-found pressure. In each case, the presentations seemed to go fairly well, but I have never really known for sure if they made a lasting difference for my audience.
Recently, I was brought in to address the students in Georgian College's Recreation Leadership program. I had just returned from the Winter Death Race, and had been asked to deliver a motivating 90 minute speech, recounting my experiences in a way that was both relevant and inspiring to the students.
I arrived with only one real sleep under my belt since the weekend of non-stop racing and the long drive back. My only props were my axe and my Death Race skulls (aka "trophies"), and I went in with no notes. Other teachers had heard about my upcoming presentation and had asked to include their classes as well, so we ended up in the big lecture hall, with the stadium seating filled to near capacity. Looking up at the young faces, some eager but more bored and wary, I took a deep breath and then launched in, opening up my heart and sharing openly and honestly.
What began as a recounting of my Death Race experiences quickly evolved into a discussion of my take on the psychology of ultra-endurance athletic events. I found myself genuinely choked up when describing some of the more personal catharses I went through along the way, and very animated and enthused when sharing my successes and breakthroughs. The time flew by, and many students stayed after to ask questions one-on-one. So, again, it felt like a success and I hoped that it would have a positive impact.
What I did not know was that, after I left, the instructor, Kimberly, assigned them each the task of composing an essay offering an honest assessment of my presentation and what, if anything, they took away from it that was valuable to apply to their own lives. Well, today my Mom took me out to lunch and handed me a folder full of the students' submissions. Kimberly had forwarded them to my brother, who passed them on through the family tree. Mom had, as any good mother would, read them all, and said "Oh, John. These are really wonderful. I think you are going to be so pleased to hear what the students have to say!"
After lunch my day stayed marvelously busy - going from appointment to appointment to coaching at an elementary school wrestling tournament to coaching my club team wrestling practice. So, it was just now, when I came home for the evening, and sat down for the first time in several hours, that I picked up the stack and started to peruse the essays.
Well, Mom was right. It was truly gratifying to read the unanimously positive feedback. Some of the students even admitted that they had not been looking forward to the presentation, before going on to say that it turned out to be an enjoyable, meaningful event for them. While it was interesting to hear where different aspects of the presentation had resonated more powerfully with individual listeners, it was even more amazing to see the consistency with which they identified the same key "take-away" messages.
Here are some of my favourite excerpts...
"Thank you very much for bringing John in to speak to our class. He is very motivational and passionate. He explained how important it is to live life to the fullest, with goals and objectives. Also being grateful for what we have in every moment. I learned to take every experience, learn from it, build on it and move forward."
"I learned from John that, even when the cards are stacked against you and you feel like you are going to pass out or give up, you need to keep a positive image in your mind and focus on something to push you forward during these hard times."
"The other thing that I took from John's presentation was to realize how incredibly lucky and fortunate I am. John talked about being at the top of the mountain (at the end of the second straight night of racing), and stopping to look at the moon and enjoy the scenery. Through all of the exhaustion he still realized how grateful he was to be alive right there and then."
"I learned that by taking on new challenges you can learn more things about yourself, faster, than if you only stick to what you already know you can do."
"John said many valuable things throughout his presentation, but the one that stood out the most for me was, "You can do so much more than you think you can!""
"Along with inspiration I was able to learn a few important things about life from John speaking with us. I learned the importance of being honest to yourself, and to appreciate how incredibly fortunate I am."
"John shared his stories on life, competition and philosophy. As future recreational leaders we were given an in-depth look into a world of commitment, dedication, passion and perseverance; all important components in leadership."
"Two things John said that really stuck with me are, "You can do so much more than you think you can" and "the things we think we can do and the things we CAN do are totally different". Hearing these words made me realize just how many things I don't do, simply because I think that I can't."
"The main thing I have taken away from this is that if you have a drive and belief, you are capable of far more than you ever thought your body could do."
"Something I learned from John is that you can literally do anything if you truly put your mind to it. I know people tell you this all the time, but for once I actually felt that it meant something."
"I learned that I shouldn't close any doors just because I think I can't do something, or that my body can't physically do it. Because my mind is what is stopping me, not my body, and my body can do so much more than I think it is capable of. I thought the guest speaker was great and he has motivated me to get out and try new things I would never usually do."
(This one from a foreign student) "I learned that high rewarding comes from putting yourself out there in uncomfortable situations that require high intensity effort, struggle and pain. In life people seek these types of competition to test themselves to its limit and still find it rewarding and feel thankful is just humbling and eye opening."
"I did not understand the mental factor and what it takes to to have the ability to keep pushing forward. Then John said it - "what you think you can do and what you can do are totally different" - this was SO inspiring! I love the idea that you can do one burpee and then the next one, one step at a time without thinking of all 3,000 burpies at once. This is definitely something I am going to take with me the rest of my life. I just need to look at one step at a time, not always focusing on the outcome first. Using this technique I feel I can do more. I feel I can do anything."
"I learned that, although something may look extremely difficult and even impossible, it is possible to fight through hardship, danger and threatening situations to complete a seemingly unreachable goal. You have to constantly keep your ego in check to stay focused on the task at hand. "Do not think about the future or the past, focus on what is in the present" was something John strongly stated. This proves there is a difference between thinking you can't do something and finding out what you can actually do."
I am so very grateful to Kimberly for sharing these comments with me. It is enormously rewarding to hear, first hand, the impact my presentation had on these future leaders, and this makes me all the more excited to keep generating amazing experiences and to share them in meaningful ways with others.
Life is good!