Believe, Build, and Go Beyond – Notes to my younger self for the Class of 2016

I gave the commencement speech at my graduating high school in Montrose, CO this weekend. When I accepted the honor, there was no way for me to anticipate the process. “Going back” is not always easy. Sometimes it’s downright painful. It’s also sometimes the only way to realize how far we’ve come.

It’s too early to know how my speech was received. As a speaker, and from a podium, it’s always a weird tunnel-like experience full of tiny things that only you notice, like the slow feedback from the PA system and wind blowing my hair across my eyes and into my mouth. Whatever the delivery, I wrote these words with all of my heart. So, now, I can only hope that all of my heart was heard over the wind, the pounding of their own hearts as they neared collecting their diplomas, and any skepticism that some 42 year old chick had any wisdom to impart.

And, in case you’re interested in what this 42 year old chick had to say, here are my notes to my younger self for the Montrose High School Class of 2016:

Believe, Build, and Go Beyond

Thank you, Principal Barnhill. And thank you to the Student Council, and especially Evelyn Luna. You have all been wonderful in getting me here and giving me insight into the class of 2016. The future is in good hands.

I’m proud to be a Montrose High School Alum, and humbled to be chosen to speak to you today. MHS produces some amazing graduates, some of you are out here now, some of them are your parents. There are those just as, if not more, deserving of being on this stage today, so I feel privileged for this opportunity to serve you as the graduating class of 2016, and to honor those that have come before you.

It isn’t every day that you get a genuine chance to talk to your younger self. In other words, this could be a 3 hour speech (but it won’t be!). It has been difficult to pare down everything I wish I could share with you, so I decided to simply meet you where you are. On this day 24 years ago. We’re all different, and my story, my path and my journey is my own, as is yours.

So today, I invite you to simply walk beside me, take whatever is meaningful, and make it yours. Because this is your day, and the next chapter of your story, and the next leg of your journey begins here.

High School isn’t easy. And neither is life. The good news? You already have all the tools you need to guide you on your journey. The other good news?  You’re not in this alone.

I have a great appreciation for biography introductions. They are a neat, clean, outline that highlights a person’s life. They’re a lot like social media! The Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat posts of a person’s happiest moments and accomplishments. And, all too often, they are airbrushed pictures of airbrushed lives that we are comparing to our own and trying to live up to.

This is nothing new. The yearbook was the Facebook of our time. I don’t know what role it plays for you now, but this was the place where “who you were” was recorded for all of eternity. Bad hair and all. I know you use your thumbs for texting now, but we used them to get through pages of a book, and we would immediately thumb to the back, find our name and then count on how many pages we were featured. Like social media today, we wanted to be in the “right” places, with the right people, in the right clubs to be documented, noted, recorded, and remembered.

If you were to go to my high school year book, you would see that I was a varsity cheerleader, and a nominee for prom queen. What you don’t see in those pages are the things we don’t see about anyone unless we look. And if you look, you’ll see that we are all human, on human journeys, with human stories. And the beauty of our humanity is that we’re all in it together.

My work today is to build cultures of women supporting women and our movement is called Tribe of Women, but the ultimate goal is to affect change to a degree that our culture is that of people supporting people. That we become Tribe of Human.

Your story and your journey have already begun, and you’re about to take the next step on your path. I hope in sharing some true stories, some humanity, and some lessons I have learned, it will help set you on a path toward a belief in yourself and those around you, an ability to build up yourself and others, and the confidence to go beyond your comfort zone.

Believe, Build and Go Beyond.

One path to belief in ourselves may be a surprising. It is facing failure. Society at large is conditioned against failure. Falls are cushioned, perfection is praised, and everything needs a warning labels, just in case you’re not smart enough to figure out that you should not wear a hat on your foot, or operate a hair dryer while sleeping. (Those are real warning labels.)

Maya Angelou said, “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.”

This is the opening quote to the documentary film of her life, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. I recently had the privilege of sitting with and interviewing Rita Coburn-Whack, a director of the documentary. She was given the opportunity to create the documentary after she spent 4 years with Dr. Angelou producing a segment for Oprah. Through all of the years with her, and all of the inspiring and powerful quotes collected, this was the quote they chose to open the film. She told me that this quote said it all. For all of us. And it does.

The truth is that if you make failure your friend it will be your most sincere teacher. And, I would dare to say, the backbone to success. And that is exactly where I was on this day, oh so long ago. No number of glossy pictures in the yearbook revealed that I struggled in high school. I had been sick and missed a lot of school, which made it hard to maintain deep friendships or good grades. Basically, I was muddling through.

It may be ironic (or maybe the universe trying to tell me something) that Mr. Gabriel is retiring this year, and I’m sorry he could not be here today. He was my math teacher my senior year. As graduation approached, it became apparent that, without passing my final in his class, I would fail the class and not have enough credits to graduate. He offered what help and support he could, but more importantly, what help and support I would accept, which wasn’t much. I failed that test. I made up the credits in the first weeks of summer, earned my diploma, and went to college in the Fall as scheduled. But I did not pick up my cap and gown the day after that test, and I did not walk across this stage that weekend.

So, that is how my journey from today began. With facing failure. I was not wearing a cap and gown, sitting in the chair where you are, or getting ready to cross this stage where I’m standing now. So, in that, on your journey, you’re already one step ahead of me!

The reason that Mr. Gabriel’s role in this story is important is because he didn’t fail me. He reached out. I failed me. I didn’t reach back. Because it’s not just about believing in ourselves. It’s about believing that others believe in you. And when they reach out, it is on us to reach back.

I walked the halls of the high school a couple of days ago and though I didn’t get to see Mr. Gabriel, I did find something on his door. “Life is a math equation. In order to gain the most, you have to know how to convert the negatives into positives.” Thank you, Mr. Gabriel

Belief in ourselves is also hard because we are so hard on ourselves. So often there is an internal dialogue going on that we are not even aware of. Especially in the face of failure, and mistakes. We have all failed. A test, the catch of a football, standing up for a friend, proper driving safety…

And failure will always bring us to a crossroads. A decision point, and a choice between guilt and shame.

There is a very simple, but very important distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt is, “I’ve made a mistake.” Shame is, “I am a mistake.”

Words create worlds. And the words we say to ourselves are just as vital as the words we say to others. Everyone close your eyes for a moment and think of a mistake.

Now think, “I made a mistake.” This is guilt. What happens next? Maybe you are feeling sorry. Maybe you are thinking about what you could have done differently. Maybe you are already thinking about what you can do to make amends or will do better next time.

Now think, “I am a mistake.” This thought, my friends will stop you in your tracks. It is a one-way ticket to nothing good for you, or anyone around you.

None of us ARE the mistakes we’ve made. Our actions are WHAT WE’VE DONE not WHO WE ARE. Shame has no place in our internal or external dialogues.

So, guilt has its place and can be a stepping stone TOWARD something. Go back to your thoughts when you were thinking, “I’ve made a mistake.” Cool. Welcome to being human. The “oh crap, I did this” moment is guilt we can grow from, but avoid the “I suck” trap because it goes nowhere.

One of the most important aspects of this is – how you treat yourself has a direct effect on how you treat others. Belief in yourself manifests into the act of reaching out, and being the person that lifts up and believes in others.

I wish I could tell you that I’d had the insight I’m sharing with you today, and that I knew the distinction between “guilt” and “shame” at the time of my own moment of failure. I struggled with it for a while. So know that it is only attained through conscious practice… and that will, once again, put you one step ahead of me.

Believe, Build and Go Beyond.

When we believe that others believe in us, and practice belief in ourselves, we begin the process of building our tribe. A tribe is a “Traditional society that consists of families or communities linked by common traits and interests that contribute individual skills, talents and voices to the common good of the group.”

So, call it your village, your posse, your gang, your community, your squad. The point is that, to not only survive, but to thrive in this life, it takes a tribe.

I’d like to say that the world out there is vastly different from high school, but sometimes it’s not too far off. We will always be in situations, companies, organizations, groups with a mix of those that are good and not good for us, so it is very important that we learn to find those that lift, teach, grow, add to, and inspire us to be better, and for us to do that in return.

“Surround yourself with the dreamers and the doers, the believers and the thinkers, but most of all, surround yourself with those who see the greatness within you, even when you don’t see it in yourself.” Edmond Lee

Mrs. Gaber was my cheer coach. And, during my time here, she was a cheerleader in my life. I got to see her this week, and though she isn’t able to be here today, she promised that she’d watch the video, so everyone wave at the camera and say “hello, Mrs. Gaber!”

Mrs. Gaber was positive, encouraging, always had my back. She picked me up when I fell. (Sometimes literally. Like, off my butt, my back, even my head once…) She believed in me before I knew how to believe in myself. Some of my best and toughest days were in her presence, and she was always a light that I could turn to and talk to, and only had to be around to know that I was everything I needed to be. That I was enough. And sometimes, I simply needed to know I was not alone on my journey.

The poet Rumi, wrote, “Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.”  When building your tribe, it is imperative that you follow your light, and find those who fan your flames.

You also have those in your life that are not so positive. Those that do not fill your cup. Take a moment and think of all the people in your life. You know immediately the difference between those that lift you and fill you up, and those that bring you down and deplete you.

Our light is individual. We will not always get along with everyone. That does not necessarily mean that someone else is bad, just that they are not good for us. If you think of your light as a literal, physical light, it will always lead you forward, toward those that feed who you are, or whom you are trying to become.

I was fortunate to have a Mrs. Gaber and others in my life, in my tribe (thank you). You have them as well. They may be as obvious as Mrs. Gaber, or more subtle, like Mr. Gabriel, but they are there. Reaching out, we only have to reach back.

Believe. Build and Go beyond.

Your light will not only lead you to those who fill your cup and believe in you, it is also your navigator for your instincts and intuition. You know more than you think you do. Intuition is not unscientific. It is a subconscious collection of your own experiences and observations of the world around you.

All of my greatest successes are things that my intuition led me toward. They were also most often the things filled me with joy, and scared me to death, all at the same time. Everything from having children, to working in Pakistan, or doing the TEDx talk. Each of these experiences were completely out of my comfort zone, and I had to rely on my wits to keep things moving, my gut to guide me, and my tribe to support me. I did not travel a traditional path, and my journey to these places was not always direct, and sometimes (okay, mostly) they made no sense to anyone else but myself. But it was my path, and I followed my light, just as you will follow yours.

When you come across something on your path that calls to you, and it scares you, that is the edge of your comfort zone. Your comfort zone is everything you know to be safe, sure, and easy.  One of the best practices I’ve found to test a decision while walking this boundary is the fear and ego filter. I’ve worked with Dr. Stan Beecham, author of the book Elite Minds, who works with elite athletes – professional football, golf, and Olympic champions. He says, “The more ego you have, the more fear you have. Ego makes you wonder and care about what others think about you. The less afraid you become, the less you think about yourself, and that allows you to instead think about what you want.”  I like to add to that, and like to say, “If your decision is based on fear or ego, it’s probably not a good idea.”

The duality of this is that you will have to experiment, and, by trial and error, discover what you DON’T want, in order to find what is truly worth pursuing. In order to do this, you’ll have to get out of your comfort zone. And to get out of your comfort zone, you’re going to have to embrace the edge… and then go beyond it. So as the Chinese proverb says, “Be not afraid of going slowly, be only afraid of standing still.”

You’ll have 1,000 positive opportunities come your way in life. A job, a program abroad, a relationship, a moment that causes butterflies in your stomach and will bring you to that edge between what you know and what could be. You’ll get to a door or the gate of the airport and think “What am I doing?” The “what if’s”. The “am I sure’s”. The change, adjustments, adaptations, and all of the unknowns will suddenly overwhelm you.

You may be feeling that right now, as you approach the edge in these moments before you cross the stage, with your journey before you. What’s next? Will you walk through that door? Will you board that plane? Will you go beyond the edge of your comfort zone? A little warning here… once you do, you’ll want to do it again. And again.

So filter out fear and ego. Know that sometimes this combination of excitement and terror are simply you coming up against the edge of your comfort zone. Then go beyond.

Believe. Build and… Go Beyond

As humans, on this human journey, with our human stories, our tribe is vital. In preparing for today and reflecting on my own path and journey, I wondered what would help you on your path and journey as you prepare to cross this stage (again, you’re one step ahead of me!).

I thought about what my tribe might say to me. And it would probably go a little something like this. “You are everything you need to be. You are not alone. You’ve got this.”

So, as an honorary member of your tribe today, I will leave you with this:

Believe in yourself. Trust that others believe in you, and practice growth through failure.

Build yourself, your tribe and others by following your light.

Embrace the edge, and then go beyond your comfort zone.

And finally, “You are everything you need to be. You are not alone. You’ve got this.”

Welcome to the Tribe!


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