The Best Teacher I've Ever Had

On February 8, I had a difficult decision to make.  With failure staring me in the face, I had to do what the kids call "take an L".  And before I go any further, I gotta tell you...failure hurts.

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For the first four years that DRAW has existed, I've tried to make myself available to speak to whatever groups would have me come and talk about DRAW.  I've spoken with girl scout troops, retired, bridge playing groups, bank employees, knitters, high school students, and middle school marching bands.  I made the decision that, if I got an invite, I would go to talk to whoever about the mission of DRAW.

A year or two in, the requests started to change.  Instead of being asked to talk about the mission of DRAW, groups started specifically requesting that I talk about how DRAW came to be.  Rather than the day-to-day workings of a charity relief organization, groups started wanting to hear about how something came from nothing.  The DRAW narrative became just as powerful in listener's minds as the DRAW mission.  It was a subtle alteration I didn't even recognize until it had already happened.  Suddenly, by 2016, I was speaking 5-6 times a month about the birth and evolution of our organization, with the narrative becoming a message of inspiration, a message that anyone with ideas and passion could create change by bringing together others with a similar passion.  

By the end of 2016, this emergence led to an idea: What if DRAW sponsored an event that took the spirit of the DRAW narrative and pulled it into one big day of inspiration, instruction, and action?  We could have multiple speakers tackle different aspects of one common theme; "How can my life become an Agent of Change?"  The day would explore how our personal relationships, our social media interactions, our studies, and our life philosophies could shape the kind of lasting good we could do in the world.  We would then have multiple opportunites to put these concepts into action, having group service projects on site that would contribute to existing world changing organizations.  The parameters were in place for an event we decided to call The Agents of Change Summit.

I was fired up.  I recruited speakers, day-of volunteers, a local host-church building, and organizations to partner with us on the day of the Summit.  Though all ages were invited, our volunteers, board members, and speakers started promoting the event amongst our target audience (high school students, college students, and young entrepenuers). I would get asked by the people involved, "How many people do you think we're gonna have at the event?" I never had a hard and firm number planned. I had hoped for a minimum of 50 for our first time, but thought 100 would be an easy number to hit.  We would cap it at 150, which I thought would be necessary, considering the number of groups where I was already being recruited to present.  This would be an event that would be easy to fill, and I was focused on making sure it was going to be a great experience and impactful to the participants.  

As we got closer to the Agents of Change Summit, scheduled for February 11, delays started to happen.  Delays always happen.  The event registration page took a while to get posted.  Many of my communications with school/college contacts went unanswered.  When the registration page finally went live, signups were slow.  When people would say "We'd love to promote the event!", what they meant was, "We'll throw a link on the bottom of our weekly newsletter", or "We'll mention it at one of our meetings."  Without empowering people with easy access to signup or a clear understanding of the event, we set ourselves up for a collective response of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The slower the registration went, the harder I pushed to get groups and individuals signed up.  The event itself was coming together beautifully, and I was determined to fill the seats.  But, as the event inched closer, it was becoming more and more apparent that we weren't going to reach our minimum attendance.  By the time February 8 came, the decision I had to make was inevitable.  I was going to have to contact everyone I'd asked to volunteer to help put the day together, along with the people who had registered, and let them know that we needed to postpone the Agents of Change Summit, probably until a date later in April.

Now, the good perspective was DRAW was still thriving, still building our volunteer base, still responding to storms around the country (even responding to a tornado in Georgia a week and a half before the Summit).  But it was hard for me, personally to not feel like I'd failed.  I'd taken an idea, and put an incredible amount of time, energy, social capital, and DRAW's volunteer hours into the leadup of the event.  For it to have to be postponed because of a lacking registration was a major blow to my ego, and took the wind out of my sails for a couple days.  

Instead of instructing others on February 11, I was forced to learn something myself.  It was like March 10, 1997 all over again.

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As a high schooler, the only sport I cared about was wrestling.  My dad was a wrestler in college, winning the MAC championship twice at Western Michigan University.  Three years he was an NCAA qualifier, coming up one place short of being an All-American two of those years.  He started coaching high school wrestling as soon as he graduated from WMU, and because of it, I'd spent my entire life around high school wrestling.  I'd watched some Michigan high school wrestling legends compete, and by the time I got to high school myself, I wanted nothing more than to be a high school state championship wrestler.  I had plenty of success throughout high school, winning over 160 matches and earning all-state honors before my senior season.  But I had yet to reach my ultimate goal.

I feel like I need rewind a little, here.  It wasn't just that I wanted to succeed in wrestling.  I was obsessed with wrestling.  In a pre-internet era, I would collect newspapers from all over the state to read about/memorize stats of other wrestlers.  At a time where I was struggling with my Spanish class vocabulary word memorization, I could quote for you scores of wrestling meets from three hours away.  I would go back through old tournament brackets to disect how certain guys had made their way to the semi-finals, and I would take any time off to find wrestling tournaments nearby where I could scout potential future opponents.  

Going into the the state tournament my senior year, the biggest hurdle I would need to clear to win the state championship was a guy I would have to wrestle in the semifinals, DJ Waters from Eaton Rapids.  DJ and I were the top two ranked wrestlers at our weight class, and we had wrestled once before our sophomore year, with DJ winning 4-2.  DJ and I had similar body types, and identical records, and really, it was tossup between the two of us if you asked any of the wrestling publications at the time.

So when the match started, I was able to take an early lead, before DJ came back to go ahead 4-3 in third period.  In the match's final seconds, knowing I needed to score to tie or win the match, there was a huge flurry of activity that lasted nearly 30 seconds.  I know this because I watched the VHS recording of the match about 150 times the year after, and now have it seared into my brain some 20 years later.  The match ended with no more points scored, despite my last ditch attempts, and after winning 4-3, DJ went on to win the state championship, whereas I came up short in my final attempt to achieve the only major wrestling goal I'd ever wanted.

I remember when the match finished, I was in shock.  Everything slowed down around me.  It felt like the few seconds after you get into a car crash, where you're assessing everything in disbelief.  I slowly walked over to a quiet, cement wall in the arena, slumped down to a seated position leaning against it, with my head buried between my knees, exhausted.  "What else could I have done?" kept running through my head.  This was another life ago, and to this day, nearly 20 years later, I can picture every detail around me as if it had just happened.

As I got some time between myself and that moment, it became clear that my failure had been a sliding doors moment, of sorts.  Without making a long story longer, that one loss changed the college i would decide to attend, which would change the major I would graduate with, which changed my career/where I would live.  It also taught me a lot of individual lessons about myself, my family, my priorities, my responsibilities, and my ability to empathize, just to name a few.

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Failure in all of its forms, has been the greatest teacher of my life.  Whether it's a failed attempt at a new endeavor or coming up one point short of a high school dream, failure hurts.  It's supposed to.

But usually failure is fair, and can mold you into a much better version of yourself.  If you let it, failure will make you smarter, stronger, more humble, and more determined.   

Over the course of my life, failure has taught me that I shouldn't be afraid of it.  If you have to "take an L", there's a good chance it won't be the last time you play.  And the next time, you'll be better.

So we'll reschedule the Summit.  And when it finally comes off, and we start to become better Agents of Change, we'll be thankful for failing on the first try, because the world will be better for it.