Category Archives: Professional

On Daring, Winning, and Losing

Originally posted on LinkedIn (February 5, 2015).

I did not know of Henry Worsley before last week, but it’s been difficult to get him out of my mind since. He died on January 24, just 30 miles short of his goal but after traversing more than 900 miles of Antarctica on foot, seeking to honor his inspiration, famed explorer Ernest Shackleton. Worsley was much more than an explorer, it turns out. He was a philanthropist, raising money for wounded soldiers. He was also himself a combat-decorated warrior, rising to the elite of the British special forces and spending a career on the knife’s edge.

Days after his passing, NASA observed a day of remembrance for their own explorers, the astronauts lost in the 1967 Apollo launchpad fire and on shuttles Columbia and Challenger. As someone who has always looked up, I was moved and impacted by the memories. I was there when Challenger launched on an earlier mission in 1983, carrying another explorer, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

A few weeks before Worsley’s passing, musician, actor and artist David Bowie left us.  It’s hard to define where my love of space—and my love of words—ends and where Bowie’s music begins. It’s equally hard to imagine that in a lifetime of writing, I’ll ever be able to create something that sums up living as well as the final verse of my favorite Bowie song:

And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night /
And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves /
This is our last dance. This is ourselves. Under pressure.

There is not much logically tying Worsley, the astronauts and Bowie together. There is no peer comparison to them, and I’m not trying to equate a rock star, astronauts and a warrior. They each can stand on their own merits. We are poorer for the loss of all.

However, while there’s not an equality between them, I think there actually is a connection of sorts, and it’s from the motto of Worsley’s unit, the Special Air Service.

Qui audet adipiscitur. Latin for “Who Dares Wins.”

I first heard the expression in college, coming out of a shell, finding myself. I thought it was fascinating and true. It fit where I was in my life, and over the decades, not a week goes by when I don’t think it. I’ve passed it along to friends who have asked me for advice on everything from coming out to dating to careers to life decisions. Some of them have passed it on to others. I have tried to apply it to my professional life wherever possible.  I’ve been blessed to work in environments that encouraged daring.

Life—actual experiences, not the day-to-day drudgery that makes days turn into weeks turn into months turn into years turn into decades while you blink—is about daring, isn’t it? Daring to cross that mountain, sail beyond the horizon, try something new when other things have failed, take that leap. Life is dangerous, scary. It’s easier to rest, take it easy, copy others, be part of the crowd, and we all have to do some of that some of the time. Daring is hard work. No one can do it ceaselessly or should do it thoughtlessly.

The astronauts dared, volunteering to place themselves in danger to launch into the heavens above, taking humanity’s dreams with them.

David Bowie dared, never taking the safe route in his art, always being just a little different, willing to reinvent himself, not often taking the easy path his fame and wealth could have allowed.

Clearly, Worsley dared. His whole life was “leaning forward,” running to the sound of the guns, sacrificing all for others.

Who dares wins.

Except, of course, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes, the daring causes you to be blind, short-sighted, stupid, and arrogant (or is it the other way around?). Sometimes you make that leap you shouldn’t. And people—at the very least, you—get hurt by your actions. Or worse.

Defining “wins” in terms of “accomplishing what you set out to do,” actually, you quite often don’t win. You quite often lose. But that isn’t the point, nor does it mean that you stop daring. It means you reevaluate your actions and goals, what you did, what drove it, how you can fix the harm done, and how or if you can move ahead. You are in debt to the experience and everything that got you to where you were and are, and thankful that you can even have those thoughts. You win through the learning, if you choose to.

And you move on. One ski ahead of the other, because the alternative sounds much worse.

You dare yourself. As Bowie said, you are then, in turn, dared to care about everything.

This is our last dance. Who dares wins.

 

Check Your Sources – Remembering John Breen

John Breen, professor emeritus of journalism. (Courtesy of the Journal Inquirer)

John Breen, professor emeritus of journalism. (Credit: Journal Inquirer)

An icon of my life died this week.

Professor John Breen of the UConn Journalism Department left us far too early but also left a trail of students honoring him in their thoughts and posts.

More than anyone I’ve ever encountered, he taught me to love words. No matter my title or place in life, I will always be a writer deep in my soul. I have struggled to find ways to honor the man. Besides the obvious (there is a scholarship established in his name at the UConn Foundation), I have decided that the natural and right way to do so is through writing.

But first, I need a drink, and so a toast to him—a glass of Irish whiskey—sits beside me.

That I feel the need for a little alcohol-induced ease of mind tells the first part of the story about why John Breen mattered.

He was uncompromising. In the days before Microsoft Word marked all of your errors in red or, even worse, auto-corrected them, John Breen accepted nothing but quality. In one of his classes, he established a rule for assignments: for every typo, you lost a letter grade. Not a circle on your paper. Not a “fix this.” No silver star for “nice try.” He assumed you cared enough about your readers that you wouldn’t insult them. I feared the man and feared my grade. The lesson I carried with me was simple: quality matters. The small things matter. Detail matters.

I partly need the calming drink next to me to even comprehend the act of writing something about John Breen, for I know that this would probably end up with a ‘C’ if he graded it. That a grown man, a professional in matters of writing, can still feel this way should tell you something.

He taught me to be cynical. That’s usually a perjorative word, but I don’t mean it in that sense. Having bombed out of the engineering program, a 19-year-old me found myself in Professor Breen’s Journalism 101 class. On the first day, he told us that to be a reporter, you had to question assumptions.

“If your mother tells you that she loves you, check your sources.”

He said that. He really said that. It’s a remarkably cynical statement, but it is also remarkably true. I don’t think he literally meant that you can’t trust your mother, but the lesson I carried from it is held deeply today.

Question assumptions.

Assume nothing.

Inquire.

Dig deep.

Check your sources.

I know it is the trend today to talk about the decline of a liberal arts education; STEM education will rule the future. There’s some truth to that, I suppose. But can there be a better lesson for life, or a better education (in the philosophical sense of the word), than “check your sources?” With more information available to us than ever, can there be a better requirement for critical thought than “question assumptions?”

Lastly, John Breen taught me the beauty and grace of words. He taught me that my writing will touch people and that there is an awesome responsibility in the act of writing about them. This doesn’t mean that, as a reporter, you should go easy on your subjects. It means you should be fair.

He was a man who seemed to me to be out of place in the modern world, even in 1990. He smoked at his desk. He used a manual typewriter. If he could have worn a fedora with a small piece of paper on the band that read “Press,” he would have. He was more or less straight out of central casting for “All the President’s Men.” With stacks of newspaper everywhere, his office space always seemed to be one poorly thrown cigarette butt from a towering inferno.

I loved that.

The world is worse without John Breen in it. Today’s journalism students—while bright, smart and so capable—are poorer than I was. He last taught me more than two decades ago, but I feel him around me every time I write something.

And although I haven’t spoken to him since the year I graduated UConn, I suddenly miss him.

The Power of our Peers

Spent the last few days at the CASE District 1 annual conference in Boston. What an honor to be able to present the work that we’ve done at UConn with student philanthropy, and I’m so proud of the team of people who worked on it. From my co-presenter (the brains, the driver of the process and the hardest worker ever) to our data team, our background support, our talented student marketing worker, and even the group of peers who evaluated the presentation in advance…not much to say but that there is amazing talent all around me. Truly blessed.

The presentation itself went great, with one small technical hiccup at the end (curse you, PowerPoint), but the in-person reviews were positive and the follow-up questions were great. In fact, I’d say that we received more questions than any other session I had been in.

So, that was great.

It was also an incredible conference for a little “small world” experience. But, first, a little background.

About a month ago, I got a phone call out of the blue from a person I did not know, who informed me that I had been recommended by someone (let’s call him David) to present at a conference in March. I didn’t know David’s name, and a quick Google / LinkedIn search revealed no obvious direct connection to him. But, I like challenges, so accepted the offer and didn’t think much more about it.

Flash forward now to the conference. I pop into an interesting-sounding session at CASE and just am blown away by how great it was. I found myself thinking, “These presenters GET IT. How awesome.” It’s about my loves…analytics, marketing, data-based decision-making, social media. Just great stuff. And then I see that it’s David co-presenting!

I introduced myself after the session and start with a sheepish admission that I don’t know how we’re connected or why he’d recommend me.

He says, “You presented in New York in 2012, right?”

“I did.”

“I was in your session, and I left there thinking, ‘Wow, UConn is doing great stuff in this area.'”

So, the presentation he gave, that I randomly stopped in for, was inspired by our very own from two years earlier.

Wow.

Wow.

The lesson is that we’re not alone in anything we do, and our peers build us up, make us who we are, and turn us into better professionals and people. We’re all in this together.

Student Philanthropy

My favorite work project has been our success with student philanthropy at UConn.  Part of that is because I have been able to work with some great people on the initiative, but I also love it because it highlights the eternal role of philanthropy in life.

The idea germinated from an alumnus who looked back and realized the power of philanthropy in shaping UConn, as well as the need to build a culture of giving in today’s students, who have benefited so much from the support of others.  By offering challenge matches for students, he’s encouraging them to give, and we’re helping to shape that through a competition that is really focused on allowing them to give to what matters most to THEM, not us. And that is, typically, the club or cause or program that they’re part of at UConn.

The word philanthropy comes back to its roots of meaning “the love of man,” and I cannot think of a more empowering task than educating people about how philanthropy allowed for their success and how their own philanthropy is showing their support for those who follow.  It’s all good stuff.

More info on the Ignite competition at: http://s.uconn.edu/huskydrive

Thank You Video Contest

Behold the power of the crowd!

I was proud to help shape a very successful first student video contest for UConn. Thousands upon thousands of Facebook likes, shares and comments were received, and in the end, a great set of three finalists represented the University well.

The winner was excellent and produced by two UConn engineering students.

One of the main lessons learned? That there is tremendous talent out there; you just have to find a way to channel and tap it.

More information at: http://www.foundation.uconn.edu/saythanks/index.html