Did you ever sit back and think about the people who have most influenced your life and your thinking? It’s quite a fascinating intellectual exercise. What I’ve found in reflecting on the people who have mentored me throughout my life is that, in many ways, I am defined by the lessons these men have taught me. Some of these men knew me personally; some of them taught me from a distance through their work. But all of them contributed to making me who I am today. This is my tribute to those great men. These are the lessons that I’ve learned from them. And these are lessons that you might want to learn as well…
1. Be Vulnerable – A Lesson from Bill Grall
I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say I grew up on the low-end of the socio-economic scale. I came from a fairly poor family and felt very inferior to others. I suspect that this is the reason that I was always very introverted around other people. I was always afraid to “wear my heart on my sleeve,” because I thought I’d be ridiculed. Bill Grall came to the rescue.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brene Brown
When I was thirteen, he became the youth leader of First Baptist Church–the church I was loosely attending. Bill constantly prodded me to come to youth group and join in the Bible studies and activities they were having. Grudgingly, I obeyed. At first, I was very shy–keeping my hat down over my face so that no one could look me in the eyes. Slowly and lovingly, though, Bill got me to open up. He taught me that, if I wanted to have an impact on the world, I needed to be willing to interact with it. Soon, I stopped wearing a hat and learned to make eye contact. Whether he knows it or not, Bill taught me about the importance of being vulnerable. Without the willingness to get hurt, you’ll never fully experience life. I’m glad that I was fortunate enough to learn that early on. I’m glad Bill arrived on the scene to teach me.
2. Work Hard – A Lesson Lesson from Wayne Botkin
When I was fourteen, Bill left to work with another church. I was heart-broken. Thankfully, I had formed a bond with Bill’s friend, Wayne Botkin, the leader of the local United Methodist Church youth group. Bill had been all fun and games. And, while Wayne had his fun side, he was all about getting things done.
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” – Thomas Edison
Wayne gave me my first job, as a landscaper for his dad–who owned a local flower shop. Over one summer, I worked harder than I had ever worked in my life–loading 50 pound bags of mulch into the truck and slaving away for 10 hours each day in the hot sun. But Wayne didn’t just teach me about hard physical labor. He taught me to train my mind as well. Wayne took me to a leadership conference where I learned how to preach. He taught me to rise early and study hard. I and my cousin would faithfully show up at 5:30am on his porch for a Bible study before school everyday. In everything, Wayne taught me that, if you want to get better at something, you work hard at it. No shortcuts. Just dedication.
3. Be Humble – A Lesson from Rob Tavenner
Sure enough, Wayne left town to work for another church when I was fifteen. By that time, I had become very independent and self-willed. I was fairly sociable and dedicated to learning. Rob Tavenner, a man that I had known for a long time and had recently taken over as the youth leader of the Baptist church I had grown up in, arose an an opportune time to teach me yet another valuable lesson: it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
“I know one thing: that I know nothing.” – Socrates
I distinctly remember Rob teaching a youth group Bible study on the book of Revelation when I was seventeen years old. Theologians at the most prestigious universities in the world debate the meaning of various parts of this obscure book, and Rob had the guts to teach it to a group of rowdy teenagers. I remember kids in my youth group peppering him with questions and thinking to myself, “Ooh, I wonder how he’s going to answer that one.”
It often astonished me when Rob admitted, “I don’t know.” His willingness to admit what he didn’t know blew me away. Up until that point, I would see people just make things up if they didn’t know the answers to questions they were asked. Up until that point, I hadn’t experienced such humility. Taking a good, hard look at myself, I took this lesson to heart. I had learned so much and yet, I knew so little. To this day, if someone tells me I’m smart, I reply, “I’m not smart. I’m just curious.” Because that’s the truth. If I know anything, it’s only because I’ve been blessed with great teachers.
4. Have an Open Mind – A Lesson from Steve Wellman
So, if you haven’t noticed, I was raised intellectually throughout my teenage years by a group of Christian men with Bible-centric mindsets. When I was eighteen and went off to Asbury College, a Methodist school in Kentucky, I was exposed to a world of ideas that I didn’t know even existed. Even though it was a religious school and most of the classes were heavily biased in a religious mindset, I took two philosophy classes in subsequent semesters of my Freshman year that absolutely changed my life. The instructor? Dr. Steve Wellman.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – William Shakespeare
Growing up, I had been taught to scoff at philosophy and recognize it as heresy. Steve presented the viewpoints of various philosophies throughout history in a balanced, objective manner. As I opened my mind to new ways of thinking, I began to realize, “Wow, some of this stuff actually makes sense.” I remember, as I studied the philosophies inside and outside class, changing my opinion of what was true from month to month as I encountered new ideas.
I read John Locke’s An Inquiry in Concerning Human Understanding and concluded that we are all blank slates that become filled with what our senses are exposed to. Then, I read George Berkley’s Dialogues and concluded that there is no objective reality apart from what we perceive there to be. Round and round I went, in a jumble of confusion. But, in the end, I realized this one truth: there are multitudes thoughtful, rational ideas out there that, although contradictory, all make sense. If I want to learn, I will always keep an open-mind and have a listening ear–especially if it’s something in which I don’t believe. Only open minds can learn.
5. Think Critically – A Lesson from Russ Roberts
When I was nineteen, I transferred to the University of Kentucky’s business college. Having been newly married and highly interested in pursuing a career that would support my family, I turned from studying philosophy and literature and decided to head in a more practical direction. Wanting to learn more about business and yet still being an intellectual at heart, I turned to the field of economics…and discovered Russ Roberts.
“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” – Christopher Hitchens
Russ was a Professor of Economics at George Mason University. And, although I ended up getting a Bachelor’s of Science from the University of Kentucky, I learned more from Russ and the resources he introduced to me than from anything in my undergraduate education. When I was 19 or 20 years old, I got my first iPod and subscribed to a podcast that Russ hosted, called EconTalk. That podcast literally changed my life.
Russ brought on people from all fields: health care, literature, sociology, journalism, science, psychology, education, and more. He discussed the incentives people faced in making choices in society. The underlying premise of every discussion was the importance of thinking critically about all information, given the incentives people face. Five to six years later, I’m stil listening to this amazing program and Russ still inspires me to view everything with a cautious and critical eye.
6. Be Remarkable - A Lesson from Seth Godin
When I graduated with a degree in economics in 2009, my real interest was in consumer behavior and I wanted to go into marketing research. In looking for good books to read about marketing, I stumbled across Seth Godin and read Permission Marketing. Eventually, I read everything I could get my hands on my Seth and discovered one overarching theme in everything he wrote: be remarkable.
“If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.” – Henry David Thoreau
In Permission Marketing, Seth encourages marketers to embrace the new model of marketing to customers. In Purple Cow, Seth writes about how marketers should create products that significantly stand out. In Linchpin, Seth writes about how workers should be employees (or freelancers or entrepreneurs, etc.) who significantly stand out. In Poke the Box, Seth encourages people to test out new ideas. In everything, the message Seth brings to the table rings out loud and clear: don’t be afraid to be different, be afraid to be the same.
In everything Seth writes, he encourages his readers to defy conformity. That has become a staple of my life. I refuse to define myself by the standards and expectations of others. I refuse to resign myself to the status quo. I refuse to blend in. I want everything I do to make a difference. Think about that phrase, “making a difference.” We all want to do that, don’t we? Well, in order to do so, we must first rebel against the norm. We must be willing to be different–to be remarkable. All I know is that if I leave the world the same as I found it, then there will have been no point of my existing in the first place. I want to make the world better. I want to be remarkable.
7. Build Relationships – A Lesson from Ron Emery
So, I graduated from the University of Kentucky in May of 2009 and set out to look for work. It turns out that it wasn’t the best time to be graduating, because I turned up empty-handed. After sending out dozens of resumes and having a handful of interviews, I began to see myself as unhire-able and decided to go back to school for my MBA (terrible reason, I now know). While working at Starbucks just months before entering the MBA program at Youngstown State University, I met a customer that expressed continued interest in me. Yep, that man was Ron Emery.
“The quality of your life is the quality of your relationships.” – Anthony Robbins
I’ll admit it. It creeped me out at first. Why should a random stranger take such interest in me? Ron invited me to breakfast. He took me out to play racquetball. He walked me around downtown Youngstown, showing me historic buildings and introducing me to many of the local business owners. Ron connected me with all kinds of people in the local business community. At some point, I realized that Ron was teaching me a valuable lesson that I had missed out in my education: the importance of relationships.
I hadn’t taken an internship. I hadn’t joined any professional organizations. I hadn’t stayed in touch with any professors or classmates. I had always thought that being curious and studious was enough. Until meeting Ron, I hadn’t realized that it isn’t enough to be smart; you must also be connected. Ron showed me how to network and meet people in the real world. When the time came in 2011 that I started my own business, the connections I had made through Ron brought me to a local networking group that was absolutely critical in my launch. The old saying, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know” is absolutely true. I only wish that I had learned it earlier.
8. Be Responsible – A Lesson from Anthony Iannarino
When I was twenty-three, I got my first (and only) full-time job working in the Internet sales department of a car dealership. New to sales, I wanted to learn how to be a better salesperson. So, I Googled “sales blogs” and came across a website that changed my life, Anthony Iannarino’s blog: http://www.thesalesblog.com.
“It’s not “out there.” It’s not something external. It’s not someone or something else. It’s you. Own it.” – Anthony Iannarino
Anthony taught me everything I know about sales and introduced me to a whole world of connections through Twitter and the blogosphere. I’ve had the privilege of meeting Anthony on a few occasions, and he is generous man with brilliant mind and a commanding presence. I could create an entire blog centered around everything I’ve learned from him but, if I were to distill it into one central lesson, it would be this: take responsibility for your position in life.
It’s easy (and maybe even accurate) to blame your family background, to blame the job market, to blame your genetics, to blame anything but yourself for the challenges you face. I know, because I’ve used all of these excuses. If there’s one thing Anthony has taught me, it is to own it. Regardless of where the fault lies, I’ve learned to take responsibility for it. Why? Because you cannot possible change anything until you believe that you are responsible. Being accountable for your lot in life is empowering. Anthony has taught me how to focus on improving, rather than on complaining. And it all starts, always, with taking responsibility.
Of Teachers and Students
These lessons merely scratch the surface of what these great mentors have taught me. I cannot thank these men enough for the influence they’ve had on my life. My hope is that the legacy I leave behind will honor the time and devotion they have put into molding me. I am eternally indebted to them and will do everything I can to repay that debt by passing on their wisdom to others.
The old adage, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” has certainly proven true in my life. What about yours? Who has had the most influence on your life…and how is that influence reflected in your thoughts and behaviors? It’s something worth considering. We are the sum of what we’ve learned. To truly know ourselves, it’s a good start to find out who our teachers are.