doing the work(shops)

As I teased a little over the summer, I had the privilege of getting to lead a set of workshops for the Penn State Schreyer Honors College orientation last week. I graduated from the SHC in 2010, and I attended the very first ever orientation 12 years ago, so it was exciting to get back on campus and see how that event has grown over the past decade.

While their cell phones might be better (I showed a picture from me at graduation holding my Blackberry just to prove my age), first-year students still have that promise and glow I felt when I was their age… that excitement that can only come from hitting those big milestone moments.  I never take my role in the front of a room lightly, but I felt a real heavy weight in being one of the first faces they saw on campus. I wanted to give them something tangible, a sense of personal empowerment, community, and connection.

So, here’s what we did:

On Tuesday, I offered a smaller group of student leaders a look into how they balance wellness and how they can influence their communities. They picked an area of their lives that needed some attention and decided on a small, manageable step to take toward improving their acceptance and satisfaction. I also asked them to assess where they stand out as a leader among their peers and to recognize how their own growth can impact others. While they did most of the work in partners, I did have them all reconnect at the end of the session and share with the larger group. What came out of that was a real sense of individuality: Each student had his or her own goals and experienced the activities and personal inquiry in their own unique way.

I walked out on Tuesday afternoon energized and excited because, well, despite being an instructor for 2 years, I’d never done anything like this before. I was proud of the program I set up, the way I presented it to the team, and the way I engaged with the students… but I didn’t have any history to tell me it would work.

The sessions on Thursday were for first-year students and the mentors who led their groups during orientation. Since the groups were larger and mostly made up of students starting their first semester, I opted to set them up to “meet and beat” a challenge over the next few months. They did an exercise in which they identified their “Core Motivation Style.” Core Motivations was a tool I learned during my coach training. It’s a personality/motivation assessment based on the Enneagram system, where you discover what motivates you to act and lead, what holds you back, and what propels you to success. They tapped into what they learned and also created an action step to take toward meeting the challenge they anticipate facing in their first semester.

In each session, I built in to our time a moment for each participant to reflect on what the most valuable thing they’d take away from the session, mostly so that I could find out what was useful. What I heard was how important self-reflection and goal-setting were to the group. “I don’t need to be so hard on myself.” “Other people have the same challenges.” “It feels really good to share and connect on a deeper level with another student.” “My challenge really isn’t so scary after all.” “I have what I need to succeed already.” “I need to start taking better care of myself so that I can be a better friend and teammate.” “I didn’t realize my impact on others and want to try to be a better person.”

I mean, wow, right?! I just turned 30 and feel like I’m only now just starting to grasp some of these lessons. But these students, they’re going to take this and hand it to their friends and peers, just by being their own authentic selves. I let them know that the hard work is just beginning… once you open the door of self-awareness, it’s hard to close it again. You view the world, and your place in it, a little differently. You have to constantly ask yourself “What’s important to me? Who do I want to be?”

By asking them those questions for the first time, I wanted to give them permission to realize their strengths and values, not just their career or academic ambitions. Among a group of high-achievers, I think this is so, so meaningful. They’re doers and perfectionists, but offering them the space to cultivate other definitions of themselves is going to let them be even more than successful: happy and fulfilled.

This week, I’m reflecting on the experience, taking the time now to ask myself what I learned – in both a business and personal sense.

I guess the biggest thing I learned was that in this space, the business and the personal are all connected. (Duh, Jenn. You JUST wrote about this.)

I learned to trust my balance between preparation and intuition. This is always my struggle: the divide between head and the heart. I rely on logic, on solving anticipated problems, on my intelligence and professionalism. But I’ve also learned to trust my authentic self, to listen to the voice that says “hey, this will work!”, to step back and not overthink. These workshops were a perfect practice of that for me. I kept the goal in mind, of reaching the students on a deeper level, of giving them something meaningful and tangible, and I let the words fill in themselves. (I also had to react on the fly to a lack of necessary materials, had to reorder slides while students talked, and adapted to technical difficulties. I’m proud of handling the tiny amount of adversity with grace and empathy, skill and fluidity.)

I also learned to stand in my own confidence. I got this gig because I asked for it. I literally asked to lead the workshops. I reached out to a connection from my student days (never burn those bridges, friends!), walked into the meeting with a strong vision, and delivered what I knew I could.

In a broader sense, I also asked for it by doing my homework, building my skills, and taking the time to really explore what was possible. I didn’t rush it by saying “I have to do a-b-c, make x dollars, etc.” I meditated on what would inspire me and believed it would happen, without giving it such a strict outline and requirement. When you ask for something, believe in its inevitability, and leave the space open for it to come to you in unexpected ways, the Universe listens.

But there’s an important distinction: I didn’t ask for permission to create this. I wanted to be in the room, so I found a way and walked in. I don’t believe in “fake it ‘til you make it” – if you’re doing the work, you aren’t faking it. You’re doing it. And I wanted to do it, so I did it. I didn’t have to know how ahead of time, I just had to trust myself to get it done.

I promised myself I’d stay present while it was happening, and partway through session 2 on Thursday I had one of those “well, this is it” feelings: I’m doing it. I’m doing the thing. I’m standing here, on a business I built, using all the skills I’ve learned since I sat on the other side of this room. It was a rare affirming moment – I’m doing what I truly want to be doing, and I’m LIKING IT. Loving it, actually… which isn’t something I’ve experienced much professionally since I graduated.

I also saw 18-year-old-me in that crowd, whose biggest fear would probably have been not getting a 4.0 GPA, and I felt all the growing she’s done in the past 12 years. I was proud of her, and I was proud of the current me, too. Sometimes we spend so much time asking and building and doing that we forget to appreciate and be proud of what we’ve gotten by doing it all. I didn’t want this to be one of those moments. I wanted to stand in all of it, revel in the magic I created, and let it inspire me.

A big thank you to the staff who trusted me to lead and the 200+ students who gave me their attention, shared their vulnerability, stayed open to the power of perspective, and empowered me through their thoughtful reflection. I hope the realize a better semester because of the work they put in.

I gave myself the weekend to celebrate, unplug, and reflect… and now I’m taking that inspiration to go, already thinking about what comes next, working to maintain the connections, and following possibilities. Because, you know, once it’s opened, you can’t put the work and growth back in the box… and really, would you want to?