Performance coach Mike Green writes about a high-stakes experiment in this, the first in a new series of All-In Blog guest posts from experts and heretics in a variety of industries. Enjoy. – Cort
I remember the day vividly. I was a 10th grade Global History teacher in western New York. I remember thinking, “This might not end well.”
My students were staring at me, stunned. I’d just uttered the f-word right there in class.
I closed my Teachers Edition New World History book and began to plead with myself and declare to the students, “I used to be fun. I used to take kids like you into the wilderness and teach them how to go beyond the limits you and others have put on you. I used to teach stuff that mattered, like how to follow your passion and make a difference in the world in your own way. Don’t submit to the norm. Now I teach what Marie Antoinette said about ‘eating cake.’”
My experiences had helped cultivate a reputation as a “cool” teacher with the students. My colleagues saw me as an “undisciplined but effective teacher.” Thank God I had a principal who understood me.
I’d need him that day. I also needed to change the conversation––fast.
So as they were reeling from the curse word they’d undoubtedly already heard––just not from a teacher––I made a declaration. “This Friday will be our first Life Lessons Friday,” I said. “No books. Just life. We’ll spend 40 minutes every Friday on topics that really matter.”
The atmosphere shifted as the kids turned and began chatting excitedly amongst themselves. Mission accomplished.
What began as a desperate attempt to change the conversation evolved into an invaluable exchange we all looked forward to weekly.
One of our lessons echoed the point Cort made in his recent post, “Breaking News.”
To prepare for this lesson, I asked all of my students to go home, take the Sunday paper, and mark a “+” or a “-” next to the article headline, designating a positive or a negative header. Then, they were to add up the results and come to school ready to report how many positive and negative headlines they encountered.
The students turned in their tallies to me on Monday. During the next Friday Life Lesson, we discussed how the media influences our lives. We had a conversation about how often we read or saw stories with vivid imagery on TV about something happening on the other side of the world, country, or town, and the way it changed our perspectives and made us feel less safe. The kids brought up everything from, “My mom tells me all the time not to talk to strangers,” to “My father told me that to earn my driver’s license I have to take a self-defense course so I can fight off all the nuts out there.”
I had calculated some percentages using their headline tallies during the week. Before I unveiled those numbers, I asked them a question: “If you were on the side of the road with a flat tire about an hour from the sun setting and a man stopped to help you, would you a) Help the man help you?; b) Let the man help you but keep a safe distance; or c) Lock your doors and wait for law enforcement to arrive?” Keep in mind this was before mobile phones had made their way into all of our hands and pockets.
A funny thing happened: The answers from the students perfectly corresponded with the percentage of negative articles in the Sunday paper––85%. These kids had categorized every single piece––even the wedding announcements.
“Do you think there is any correlation between your overall response and the negativity in the newspaper?”
They didn’t hesitate. “Yes!”
“Alright,” I said. “So what’s the lesson?”
The kids stared at me, unsure where I was going next.
“Guys,” I began. “You can depend on the kindness of strangers. The world is a much more loving place than we’re led to believe in the media. And I’ll prove it to you.” I paused, and before I truly realized what I was committing to, said, “And to prove it to you, I’m going to hitch hike from New York to Alaska this summer with no money or food, relying solely on the kindness of others.”
My proclamation set off a firestorm of critiques and concerns––negativity––from school officials, parents, friends, and family. My own mom cried the first three times I mentioned it. The Chief of Police called me to “give me a talking to.”
The worries did not vary much: Most everyone said I’d be found in a ditch, assaulted and dead. Another interesting connection to our Friday Life Lesson? About 85% of the responses were negative––just like the headlines and classroom survey.
I kept my word. In late spring, clean-shaven and determined, I shouldered my backpack, lit my cigar, and walked out of town. I carried a sign a student had made for me that said simply: WEST on one side, NORTH on the other.
My first of what would be a total of 37 rides picked me up less than 5 minutes after I started. Over the next 5,235 miles, I had only one awkward encounter, never waited more than an hour for a ride, and did not go hungry.
The trek itself, of course, is another story.
Mike Green is a performance coach based in Boulder, CO. Over the past 20 years, he has worked and traveled extensively throughout all seven continents and almost 60 countries, tackling a broad slate of demanding jobs along the way. Mike believes all environments, no matter how extreme, share a fundamental need: people who are brave enough to be themselves.
Lead photo by Gavin Li. Used with permission via CC License 2.0.