Sitting in my college coffee shop a single question changed my life.
When I was 22, just before I was about to graduate from college I had one of those fairy-tale moments when a very special mentor sat me down and asked me a question I had been avoiding for nearly my entire life.
"Vance, what is it that you really want to do once you finish college?"
This question struck fear into me, as I am sure it does to many college students watching the sun set on their last few months studying and learning about the world in the abstract.
I had been earning a degree in public relations and sociology.
But, after what felt like a tragic internship, I was downright scared about what the "real world" would look like for me. I knew I had skills but I couldn't name them and I certainly couldn't imagine someone paying me to sit at a desk and do "thinking" work.
I had paid for college working physical jobs. I was a valet for several years and during the summers and on the weekends I worked for a paving crew; doing backbreaking labor. Labor made sense to me because it was clear that I created value... someone would be willing to pay me to rake molten asphalt or stack 100 lbs. blocks.
But the idea that I could be paid for sitting in front of a computer, or for organizing information seemed almost unnatural. Here I was, a kid that had worked construction, detassled, and started a lawn mowing company. The thought that it would be more valuable for me to sit behind a desk rather than doing physical work was enough to make me crumble.
But I crumbled for many reasons,
Not just that I didn't think anyone would hire me, but I was also afraid of becoming Will Loman, a washed up burnout with unused potential; longing to "have made a difference in the world."
Any time someone asked me what I wanted to be, I would respond with a worthless joke about how I was looking into becoming an astronaut or perhaps a fireman. I disrespected their genuine curiosity about my future with an answer that distanced me from saying something that I saw as a commitment. I was genuinely worried to tell people who I wanted to become, because I was literally terrified that I could not become anything at all let alone anyone worthy of being paid for my intellectual work.
So on that fateful day when Brother Leo Ryan sat across from me in the Brew Bayou at Marquette University he was the first person to look me straight in the eyes and ask what I wanted to do with deadly seriousness.
I stuttered and stammered trying to get out of the awkward question. But Brother Leo was unrelenting. He had known me as a little child, when he would visit my family in our small central Illinois hometown. He had sat me on his lap and regaled my brothers and sisters about his tales becoming the first honorary chief of a tribe in Africa, or his trials and tribulations while visiting over 150 countries around the world. This was before global travel was done by almost anyone.
I respected Brother Leo, and finally in a moment of vulnerability I cracked. It must have felt like a levee breaking because a flood of emotions started to pour from my 6'4" frame. He listened to all of my fears of failure, my pent up hopelessness, and he softly acknowledged that yes, I was wallowing in my own self-pity because I was given almost boundless opportunity and couldn't get past my fear.
In this moment of candor I blurted out:
"The only thing I care about is traveling... all I want to do is see the world." Shockingly, Brother Leo leaned back in his chair and smiled. "Ahhh Vance" he said with a wise smile "you just did it... you named what you want and now all you have to do is figure out how to do it."
Like putting on perfectly calibrated glasses the whole world became instantly clear and sharply in focus. He went on "Vance, the hardest part of life is being honest about what you want. All that is left to do now is figure out how to get people to pay you for what you love to do."
This was the first time in over ten years that I could look out on the horizon of my future life and see something that would make me proud to be me. "The great art of life Vance, is figuring out how to become someone that brings value to people. The best advice I can give you is to go as fast as you can to places where people know that they need what you have to give."
With a burst of adrenaline
I surged forward hurling questions at him. I wanted him to tell me who would pay me to travel, how could I be of value, and who needed my help. But with his gentle force, he laid his eighty year old hand across my forearm. "Vance these are the questions that when answered will comprise your life. For now, just be satisfied that you know what the questions are that you should be answering."
These questions have fueled my life- where should I go? who needs me? how do you find people that know that they need me? Answering these questions has lead me to all the corners of the globe; the Peace Corps in Africa, a deckhand in Central America, running a radio station in Northern California, renovating a 1930's yacht while learning to surf with my friends, graduate school and eventually the World Bank.
The road was not easy, and now that I am married I have my wife's dreams and abilities to consider- where can WE be of use together? But the very first step comes from being honest about the very first question: what do you want? I knew all along, but was afraid to say it. I wonder if there aren't a lot of kids looking down the barrel of college graduation that need to ask themselves that question.
If you figure it out, let me know... and maybe we can help you write your resume and cover letter to help you get there ( a great Christmas gift for someone about to finish school.)
Also just as a side note Brother Leo is doing great- he even gave a blessing at our wedding reception just two years ago (imagine having an honorary African tribal chief at your wedding!)
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