You are the programmer. Write the program.

When I was in fifth grade, I decided to run for student council. The deal was that whoever wanted to run could so, then the class vote from this open field and one boy and one girl would be chosen to represent the class. To make this seem like it wasn’t entirely a popularity contest, my teacher told us that we would all have to develop a speech at which we would give at the end of the week right before the class would cast their ballots.

For context, I was the new kid in a fairly smaller school than I was used to. I had taken kindergarten through fourth grade in a different town and was still orienting myself with my new surroundings. Naturally, I had convinced myself that the best way to integrate seamlessly with the students was going to be by representing them. I would be the leader the never knew they needed! OR, for that matter, simply the leader they didn’t really know.

At the time, my brother and I were taking the bus home from school to my grandparents house where my mom or dad would pick us up later. I asked my grandfather if he could give me some help in writing my speech. He agreed to and we went to his office to start working on the first draft. For inspiration, he handed me Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” For a refresher, those habits are:

  • Be Pro-Active
  • Begin with the End in Mind
  • Put First Things First
  • Think Win-Win
  • Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  • Synergize
  • Sharpen the Saw

Per my grandfather’s advice, I literally began to weave the habits word-by-word into my speech. “I will strive for mutually beneficial solutions by thinking win-win. I will listen to your thoughts with an open mind and seek to understand, then to be understood. I will synergize the class.” I remember “synergy” being an incredibly difficult concept to grasp as a 10 year old, but it seemed like an important part to this whole leadership business and I was willing to give it a shot. I remember as I left class that day, my teacher holding me back to tell me how touched she was by my little speech. I told her thanks and that my grandpa helped and then proceeded to leave to catch the bus. I brought my grandfather the good news and told him I had to be a shoe-in if I had the support of the teacher.

The results: No one voted for the new kid and I didn’t win.[ref]Good news though: my teacher was so proud of my speech that she did nominate me for the school’s safety committee.[/ref] Shocker. I tried to run again in sixth grade (and lost) and then again in eighth grade (and lost again). After the third strike, I convinced myself that student body representation wasn’t for me, and that if I wanted to make a difference, it was going to be on the fringes (music, school newspaper, a/v club) where it usually happens anyway. It turned out people who do win that kind of stuff were too bubbly for my taste anyways and didn’t have any really responsibilities other than organizing the school assemblies.

It goes without saying that it’s been awhile since writing that speech, yet I still remember the heart of it to this day. But I’ll confess–I never actually read the book until now. And I as I read it, I’ve noticed it’s dense. It tugs at you. I don’t read more than 20 or 30 pages at a time as I’m trying to digest what it means particularly for me and how to implement the principles into my life. And to think my grandfather had the gumption to drop it in my lap as a boy as if it was something that I could not only understand but could scale to lead my peers effectively.

So as I reading it last night, I came to a section that shook me at my core:

“[Victor] Frankl says we detect rather than invent our missions in life. I like that choice of words. I think each of us has an internal monitor or sense, a conscience, that gives us an awareness of our own uniqueness and the singular contributions that we can make… Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life…

Habit 1 says “You are the programmer. Habit 2, then, says, “Write the program.”

-Stephen Covey

Empowering, yeah? So as everyone prepares for a new year with clean slates, rest, and an overabundance of initiative to make 2014 something that 2013 wasn’t, I ask that we all look at our individual uniquenesses and consider how they can contribute. Let’s write a program rather than think that 2014 has to be about re-writing something we aren’t necessarily proud of. And when the opportunity arises, take a page out of Grandpa’s book. Trust that anyone can rise to the occasion and ignore rules that say things like little kids couldn’t possibly understand our big, adult principles. Then challenge them to up the ante.