Prelude to Success in Life, Business and the Understanding of People…
And a strong argument for Competency-Based Learning.
I was the nightmare son. You know, the one who listened to some rules and not others. The one who when given ultimatums from his parents seemed to always (as my dad would say) “cut my nose off to spite my face.” And the one who went on a spur-of-the-moment two-and-a-half-year hitchhiking adventure around the United States and Canada, which served as one of the best educational experiences of my lifetime (and scared the crap out of my parents ????). So, here’s my story, which I hope will make an important point that will get you thinking in a whole different way.
Sometime after my second semester at Miami-Dade Community College, I abruptly left home, went to work in a Miami Beach hotel and shortly thereafter, stuck out my thumb and went on a hitchhiking journey around the country, which has paradoxically served me well through my years in business.
What many would consider a foolish escapade taught me about planning, marketing, the art of persuasion, decision-making, having the guts to try new things, the joy of helping others, and most importantly, forced me to refine my skills in reading and understanding people.
- Planning: The first afternoon on the road on my way from Miami to Gainesville, Florida, my first ride dropped me off on a pitch-black turnpike exit at Fort Pierce. At the time, Fort Pierce was a quaint town with no traffic and 7 other hitchhikers who were stuck on the same exit as me trying to all go north. After one of the longest nights of my life and no cars, I remembered a food plaza about a mile back. With the morning light came some traffic, which enabled me to quickly get a ride backwards, whereby within minutes, a kind man gave me a ride the rest of the way to Gainesville.
From that moment forward, I learned two key planning lessons, (1) cut rides short to get off at plazas and high traffic exits (easy places to get rides), and (2) when it was getting late, only take rides long enough (even if that meant turning down two or three) to have the safety of a car in which I could sleep through the night. In business, that translates into planning your days, weeks and months in advance to make sure you are prioritizing your time and heading in the right direction. And learning the importance of saying NO!
- Marketing: A hitchhiker has a short window in time when standing out on a highway or on a busy street to convince someone to give them a ride. I figured out quickly that what I put on my sign was important. I tested my messaging. And sometimes, when I was entertaining myself and looking for a very specific type of person to pick me up, I would make up a sign that said ‘MARS’. The double-takes and strange looks I would get to this day make me laugh, and the rides I would pick up were fun-loving people who enjoyed partying. In other words, the messaging on my sign mattered.
Translated to marketing: people make decisions in a blink of the eye to read social media posts, click on ads, listen to videos, read emails and more. So, I figured out through hitchhiking that headlines and subject lines are critical to the success of every marketing message, and those in marketing need to get them right! Those who know me will tell you how often I remind them of this point.
- The Art of Persuasion: Convincing someone in a food plaza or gas station to give a stranger a ride, or to letting me, a person they didn’t know, stay at their house was critical to my survival. Perfecting the art of persuasion so I never had to sleep outdoors; had access to showers, and enjoyed the company and hospitality of good people helping me out on my adventure, led me to some of the most amazing times and lessons of my young life.I learned about the importance of self-motivation, of smiling and a good attitude.
I learned how critical it was to give people their space, so they did not feel uncomfortable and had time to assess my sincerity. I also learned about the advantages of being direct and how persistence and determination were key to a successful day in a city where I had never been. And finally, how important it was to ask for what I needed and to “close the deal”.I rapidly got comfortable making friends, which ended up extending the time I spent at their homes and my time in any given city. And in the end, my adventure became their adventure and my stories became their stories, and they received as much benefit of inviting me into their lives as I got in return. These are key lessons and skill-sets that I continue to enjoy today. I am no-longer apprehensive when I meet new people and am comfortable and confident when building relationships in my life, business and beyond. All important skills that have assisted me in being successful.
- Reading and Understanding People: Rapidly judging people’s character was critical to my survival and success. A mistake could be the difference between life and death, staying out of trouble when trouble was heading my way, and feeling safe in that I was always in a vulnerable position. Observing people’s body-language, quickly assessing my surroundings, picking up on micro-expressions, listening for the tone in a person’s voice, a conflict between what a person was saying and what their body-language was telling me, all were important to me deciding whether to take a ride, spend time on a street-corner with a group of individuals, or sleeping at a stranger’s home.
As in life and business, understanding who people are and what motivates them makes all the difference in the world. Choosing one’s friends, teammates, assessing people in meetings, or simply assessing a person walking towards you on a street corner at any moment in time matters.
- Decision Making: Deciding whether to take a ride or not take a ride, to accept an offer to stay the night with someone or not, and to remain in the city I was in or move onto the next adventure on my journey were all important decisions I made every day. I figured out that being indecisive was a decision unto itself. And I also discovered that trusting myself to make those decisions was important, because I realized that I would rather make important decisions that impacted me, rather than allowing anyone else to make those decisions on my behalf. I cannot explain to you how important those lessons served my in business and beyond.
Important Note: since then, I learned as a business leader that not every decision is my decision to make and is better left to those who are in the best place to assess the situation and make those decisions for themselves.
- Guts Matter: As time went on, I became more and more adept and confident in living a life on the road. I learned how to get rides more efficiently, how to meet the people I wanted to meet and stay the places I wanted to stay. And to get from one place to another faster.
Towards the end of my hitchhiking days, I was dropped off next to the Gainesville, FL executive airport. I had recently read about a person who hitchhiked through Europe on airplanes, which got me thinking. And you guessed it, I walked into the airport and began asking pilots for a ride. Within a few minutes, I ended up on a small jet to Chicago. Mind you, I was going to Montreal, Canada at the time, and Chicago didn’t really get me any closer, but I was so excited and said to myself, what the hell. It was truly amazing! I was in the front seat of a small jet, my first time flying, having an experience I will never forget. What I learned was that if I don’t ask, I’ll never get what I want. That I should never be afraid of trying something new. And that the most wonderful things in my life came from spur-of-the moment decisions and to always reach for the stars!
- The Joy of Helping Others: I cannot express to you how many good people I met while on the road. I cannot begin to tell you the number of people who helped me on my journey. How many people fed me when I was hungry, gave me rides when I stuck out my thumb and cared for me when I was sick. I cannot tell you how many good people there are in this world, who are willing to trust people in ways that I would have never imagined. These are the people who changed my life. These are the people, some rich, but most not, who inspired me to help those who I can help. And these people came in all shapes, sizes and colors.
The most important lessons I learned on the road was the joy of helping others. I learned how much goodness is in this world and the importance of giving people the benefit of the doubt. I learned from people to work hard in treating others how I want to be treated. And I learned through my experiences on the road that giving-individuals can teach others through example, and the impact one person can have on society.
Finally, consider the lessons I have learned and my story. I can honestly tell you that my two-and-a-half-years of hitchhiking, as unorthodox and crazy as it sounds, has assisted me in my life-long journey of success. And reflect upon the knowledge, the plethora of lessons, and the life-skills I acquired during these exciting adventures.
And now think about how the important learnings and skill-sets people who were born into poverty or who have had to fight their way out of the projects translate into critical skills that can be used in an important job. Spend a moment to imagine what it took for people to escape the lure of local gangs or who have guided others out of that way of life… If you listen carefully and give people who are different from you the chance and credit for their myriad of experiences, you will find out what others different from you have to offer and what they have learned.
This message is meant for college and university leaders, and anyone involved in education policies or could create a new educational model at an institution of higher learning. It is time you accelerate learning and decrease the time necessary for a student to complete their college degrees!
Figure out how to utilize new technology to assess people’s street-knowledge, experienced-based skill-sets, and competencies before they start school. Then give students credit for what they already know and have already mastered. And redesign and customize your systems, processes and degrees to take the information you learned about people to eliminate courses that they do not need. And finally, deliver individually designed programs that fine-tune students existing skills and only require them to learn new information that will help them to accomplish their goals.
As a result, the cost of an education and the time students will have to spend in school will be substantially reduced. And the colleges that change how they are operating will attract more students, decrease their costs, and increase their profits/surpluses! And most importantly, help their students graduate and improve students’ individual future trajectories and the future of society.
Hopefully you will pause a moment and think about these points: The steps you take after reading this article could make the difference between success and failure for your institution and a generation of learners! Now it’s up to you!