I had the pleasure of giving the following speech last evening at fraternity banquet honoring students who live and lead a “balanced life” while excelling in many ways at MIT. So here is what I had to say…the nods of heads across the room was enough confirmation for me.
Good evening everyone, and thank you for asking me to be here and speak with you all tonight, to honor this year’s award recipients of the Balanced Man/Woman Scholarship and celebrate their achievements.
I want to first reflect on the language of the award, its core, and the recipients celebrated tonight. The award states it’s intent of: celebrating men and women who exemplify the philosophy of living balanced lives and striving for excellence in EVERY endeavor amidst the VER Y challenging MIT academic environment.:
When saying that out loud, I ask myself, is it possible to be balanced, strive for excellence, AND be part of the very challenging MIT community? If you fulfill these qualifications, When do you sleep? Hang out with friends? Eat? Spend time with family? Reflecting on who you are as a person, where you want to go and why? So, then I think about, what does it mean to be balanced? Does it mean raising your hand and taking advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, just as long as it spans the depth and breadth of opportunity that the firehose provides us? Is that what balance means? Does it mean being everything to everyone and having just enough time in to squeeze in meals and a 15 minute convo with your best friend? Or does it mean something else entirely different?
If we think about a scale – how does it maintain balance? When an equal weight of mass is placed on both sides of the scale – it eventually balances out. I can’t believe I am actually using a scientific reference in a speech! But what matters (excuse the pun – get it matter!, I am really having fun with science) is what makes up that weight.
Consider this; if you have on one end of your scale school/p-sets/projects/internships and the other side of that scale, fraternity activities/student group activities/part-time job is that really balanced? Sure, these two parts of your life may weigh the same…but where is the rhythm that maintains that balance? The piece that comes in to take away the sting of the hectic lifestyle it ensues? To me, those two sides are too much weight. Where is the room that is made for activities that allow you to just be?
Perhaps being yourself – for you – is within your fraternity, your residential community, your student organization. But tonight, I am talking about creating a schedule of your life that provides you an opportunity to sit in quiet, to allow yourself to absorb the world around you in those precious moments of reflection and thought. And not thought that is made up of logarithms and calculus and bio lab. I am talking the realities of life! Finding your rhythm to maintain that balance. You cannot figure out your balance without reflection. You cannot lead without reflection. You can’t learn from your successes and failures without first taking a time out to think about it first in order to move forward. Reflection can be writing, meditation, drawing, even just chatting with friends, playing video games. The important piece to this is that you are taking a time out to fuel up.
When you move on from MIT, what will balance bring to your life? Will it be friends? Family? A significant other? An activity that has nothing to do with where you got your degree from? Yes, MIT is a family; a community, a network of people who have similar passions and drive in creating a better – and albeit faster and more efficient – world. But tonight, I urge you to find your rhythm – what moves and shakes you – but also allows you a balance to maintain the very weight you carry; to really implore yourself to discover a world that is beyond Mass Avenue.
So what does balance have to do with being an effective leader?
In graduate school, it was important to me that I made sure to schedule a balanced lifestyle among my classes, recitations, graduate assistantship, papers, projects, and job search – for me, my rhythm was my friendships, my opportunity to get to know others, to get to know the city I was living in, to make a few mistakes in relationships along the way. To breathe, to relax, to renew, to concentrate on myself. Getting to know yourself allows you to open up and think more clearly about the opportunities and challenges that come with being a leader. For example, I think about how I exemplify balance to my staff as a leader – I say to them – you are no good to me (in this job) if you are sick, tired, or run-down all the time from trying to be everything to everyone and taking on way too much than your plate can handle.
Because, a “balanced” life does not include a life that is crammed to the brim with activity. A balanced life includes time for rejuvenation and being a bit selfish with your time. It includes the phrase “no”. It is not about balancing a ton of academics with a ton of activities and a ton of UPOPS, UROPS, MISTIS and other assorted acronyms. Balance is about modeling a way of life that does not make you run of breath at the end of each day. Balance is not meeting others expectations of you but instead meeting your own. Being an effective leader means at some point you will need to be selfish with your time – indulge in, if you will, so that your motivation in your work is sustained by an opportunity to take a break once in a while.
I have to admit; I am not a fan of the firehose analogy that MIT clings to as a special shared joke among alumni and students; that being at MIT is like drinking from a firehose. I think that sets us all up to lead a very unbalanced experience of what it means to be a college student, to be a fraternity brother, a friend, a classmate. To drink in every opportunity is one thing; to feel that you cannot keep up with the rush it brings to your face is quite another. We do have the power to turn the faucet down a couple of notches in order to really discover what brings us pleasure from life. And while for right now that might mean be taking advantage of everything that happens at MIT, every day at every hour, drinking things in is DIFFERENT than GULPING it. When you gulp something down, are you able to really taste it? When you sip, you are able to enjoy it a bit. I don’t need to tell fraternity brothers that gulping and sipping or two different things – but I do need to tell you that you if you are tipping the scales more than it can balance, you are no good to the team or organization that you are leading.
To be a leader – you need to be alert, on your toes, aware and cognizant of all that might affect you, your team, your organization –to effectively model the values in which your organization holds so important. You cannot be any of these things if you yourself are weighing down both ends of the scale, where it simply becomes too heavy to hold.
This speech tonight is not just for you all – it’s for me, too. It’s a lesson I need to remind myself day in, and day out. When I want to say yes to everything, to learn all I can about MIT, about my position, about how to continue to improve upon the work we do every day. As a leader, that’s my responsibility. But it’s also my responsibility to take care of myself, to ask for help, and to find that rhythm that helps be balance the scale. You can do it too, I know it.
Good luck with the rest of your semester, congratulations to the recipients and my warmest wishes for the upcoming holiday season. And who knows? Maybe your rhythm will be snow-skiing. In my experience, the lodge is more my rhythm. Thank you!
Find your rhythm my friends. Share with the world – it is the journey, not the destination.
Leah A. Flynn, Copyright, 2012