What is water?

At Sacred Heart School of Halifax this weekend, 130 kids from 26 schools gathered for “Make a Wave,” the CAIS Student Leadership Conference. The strength of this conference has always been its philosophy: by the students and for the students.   This year’s student leaders developed a partnership with us; last year, students told us they wanted more of a program focused on leadership development. So this year, we agreed to introduce a pilot project partnership with Ellie Avishai from Rotman School of Management, and the students told us that this was an important component of their time in Halifax.

Below is the speech I gave to wind down the conference on Saturday afternoon:

Speech for CAIS Student Leadership Conference 2011

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks, “What the heck is water?”

If you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish.

The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.

David Foster Wallace, one of the most influential and innovative American writers of the last 20 years, used this opening story in a speech to college graduates. He went on to speak about the need to be aware of your surroundings and think about what is obvious; understand it; question it; challenge it. Like the fish, you need to ask: What is water?

And so I am here to get you to think about something similarly obvious: leadership. You have spent a few days thinking about what it means to be a leader and doing some great work as leaders. You’ve done some reflecting, and I think the pursuit of self-awareness is vital – you need to know who you are and what you think and what gets you motivated to change the world.

Obviously, in becoming future leaders, you need to think about yourself. And this may seem to be a bit of a selfish process, but it is necessary nonetheless. If you stop and think about it, your world centers around you, and my world centers around me.

There is no experience I have had that I am not the absolute center of. The world as I experience it is there in front of ME or behind ME, to the left or right of ME, on MY laptop or MY blackberry. And so on. It is all about ME. People’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to me somehow, but my own feelings are so immediate, urgent, real. Enough about me, let me tell you more about me…

We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness. To be so self-centered is so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our brains at birth. We can’t really help it.

But can we?

If you focus on the fact that everyone is thinking from that perspective, if everyone is thinking – I am most important – then life will be miserable. Let’s play that out. You get up late and eat a bag of cheerios for breakfast which is not even filling and your Mom gives you a hard time for being late and your teacher makes a snappy remark about your shirt not being tucked in and the fact that you can’t find a pen, again, but meanwhile the guys at the back of the room are texting without their homework done and the teacher says nothing to them.

All you can think about is MY hungriness and how dreadful MY Mom is even worse MY teacher is, and MY desire to be anywhere except this place and if only everyone else would see it MY way and know that MY life is tough. Ever get into those moods?

I want you to go away with another thought on leadership. I want you to ask – what is water?

The challenge is this – be aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at life. You can learn to pay attention to what appears to be obvious and question it

How might your day look if you looked at it from another perspective? Did your Mom stay up late working? Did your teacher have a tough night and maybe he’s trying to focus on class when all he can think about is getting back home to care for his child who has been sick?

Leaders focus on three things – they know they have a choice, they believe they can influence outcomes, and they think about others, not just themselves.

I promised to not be the wise old fish, so I will give you a real example. Any football players in the room?

In 2005, the two top quarterback prospects that year were Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers. Smith played for the University of Utah and wowed the scouts with his athletic ability at the NFL combine. He also scored an amazing 40 out of 50 on an intelligence test. The 49ers, who saw him as a smart, gifted athlete, made him the first pick in the draft. Rodgers, who many thought would go No. 1, had the painful experience of lingering in the green room on live television until he was selected by the Packers as the 24th pick.

About five years ago, the NFL was having trouble with a rash of arrests and suspensions, and coaches and scouts wanted to see if there was some kind of data to help their decision-making. When they are making $20 million decisions, they want all the research they can find. So they found a company with the premise that spontaneous speech reflects our character, and they began collecting and analyzing interviews with college stars.

What would you have done if you were the 49ers general manager on draft day in 2005 and you had this kind of interview data? We know now that Alex Smith had low scores in positive power and in-group affiliation. He talked like someone who didn’t see himself as a leader and he is focused on himself. Aaron Rodgers was at the opposite end of the spectrum. He was a guy who talked about team and took ownership of actions.

Now, who can tell me who was the more successful of the two?

Language, then, not only reflects our character, it reflects our potential—that future backup quarterbacks talk like backups, and future starters talk, and therefore think, like starters.

Everyone in this room has been identified by your schools as future starters. You are young, live in a country where you are free to make decisions, and you are educated at CAIS schools, the top schools in Canada.

You can choose to live life on your default setting – so you are passive, and think only of yourself and getting more stuff and figuring out a way to get rich.

You are, of course, free to think of whatever you wish.

But I urge you to avoid asking: What about me? I urge you to really get to know other people, really understand the points of view of others – your friends, your new friends, and those you don’t know, future friends. I urge you to make the decision to ask good questions.

The real value of education has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with increasing your simple awareness – awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.”

I love the theme of your conference: making waves. Congratulations to the student leaders: Julia, Kelsie, Emily, and Maura and to their Faculty Advisor: Tamara Drummond. They have run a great conference and they chose the awesome theme of Make a Wave – it is a perfect and powerful image. But there are many factors contributing to what makes a wave – the collective force of all of you in this room is a remarkable start.

At this stage in your lives, there are so many competing interests for your time and energy, but I suggest to you that real leaders have self-awareness and understand choice. And I wish you all the best as you go forward, choosing to ask, “What the heck is water?” and making some waves.

P.S. Thanks to Ellie for collecting student feedback!

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