19 not-angry students

By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

All adults have been 18 once, but most of us have not been 18 in 2016. There’s a difference, which I kept in mind as I spoke to 19 freshmen taking part in a special leadership course at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith last week. 

The students were there because the university’s chancellor, Dr. Paul Beran, believes they’re future leaders, and for some reason he thought I might have something to say to them. So I encouraged them not to get mad. Proverbs 22:24 says, “Make no friendship with an angry man,” so don’t be that angry man. 

Thankfully, that message turned out to be merely a warning, not a scolding, because I didn’t see a lot of anger in that room. I don’t spend much time around 18-year-olds, but I was struck by this bunch’s youthful optimism and positive outlooks. One student named Kelsey completely disagreed with one of my comments, but in the most respectful way possible. Maybe she was simply showing deference to her elder, but while her eyes were passionate, they were not unkind or condemning.

Gosh, I hope she stays that way.

I choose to believe that those young people looked cheerful and optimistic because they really are cheerful and optimistic. So the question becomes, why them and not so many of us? 

Part of it’s just being young, of course. It just feels better than being older, physically. 

But 18-year-old future leaders also lack two bad habits that many of the rest of us have developed – the media we consume, and the things on which we focus.

These young people watch the news some, but that’s about it. They have things to do, tests to study for, friends to hang out with, and future mates to seek. So they’re not going to spend three hours listening to a news anchor or talk radio host yell about the latest manufactured controversy. Plus, young people simply don’t get their news that way, thank goodness. They get their news in bite-sized chunks and move on.

The other thing I suspect about these students is that they spend more time in the “circle of influence” than they do in the “circle of concern.” Those are two illustrations by the late Dr. Stephen Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” The circle of concern is a big circle involving all of the things we worry about. Contained within is the smaller circle of influence, which involves what we can actually affect. 

Our attention should be focused on the circle of influence, but as adults it can be very tempting to wallow in the circle of concern. The word “ruminant” refers to animals such as cows that chew their food, swallow it, and return it to their mouth to chew it again. Too many of us adults spend too much time ruminating about things we can’t control, like this year’s presidential race. We internalize it, spit it back up and then chew on it some more, this time mixed with bile. The students at UAFS seemed to be following the race, and many seemed to share in the widespread disappointment with this year’s choices. But maybe because they have other things to do – things they can influence, like the next test – they aren’t ruminating on it.

The late comedian George Burns used to sing, “I wish I was 18 again and going where I’ve never been. But old folks and old oaks standing tall just pretend. I wish I was 18 again.” 

Until someone invents a time machine, that wish won’t come true – which means it never will, because if it were possible to travel back in time, we would have already met someone from the future. Still, even old folks and old oaks can recapture some youthful optimism by turning off the TV and focusing less on what we can’t change, and more on what we can.

2 thoughts on “19 not-angry students

  1. Mr. Brawner,
    Thank you again for sharing your time with our class. I want you to know that because of you, our class discussion did not stop in the classroom, but lasted through dinner and into the night. We appreciate the kind words in this article.

  2. Thank you, Taylor, and thank you for the epic thank-you note from the class. That one will be a keeper. You are a leader in a classroom full of leaders. I expect I’ll be covering more than one of you in the days ahead.

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