ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker

HARNESSING THE BEST THAT IS WITHIN YOU

It wasn’t that my first semester at college was a total waste academically.  My roommate, Dave, and I learned a lot together.

 For example, we learned that if you’re really careful you can squirt an entire can of shaving cream into a large balloon, and that the content of one such balloon, accurately dropped from a fifth-floor dorm window, is sufficient to completely cover a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle.

We also learned that peas have the perfect density for long-distance bombing in a cafeteria food fight – and that applesauce doesn’t.

 And we learned that it takes about two seconds for heavily amplified sound to travel a quarter of a mile.  We conducted this experiment ourselves, using Dave’s stereo, four speakers facing out of our dorm window and the long scream from “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by the Who.  Two seconds after we cranked it up, heads started turning on campus.  We even made the university newspaper the next day under the headline: “Mystery Sound Baffles Security.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t take physics that semester so I didn’t get any credit for all of that exhaustive research.  This is consistent because I didn’t get much credit in any of the classes I actually took, either.  Not that I tried to fail.  I studied – when there wasn’t anything else to do.

When I showed Dad my first collegiate grade report I expected a flash of anger and frustration.  He was, after all, footing the bill for what appeared to be a fairly bogus educational adventure.  He was entitled to a little righteous indignation.

“Dad, let me explain . . .” I said, opening a speech I had been practicing for days.

He held up a hand to stop me.  “You don’t need to explain anything,” he said, calmly.  “I know that the first semester of college can be tough.”  He glanced at the report again.  “I just wasn’t expecting it to be THIS tough.”

I could see the disappointment in his eyes – eyes that had always been filled with pride at every high school accomplishment and success.

“The thing that concerns me,” he continued, “is that you didn’t even try.  These grades don’t tell me that you’re not smart enough for college.  They tell me that you didn’t put forth any effort.  And if you don’t learn anything else from your first semester, you’re going to learn that if a thing is worth doing at all, it’s worth giving it your best effort.  Anything less than that is a waste of time, money and talent.”

With that he tore my grade report in half and tossed it in the garbage.  He started to leave, then he stopped and turned to face me once more. “You’ve got one semester to see what you can do when you try,” he said.  “Aren’t you curious to know how far your best effort can take you?”

As it turned out, I was.  I didn’t become a Rhodes Scholar or anything, but I tried harder and my grades improved.  And every once in a while I attacked a project with my whole heart and soul and I found out that my best effort was . . . well . . . pretty good, if I do say so myself.

Of course, I’m no different than most folks that way.  Many of us are content to cruise through life, expending only as much energy as required to keep ourselves afloat.  Only occasionally, when circumstances thrust themselves upon us, do we achieve the level of excellence of which we are capable.  At such times we often amaze ourselves with what we are able to accomplish when we really, really try.

And then we slip back into calm waters and resume floating.

Life saves its greatest rewards for those who have the strength and courage to escape their comfort zone.  These people aren’t necessarily more talented or more capable than anyone else.  They’ve just learned how to harness the best that is within them.  They refuse to settle for “adequate” when they are capable of “superb.”  And they understand that the only thing that’s good half-done is a steak.

That’s what Dad used to say.  And he was right.  “Do Your Best” is a powerful philosophy for living.  If you’re going to do it – whatever “it” is – do your best.  That doesn’t mean you have to be the best there is – just the best you can be.

Even if that eliminates new advances in shaving cream balloon bombing along the way.

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— © Joseph Walker

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