20 Minutes to Figure Out Life – Really?


Back in 1918, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was asked how long it took to prepare a speech. He answered, “That depends on the length of the speech. If it is a ten-minute speech, it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech, it takes a week; if I can talk as long as I want to, it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

Chapel is 20 minutes long, and that usually includes opening words, a song, a message, a soloist and closing words. A great deal of effort is expended on meeting that timeline, particularly at the Senior School.

Last week our Director of Residence and Student Life, Keith Driscoll, and I re-purposed the Chapel time slot as a workshop, meeting with the Grade 12s in hopes of generating some deep reflection within this tiny, temporal window.

As students move through our school, they’re offered a number of metaphors through which to view their lives. In Grade 11, for example, they’re introduced to Joseph Campbell’s concept of The Hero’s Journey. Though originally intended as a tool to understand a genre of literature, it throws light on our actual lives and the cycle of calls, challenges and change.

One morning last week, we moved to another metaphor and suggested that the Grade 12s think of themselves as a company, specifically the Company-of-Me. Of course, any company needs to know its purpose, the resources upon which it can draw, and to whom it’s accountable.

The task, then, was simple. Each Company-of-Me student had to come up with (1) a purpose statement; (2) a list of assets and resources; and (3) a shareholder list that included a distribution breakdown. In 20 minutes.

Keith and I began by resetting the Chapel, leaving only enough seats for the students and ensuring that they had a little more space than usual between them. The students arrived to find three slips of paper on each of their seats. Once they were settled and encouraged to see how much they could wring from the short time frame, Keith explained the CEO metaphor.

So, what was their purpose? On the edge of the first piece of paper, they wrote down all of the roles they currently play: student, sibling, child, soccer player, chemist, etc. Next, they chose the five most important, which they fit into the following statement:

I am a (role #1), (role #2), (role #3), (role #4), (role #5),
and I exist in order to…

After filling in the roles, they moved to the second half of the statement, “I exist in order to….” Within four minutes, they held in their hand a rough purpose statement.

Next, they took the second slip of paper and began to list their internal assets (character traits, skills, education, etc.) and external resources (people, ideas, and things). Fleshing this out took another four minutes.

Finally, our Grade 12s wrote down the names of everyone who held shares in their lives, divvying 100 shares total between all shareholders, according to each person’s influence. This, you can imagine, is not a simple task. How many shares do we allot to parents, friends, teachers, teams and others? How many shares do we give to each member within these groups?

As well, we probably want to hold some shares ourselves, otherwise we’re declaring that we’ve no say in the decision making of our Company-of-Me. If that’s true, how many shares do we keep? Perhaps 51, so that we always have the last say, but then there aren’t many shares to distribute to others who support our life. We need their input and influence. What balance currently exists? What balance would we prefer? Deep breath. Another four minutes.

After compiling these three sets of thoughts about their Company-of-Me, the Grade 12s were reminded that as time progresses, our companies shift and grow. As our purpose and resources change, we are able to pull back and redistribute shares. For the Grade 12s, it’ll soon happen when they graduate, withdrawing some of the shares held by current friends so that they can be offered to new ones they meet in life after SMUS.

There will come a time when they decide that they’re ready for their parents to relinquish some shares. This makes sense because, for some, life partners will become the major player in decision making. Should children eventually come along, the little ones will exercise their ownership of shares with impunity, again reshaping the direction of the Company-of-Me. Whatever the redistribution (spoken or unspoken), these transactions need to be respectful of those who were once significant and now less so.

Here’s the bottom line: In all our life decisions, it makes good business sense to be aware of our purpose, be cognizant of our resources, and be mindful of how we distribute shares in our decision making. This way, we can take charge of the direction and effectiveness of our lives, hopefully creating a product line that is meaningful for ourselves, our shareholders, and the broader world.

Not bad for 20 minutes. Perhaps even Woodrow Wilson would approve.

Rev. Keven Fletcher writes about SMUS-related Chapel stories for the SMUS News site. He also writes about seizing a meaningful life on his personal blog at kevenfletcher.com.


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