Saturday, January 30, 2016

Doing to Learn; Learning to Lose

  • Learning to Do 
  • Doing to Learn
  • Earning to Live
  • Living to Serve

Any good FFA member will recognize the first half of the blog title as the second line in the FFA motto; the second half is what I got most out of FFA.

I have been known to refer to FFA as the great disappointment in my early life. I also benefited in numerous ways: including learning how to deal with disappointment. FFA didn't teach me how to lose - or be okay with losing. Rather, FFA taught me how to get back up again.

Donning the national blue and corn gold wasn't something I "knew" I would do growing up (unlike 4-H). I didn't even think about joining FFA or taking Ag Ed classes - because I wasn't interested in farming - until I attended our chapter's FFA banquet as an 8th grader. Then, I heard the FFA Creed. With each "I believe...," I became a believer that FFA would be integral to my future.

I started FFA as a freshmen with big goals:
1) Be Freshmen Creed Speaker.
    1a) Go to State.
    1b) Win State.
2) Make it to State every year for a speaking contest.
    2a) Earn gold.
3) Be Chapter President.
4) Be a District Officer.
5) Be a State Officer.
6) Be selected for the Chapter Farmer award (given to the outstanding senior).
7) Be part of the Soils Team that goes to Nationals.
8) Earn a State FFA Degree.
9) Earn enough points to be a chapter delegate to National FFA Convention as a senior.

My actual FFA list?
1) Be Freshmen Creed Speaker. CHECK. 
    1a) Go to State.  At Sub-Districts (first competition), say the 4th paragraph instead of the 2nd.
    1b) Win State.
2) Make it to State every year for a speaking contest. Revised goal: Make it to State 3/4 years. CHECK.
    2a) Earn gold. Sophomore: State Silver, Extemporaneous Speaking; Junior: State Gold (3rd place), Parliamentary Procedure; Senior: State Gold (2nd place), Prepared Public Speaking
3) Be Chapter President. Ran for every office...elected Sentinel (the last election).
4) Be a District Officer. Slated for Vice-President (junior year); not elected.
5) Be a State Officer. Slated for State Vice-President (representing SW District) [senior year]; not elected.
6) Be selected for the Chapter Farmer award (given to the outstanding senior). CHECK.
7) Be part of the Soils Team that goes to Nationals. CHECK.
8) Earn a State FFA Degree. CHECK.
9) Earn enough points to be a chapter delegate to National FFA Convention as a senior. CHECK.
10) Discover my college major: agricultural education - and a love of experiential learning. 

I could go into great detail about the pain of disappointment that accompanied each failed goal. However, that transfers the focus from the great lesson - the great gift that FFA gave me. 

As a freshmen in high school, I had to first learn how to deal with disappointment. At Sub-Districts, when I got into the competition room, I felt so alone - with this weight of expectation of success on my shoulders. In spite of hours of flawless practice and the way the Creed resounded with my idealist soul: I screwed up. There was no way to undo it, either. I had to take my lumps and move forward. 

Moving forward seemed so difficult, though. I felt like such a let-down. I felt like I was a disappointment. My advisor had high expectations (at least, I thought so) - that I was good enough to win state - and I didn't even make it past sub-districts. I felt like I let my parents down. I know I let me down.

And here, I learned my first lesson: I am not a disappointment. My worth as a person is not tied to my success in a contest. I can encounter disappointment; I can cause disappointment - but who I am is separate from any successes or failures. 

I also learned my second lesson: never underestimate a contest or overlook a step toward your goal. I started to write out my goals for FFA and Speech contests - and I outlined each step necessary to get to my ultimate goal, so that I wouldn't take any part for granted. There are no "little" contests or victories. Each one matters. 

I also started a "pre-game" ritual for any contest or interview I participated in. I *always* took a moment to pray before entering the room. I prayed not only for the ability to do my best and wisdom to answer their questions, but also for the judges - that they would judge fairly with wisdom and grace. Though I didn't know anything about "centering" then, this small act was a chance for me to center - but also take the focus off judgement of me or my performance. It allowed me to recognize that even in circumstances where I gave my best, there could be those who are better - and I needed to be able to recognize that.

The other major disappointments all circle around elections (how fitting for the caucus/primary season). Through each loss, I realized that sometimes, the most qualified candidate doesn't win. Sometimes, the person with better ideas, and the capacity to bring leaders together to create change loses to the "fat guy in the little coat." Bernie Sanders take note: idealism rarely trumps humor in a popular vote.

Young Jessica was such an idealist. (Let's be honest, though: don't we want our young people to be idealists? To think the best about others? To trust and believe that good people working together can change the world? Isn't that better than raising a world of cynics? Or worse - disengaged, disheartened kids who think they can never change anything?) FFA helped me realize that no, life isn't always fair. You don't always get what you want. Sometimes, you can't win everyone over.

What I learned most from losing chapter president (and every other election - 5 - until sentinel) was "leadership is action - not position." (Thanks Mom for the plaque with this saying - given to help 'cheer' me up after the loss.) Honestly, this loss was such a blow to me that for a brief moment, I thought about quitting. I just didn't understand how people couldn't jump on board with my vision to take our chapter up a notch. I had all these dreams - and now, they would never happen.

Until, I realized that no one needs to be elected to make change. For change to happen, what is necessary is desire and action. If I was only interested in making those ideas happen in order to be President, then what kind of a leader was I? Self-interested; self-important. Faced with that loss, I needed to decide if I was a leader by character or a leader by title. FFA taught me that character leadership is more valuable than any title.

FFA also taught me when to walk away. (Ok, actually, Kenny Rogers did. FFA just provided the opportunity). Being a state officer was a goal of mine from freshmen year - but when that didn't happen my senior year, I was okay walking away. I could have come back another year to run (which would have meant running against a good friend) - but I just wasn't interested. I was ready to start fresh in college. I was thankful to FFA, but I didn't need to be a lifer.

Now, I am married into a family full of more successful FFA members. Of the 5 of us, 3 were state officers; 4 have American degrees (not me); we all have state degrees. Just between Dan and I, his victories trump mine: State President, Regional (in Iowa we call them District) Officer, Chapter President, Prepared Public Speaking State winner & National contestant - and more than I could list off the top of my head.

1998 FFA: on the left - my friends and I post-banquet (I'm far left); right - Ryan (Dan's best friend) and Dan

What I needed most from FFA, though, I received. I needed to learn that the outcome doesn't define me (or my worth): I am more than my failures and successes. The best person doesn't always get elected, but that is not an excuse to quit or to stop leading. I needed to learn that participating in contests isn't actually about the color of the award. Above all, I needed to know how to get back up when disappointment knocks me down - and to reframe the experience into a lesson.
[I didn't get to share that in a motivational closing officer speech, though, which will probably be one of my life's great regrets.]

When you think about it, don't we all need those lessons?

When I think of my students (current and former) who are afraid to fail: wouldn't it have been better for them to do and fail - and get back up again - when they were 14 instead of 21 - or 25? What could we be capable of if we knew that failure wouldn't ruin us, but actually makes us better?

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