25 messages to my high school self

(Groovy video from my TYLC keynote talk, swanky picture from TEDxNCSU 2013)

United by a desire to bring change to their communities, 60 high school students from all over North Carolina traded video game shenanigans for a weekend at NC State studying leadership.  Triangle Youth Leadership Services – the occasion of the hour – asked me to open their conference (TYLC).

“Talk about whatever you want,” they innocently advised.

45 minutes to corrupt 60 innocent minds?  MUAHAHAH!!!

The whole week leading up to the talk, I racked my brain for material dangerous enough for such a momentous occasion.


I had no idea what the hell to say.

“If I could slap my high school self with a dose of knowledge, what would it be?”

If you could slap your naive, optimistic, hormone’d up high school self with a dose of knowledge, what would it be?

It’s a beautiful gift, the chance to send a small message back in time, and like a frail, beautiful, breathing flower intended for a mother, this message in a bottle deserves – demands – careful caring hands.

After conversations with a dozen or so friends (a big thank you to those who helped me bounce ideas), two simple themes emerged victorious as my right answer (everyone has their own):

Be yourself.

Do things that scare you.

Beautiful and cliche.  Plain and simple, that’s what I’d tell myself.

But telling a room full of 14 year olds to ‘be themselves’ is like telling a room of Israelis and Palestinians to ‘just get along’.  Get over your problems and be friends!

Adding a tablespoon of ‘be yourself’ into the equation might as well multiply the impact of my 45 minutes with these students by 0.  Hell, a teaspoon is enough to switch the ‘off button’ for the teenage attention span.  Street cred revoked, no matter how funny I am.  Bye bye Kevin, hello iPhone.

We needed a head fake.  Lead these young innocent minds down a direction that’s hip while still leaving grandpa Kevin’s message.  If you’ve ever seen the Last Lecture by Randy Paush, I ripped this page out of his book.

Eureka!  Rap our “be yourself” present in the sparkly packaging of pretty prose and give it to them while dancing.  They’ll never know what hit them.

Our new message:

Make Your Own Map

Lean into Fear

To illustrate the creating and fear smashing needed for our message of the day, I shared my story and that of Rosy Greer, an NFL Pro Bowler who wrote a book for manly knitters.

Then we had everyone get into pairs.  One took on the persona of the best reporter in the world, hell bent on extracting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  The other transformed into a notorious suspect: the second best unicorn hunter in the world.  They interviewed each other, shared, then swapped partners.  Wash, rinse and repeat.

It was by far the best talk I’ve ever given, but not because the unicorn hunters or grandpa’s message.

It was you who made it unforgettable…



I know I said the talk was done after that last activity, but I lied.


Hoping to get some idea in the process of making the talk, I put this question out to the world on Facebook:

I’m talking to 60 high schoolers on Friday and need to corrupt their minds as much as possible.  If you could travel back in time and leave a message for yourself in high school, what would it be? 

The response was incredible – blowing my expectations out of the water – so we’re going to take a look back in time and see what 25 people have to say.

I silently clicked through the following quotes, giving a little context on the world travelers, entrepreneurs, students, peace corps volunteers, and friends sending wise messages back in time.  I hope you enjoy.  Some brought students to tears, others deserve to be mounted on a wall.  A big thank you to everyone who participated.  You never know who your story touched.**


“Get involved in as much as possible. High school has endless possibilities.  And then everybody go to NC State!”


“If you’re lucky, that strange, awkward phase you’re going through lasts a lifetime.”


“Assume that you already are awesome.”


“Don’t take yourself so seriously. Seriously.”


“The things that make you different from the crowd are what make you great and you should never have to apologize for that. Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. Don’t let other’s disbelief in themselves constrain your dreams from becoming a reality.”


“I NEED to Study Abroad.”


“Nothing ever goes as planned. Learn to be spontaneous.”


“Try. Again. Again. Again. Again. ”


“Care less about what other people say or care about. Just do you. Take what serves you, let the haters hate.”


“Do things that push the limits of your comfort zone; create new boundaries. Easiest way? Travel. ”


“Work to educate yourself outside of the classroom – leadership skills are frequently more valued than technical skills.  Study abroad, and find a scholarship that will pay for you to do it.”


“lance armstrong isn’t as awesome as you think he is… trust me”


“What you think you want out of life – esp career wise – likely wont be what you want by the time you’re in your mid twenties. And that’s ok. Why should a teenager dictate who you are in your 20s and beyond.”


“To do what you want to do, not what other people think you should do. Unless it’s illegal. Then you should probably listen to other people.”


“Try hard to fail (forward)”


“Practice! Practice more! Why aren’t you practicing?”


“Don’t ever let anyone persuade you from pursuing your passion, no matter how much they try to convince you that it’s impossible. You are braver than those people.”


“Be who you are, and not who someone else wants you to be.”


“Fear nothing, except the passage of time – it’s one thing you can never get back.”


“Give a 100% of yourself to achieve that which you love.”


“When you look at someone you see fat, short, tall, skinny, acne, unibrow — all those things that don’t matter. Everybody around you has a story. Learn it.”


“Do something every day that scares you.”


“Soon you will not be this self-conscious. Soon you will realize that most things are not that big of a deal. Soon you will see that you can reinvent yourself a million times, and then some.

But for now, think too many impossible thoughts and pursue dreams that seem too high up. Be far more idealistic than is practical.”

That’s it for now, wise time travelers.  To all the kids at TYLC, thank you for bringing me back in time.  After our talk, I remember people who had inspired me through speaking and had the odd feeling that I could do this for a living.


Written with Love,



* WHAT? You’re a time traveler too!  Join our tribe on the left and expect a small dose of awesome in your inbox yesterday.

** Many more commented.  Don’t feel bad if you don’t see yourself – I arbitrarily cut it down and edited out all the sh*t unsavory for high school ears.


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