The smartest person in the room

Next Sunday, I’ll be addressing Phi Kappa Phi’s induction ceremony at Ole Miss. Phi Kappa Phi is the nation’s oldest, largest and most selective honor society. That means that I will be talking to a room of full of people who are both talented and driven. Let’s just say that I won’t the smartest person in the room.

So that’s my challenge. What do I say to a group of really bright and ambitious students?

I could give them a lecture on success.

Um, no. My advice about success would most likely ring hollow. I would bet the farm (if I had one) that they have the success thing pretty much figured out. For most of their academic career, they’ve been acing tests, crushing term papers and moving the needle when it comes to good grades. I’m not sure anything I could tell them would impress them.

“Do your best, kids!”

“Um, Mr. Ramsey, we have. That’s why we are being inducted into Phi Kappa Phi.”

Silence.

That’s when I realize that some of the people in the room can probably bend forks with their minds.

I could talk to them about failure, instead.

Right.

Teaching brilliant people about screwing up doesn’t sound like a good idea (at least on paper.) “Hi Mom and Dad, I want your kiddos to take a new road — the road to failure!  And students, just take your hands off the wheel and step on the gas. Seize the nap!”

That would go over like a cowbell in the Grove.

But when I say failure, I don’t mean blowing off a test or plagiarizing a paper. No, I mean the kind of failure that sometimes happens when you push beyond your comfort zone. The kind of failure that ends up giving you a doctorate in success.  I learned that first hand my junior year in college.

My academic faceplant moment was Accounting 2. After a miserable semester, I limped into the final with an big fat F. Panic ensued. I had never failed anything before — heck a B was a bad grade to me.  But at 3 a.m. the night before the final, I had a caffeine-driven ephipany: You can’t spell “My Fault” without an F. I took responsibility, took the final, got a 92 and passed the class. The professor saw me later and said, “Why didn’t you do that all along?”  I told him I had to fail first to learn my lesson.  I’m proud of that D. To me, it stands for Determination.  It was a lesson I had to learn a couple years later when I was working as a custodian instead of a cartoonist. Walls crumble when faced with a determination and personal responsibility.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want the students to make a bad grade. But I do want them to break out of their academic safe places and try everything new that they can.  My classes in college gave me a solid education. My actitivies outside of the classroom gave me a career. My work at the student newspaper launched my cartoonist career.  My job as a custodian made me want my dream really bad. Maybe I could speak about that.

Or I could  just beg them to stay in Mississippi.  I’m not too proud to grovel, you know. And Lord knows we need them here.

I’ll plead with them to stay here after graduation to make this state better for all of us. I’ll ask them to stop the brain drain.  I’ll suggest they grow their leadership in native soil.  They are the best of the best. If they choose to stay in Mississippi (as in, if they find the kind of opportunities that fulfill their dreams), they will make our state a better place to live. I’m all for that.

So that’s what I’ll talk about. Because an idea like that will make me the smartest person in the room — for a moment.

About Marshall Ramsey