I recently had the chance to visit Seattle with my family, and I spent an afternoon walking around the beautiful University of Washington campus. I came across this message, displayed in giant letters on one of the main stairways.
A big part of coaching is helping people look at how they receive messages - both internal messages, through what they say to themselves, and external messages, from the people around them and the culture in general. How we hear and interpret messages plays a big role in shaping our beliefs and attitudes. So when I saw this seemingly innocuous message, I thought about how it might land with different types of people.
When I first read it, I personally felt the call to wake up and really experience the moment I was in: standing in the sun, surrounded by shady trees, historic buildings, small groups of students gathered on the grass, and a cloudless blue sky. Savor the present and feel it with my senses.
I also took it as an invitation to seize the day and take more ownership of my life. Have more fun. Give more love. Do less out of habit, fear, obligation, and guilt. Stay focused on what I really care about.
Soon enough, it hit me that the message was not intended for me. It was aimed at the UW students. I tried to put myself in their shoes and imagine how this might land with them, after all they’ve been through.
Surely, the leaders of UW intend to inspire and motivate with this message. Perhaps they want to encourage their students to apply themselves, take advantage of all the opportunities of college life, and dream big. They might even be nudging their students to count their lucky stars for getting to be there, among the ranks of the select few.
But for many young adults in my circle, this message might just add to the pressures that they already feel: to be successful and careful and perfect and all-grown-up right away, with no space to mess around and figure things out. In 2021, it’s not easy for folks in their late teens and early 20s to hold onto their optimism and fend off a scarcity mindset.
A mural at Providence, celebrating the Portland Thorns soccer team.
And of course, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into the plan of every college student I know, whether they took classes on campus (often online in their rooms), did virtual school at home, or cobbled together an unexpected gap year. For most of them, the goal has been to stay emotionally afloat while structure, purpose and socializing were put on hold. After having endured this prolonged derailment of their the long-awaited dreams of college life, do they really want to read that THIS is their Moment?
The University of Washington of course wants to do right by its students, but I wonder what other phrases would really speak to its students, and all our young adults, in this particular moment. If I could paint those steps, what would I write? Maybe something like:
“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” ~ Albert Einstein
“Do not fear mistakes - there are none.” ~ Miles Davis
“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.” ~ Louisa May Alcott
Or, since those stairs are pretty small, maybe a shorter soundbite, like:
Let adversity be your strength.
Let’s move forward together.
Stay curious and compassionate.
What do young adults want to hear in this moment? What would you write on the stairs?