Driving Change in Higher Education.

In this day and age, it helps to be a little crazy

By Ryan Penneau

Take Back College

Bear with me on this one. It serves as one of the most important things you need to know. 

If you know me, you may know that I am a little crazy. I’m not sure how to define my “crazy.” It could be crazy as defined by medicine, crazy may mean just a little bit “out there,” or it could just be the sort of thing where you firmly and enthusiastically give me a half hug while saying “you are crazy” as you chuckle. Whatever the degree that my “crazy” may be, I absolutely and without a doubt think that I am. This assumption was recently supported when I was giving a workshop on working with the millennial generation and one of my participants looked at one of his table partners and mouthed, “This guy is crazy.” 

So crazy, in fact, that I was invited back to his school. 

I have to be. I, like you, face insanely stacked odds daily and, without any logic whatsoever, bet on myself to be the winning horse. 

Take, for example, what it means to be an entrepreneur. Some might call it crazy.

Thirty percent of entrepreneurs fail within the first two years of business. Fifty percent of them fail within four. Typically, they work harder, longer and more than their employed counterparts. Every day they know one thing and one thing alone: no one will give them a paycheck–they have to bring in one hundred percent of the bacon. Much of the time their benefits plan is “Don’t Get Sick and Please Don’t Break Anything Thank You, Jesus.” And they do not get to simply “do what they love,” which is the tagline of the American and entrepreneurial spirit. They do, instead, everything from budgets, to invoices, to cold calls, marketing, accounting, product development, planning, growth, and stuffing envelopes until 3:00 a.m. All of this scraping to feed a personal passion they do for the sacrifice of family balance, health and security. They do it all with a very small chance of success.

It may sound like I can’t stand being an entrepreneur. I absolutely love it. Completely illogically, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Somehow I’ve convinced myself that this is the only way to go. 

And are you any different?

One in five college students drop out of college, often times with an unmanageable amount of debt. A job is often not guaranteed upon completion, and neither is security, a paycheck or otherwise. Often we tackle college with the weight of having no one we know going before us, and thus seemingly no path to follow (first-generation students), or with a life that demands more from us than we could ever have fathomed 10 years ago: family, children, a job, a second job, living on our own, life commitments, and so on. College students sleep less, eat poorly, stress more, are spread thin, and sacrifice health and well-being. And then there is the debt….well, we all know about the debt. All against a backdrop of the current economy and news headlines that tout “College: Is It Really Worth It” and “College: You’re Probably the Same Without it.” We see all of these things as college students, and yet, we charge on. We may not see the full staircase and where it leads, but we know, in our heart, all of this challenge leads to something better. If you’re in college you, like I, like your faculty, staff and peers know it is the only way to go.

And you are right. College and your completion of college is the only way to go. You are betting on yourself to look at the odds and know that you’ll make it out alive and better off than when you entered. Even on the days where you are so exhausted that you don’t even know how you will stay awake for another hour of class, you figure it out and bet on yourself to be the champion.

I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the above, because it is important to know where we are so that we can get where we are going. This article is going somewhere, but it starts with assessing the situation. The situation boils down to one simple idea: Your situation is not unique. 

It’s not. Your situation is the same as thousands of others. Your degree and potential degree is the same as tens of thousands of others. Your GPA is similar to millions of others. Your ideas are the same as a thousand others. Your stuff is nothing to brag about. None of it is unique.

But you are.

I am from Wisconsin originally. In this moment, Wisconsin is facing a shortage of skilled and technical workers. There is high demand for machinists, welders, manufacturers, nurses, computer technicians, and the like, but our institutions cannot seem to produce them fast enough for what the marketplace demands. And although there is huge demand for these skilled and technical jobs, industry leaders are continually saying to the institutions of higher education that not only do we need more of these skilled and trained workers, but also they desperately need to be engaged citizens. They want the skills, but they need to be able to effectively communicate, empathize, self-motivate, self-direct, adapt, be flexible, and be solution oriented. They need to be able to work with a diverse and ever-changing workforce just as much as they need to be able to fix a client’s machinery. 

In fact, just today, I was listening to an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio where the guest said, “What does it matter if we give them the degree if the students don’t have the capacity to adapt to change or be a contributing member of a team not just through their labor? We need graduates that are engaged citizens.” 

Industry moves fast, very fast. In this day and age, they don’t really know the difference between a 2.7 and a 3.5 GPA; they know the difference between if you have “it” or not. Are you just like everyone else, or are you unique? Do you bring to the table more than just what is on paper? Can you contribute in a big way to the team energy and dynamics? Can you communicate well and enthusiastically? Are you ethical? A person of integrity and commitment? Do you complain because you have to do something not in your job description or are you eager to carry a little bit more for the benefit of the group? Do you dwell on set-backs or find the next potential solution? Are you a life-long and eager learner? Are you efficient or easily distracted? Invested or going through the motions? Are you confident enough to bet on yourself when the odds are stacked against you? Are you just a bit crazy?

These skills, like the ones you are learning in your classrooms, can be developed, cultivated and earned. What are you doing daily, weekly, monthly to improve? To be able to say I am better today than I was the day before. There will always be odds. Sometimes they will be unbearable. Are you so crazy to think that you might just work? Then you’re on the right path. 


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