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Lessons From a 40-Year Reunion: What We Learn and Apply

June 11, 2012
Related Topics: Career Development, Ethics, Workplace Culture
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Last weekend I attended my 40th reunion of the Hamilton College Class of 1972. I walked the hilltop campus with my closest friends, visited old dorms and classrooms and caught up with classmates I hadn't seen in many years.

I took about 35 classes at Hamilton—reading, writing, doing labs and delivering presentations. Over the weekend, I thought about the lessons I've carried forward in my career and why they've stayed with me. Two stand out.

First, in my sophomore year, I worked diligently on a midterm paper in a European history course. I read books and articles, organized my thoughts, made coherent arguments and got a C-plus.

We had tough standards; still, that mark surprised me. My professor, James Traer, explained his grade: "You wrote this in the passive voice." My comment: "This is a history class, not English." His point: "Writing is writing. The passive voice is not acceptable."

The grade stood. I got the message and have avoided the passive voice as much as possible thanks to that C-plus.

My second lesson came in my last week in college when I participated in the Clark Speaking Competition for Seniors—a big deal at Hamilton, which is known for emphasizing oratory. Over the years, I had debated, acted, aced speech, and worked as a tour guide at the Utica Club Brewery.

I thought I had all the tools to win and wanted to badly. I wrote and practiced a fiery speech on apartheid in South Africa, which I read dramatically in the College Chapel. John Bailey, a classmate, and Millard Fillmore, our nation's relatively forgotten 13th president, teamed up to beat me.

John spoke about his fellow Buffalonian. He started at the lectern as I did. After a minute or so, he walked to the pit of the chapel engaging the audience and the judges with several crisp, relevant stories. He spoke briefly and did not read.

I knew he had won. I don't recall the other speeches and barely my own. But I still remember Millard Fillmore and what he and John Bailey taught me. As a result, I don't read my speeches or presentations. Instead, I focus on a few key points, include some related anecdotes and speak briefly.

Why has what I learned lasted so long? First, my history grade and the contest mattered to me. I labored long on my paper but got a bad grade. I worked hard on my speech but lost the prize. In both cases, I absorbed specific, clear lessons:

1. Write actively

2. Tell relevant stories, speak briefly and don't read. Finally, I've had regular opportunities to apply these lessons.

In the workplace, we need to deliver clear training experiences that relate to our jobs, are simple to understand and involve knowledge and skills that will be practiced regularly. Make learning matter, simple and stick, and it will reap long-term benefits.

Finally, my thanks to Professor Traer, John Bailey and President Fillmore for what they taught me and for Hamilton College for bringing them, others and so much else together during my four years there.

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