I didn’t think cliques existed until I went to a different high school in 12th grade. It was there that I learned that schools like the ones in Mean Girls really did exist. Okay, maybe my high school wasn’t completely identical, but students in the cafeteria did separate themselves. There was a table for the popular kids and a table for the kids who played with Pokemon cards. Not only that, but people also put themselves into groups based on social class, religion, ethnicity, etc. My high school was very diverse, only that diversity wasn’t well-represented at the tables in the cafeteria.

But everyone seemed to be okay with that. No one was uncomfortable sitting at a table filled with people that were ‘just like them.’ I’m not saying that people should be uncomfortable doing that because it’s completely okay to seek out people you have things in common with. However, people who constantly do that become unaware that they’re doing it and it soon becomes their comfort zone. A comfort zone is a place that people tend not to step outside of because of how familiar it is and how relaxed that familiarity makes them feel.

For example, if I’ve only ever been friends with people who played on the girl’s basketball team, then I’m more likely to sit with them at lunch and choose them as partners for group projects if we have classes together. I don’t do this intentionally. I’ve just known these people a lot longer than I’ve known anyone else and I feel comfortable around them, so why change that?

Why is it important to branch out and make connections with people outside of my normal circle?

The answer to that is simple: it’s a part of life.

Not everyone in the world is the same. The sooner we learn to accept that, the sooner we can truly embrace it. For some people, going to college might be a huge step for them because they’re leaving behind their small town for a college town a few hours away in a different city or state. I’m not going to speak for every university, but the chances of you attending a school that is diverse in more ways than you’re used to is very high. Moreso if you’re going to a large university.

Once you are there, you might seek out people you assume you have a lot of things in common with because that’s what will make you feel comfortable. If you end up going to the same school as a couple of your friends, you might choose to only socialize with them.

Starting college (or high school) can be very overwhelming and intimidating so it’s good to have a familiar face or at least someone who you can relate to because you have a lot of similarities. But if you want to make the most out of your collegiate (or high school) experience, don’t clique up; don’t separate yourselves from others because they’re not familiar or because you’re afraid to leave your comfort zone. College is all about learning; not just inside of the classroom but out of it as well. You can learn so much from people that come from other parts of your country and from people who come from around the world. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone you meet in college has the potential to be a lifelong friend.

Oftentimes we might not think that we have much in common with someone whose first language is different than ours or someone who subscribes to a different religion. We get so used to gravitating towards people who share obvious commonalities that we forget that the people we see as ‘different than us’ can also have some (or many) similarities. You just have to find the courage to move outside of your comfort zone and talk to people you think you wouldn’t have anything in common with. Don’t spend your entire time at college with the same people because there are so many people to socialize with; so many opportunities to learn about a different culture or religion or to even just get a different perspective on life.

College is one of the best ways to get people from all over the world to come together under one roof, metaphorically speaking. It is truly a beautiful thing so use this time to your advantage because, thankfully, college is not high school. So, step out of your comfort zone. Better yet, try your best to knock it down. I know it’s not easy to get rid of it all at once, but the world would be a much better place if we worked at breaking down the barriers that exist  between each other a little each day.

Image: morguefile


“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu

As someone who has both led and been led, I have found this quote to be true in every situation.

The thing is, many leaders believe their job is to “tell” their team what to do, and to create and stick to their vision.

While it is important as a leader to have a strong vision and communicate it clearly, it is also important to keep open ears and an open mind, allowing team members to creatively and collaboratively contribute their own thoughts to the group vision. Inflexibly telling everyone what to do is a waste of the unique mind power each team member possesses.

Instead, I’ve compiled, from my experiences, six ways to ensure open communication and creative collaboration, and they’re pretty easy:

1. Make your team a communication “safe space.”

Be sure to actively listen, encouraging input and questions. This means showing appreciation for ideas, even when they aren’t great. This will keep team members unafraid to contribute potentially stellar ideas and ask important questions. Never talk at, always talk with. Remember, your leadership position should never have you on a pedestal.

I was training as a host at a restaurant. During a weekend night when we were absolutely slammed, the manager welcomed all of my questions. Because of that, the next night when we were even busier, I was able to handle the finicky crowd gracefully on my own, much more so than if I’d been afraid to ask her questions in the moment the night before. As a result, she was able to pick up the slack for a brand new server, keeping the customers much happier. Be patient and welcome all communication from your group, even if you’re stressed. It will pay off.

2. Provide continuous feedback (positively).

Show your team members you hear them and see what they’re accomplishing. Sometimes, people can be blind to our own strengths. Pointing them out can give members the confidence to take those strengths and run (a win for you). Be sure to also share things you expect them to improve, letting them know you believe they can do it and providing suggestions as to how they can.

I worked at a PR agency under a great CEO. When I got strong media placement results, he would take the time to stop by my desk and let me know he saw I’d been getting good results that week, and to keep it up. It kept me intrinsically motivated to keep improving my results.

3. Ask for your own feedback.

Good leaders must not be afraid to hear criticism. Anonymous surveys are good for receiving candid answers about this. Ask questions that will lead to honest and productive answers.

Honestly taking feedback into consideration creates a level of trust and mutual respect between you and your team. It also allows you to improve yourself as a leader and a person.

The best professor I’ve ever had checked in several times throughout the semester with anonymous surveys, and also asked for feedback on the fly if he felt something was off. He used it to improve his teaching methods, resulting in higher student test scores and retained knowledge.

4. Hold everyone accountable (yourself included).

When people are assigned tasks, tell them their deadlines and when you will check in with them. Then, do it by asking about their current progress and next steps. I’ve liked doing this via email and during team meetings. Just be sure everyone knows they’ll be asked about it during meetings so they don’t feel put on the spot, and can address concerns with you beforehand.

Update everyone on your own activity, too, so that they also know you’re all in it together. Set examples by meeting your own deadlines.

As the director of my university’s Children’s Miracle Network dance marathon, I often met one on one with team members to discuss individual progress and determine where we could tweak or add things. I created Google docs with each member’s proposed timeline, which we edited together as the year progressed. I also set aside about five minutes to begin our meetings by providing updates on my own activity. It kept us on track in exceeding our main goals.

5. Remember your team members are humans.

This sounds obvious, but it’s important; people will make mistakes. They’ll encounter personal roadblocks that drain them. Be sure to show interest in these things. If someone’s performance has dropped, don’t assume anything. Ask if they’re ok and listen to their concerns. Be sure also to recognize what motivates or discourages your teammates individually, as different people respond to different things in different ways.

In high school, my basketball coaches saw I’d been playing poorly for several games in a row. Instead of getting harder on me, they pulled me into their office after practice to ask me what was going on. They came to find out a personal stressor had been weighing me down; they showed their constant support and understanding. I was back to normal within a few games. They recognized that, while other teammates responded better to tougher love, I responded well to more gentle feedback.

6. No micro-managing!

Offer your help and provide advice, but trust your team to complete their tasks. They may mess up, but it’s better than keeping them from improving and learning. They also may do things their own way, which could turn out to be better than yours!

As the director of our dance marathon, we ran into some roadblocks with corporate sponsorship. We needed about $6,000 in less than two weeks, which my faculty director could have easily secured on her own. Instead, she put the trust in me to do it. I ended up applying for and securing all of the funding and grants we needed, and gained tremendous confidence in the process. She likely had a plan B on hold, but she let me grow and learn through the process.

In the end, your and your teammates’ personal and professional growth should be just as important as the project results. Don’t forget that you’re all teammates, regardless of titles, and that happy people do the best work!

What tips do you have for quality leadership? Any stories about good or bad leaders you’ve encountered?

Image: D I, Flickr

SpotlightYouth Spotlight

When we think of the word ‘determination,’ one person’s face automatically pops into our minds: Kassa Martei Korley. A current student at Duke University, Kassa is also a National Master and FIDE Master in chess. What exactly blows our minds? Kassa became National Master at just 15-years-old. With intense focus, daily practice, and serious determination, Kassa committed himself to learning, understanding, and mastering chess – without the help of a coach. What’s more impressive is that he did this while also committing himself to being well-rounded by balancing chess with school, basketball, friends, family, and studying abroad in Denmark. Despite being incredibly busy working to fulfill his dreams, Kassa is thoughtful, kind, and generous, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to introduce you to our definition of ‘determined:’ Kassa Martei Korley.

Name: Kassa Martei Korley
Age: 20
Education: Duke University, Danish Institute for Study Abroad

How do you define seizing your youth?

I think it’s important to have certain passions and to pursue them. As crazy as that sounds, I think what happens – especially in the United States – is that we have a cycle of education starting when we are pretty young and sometimes it is tough to fully pursue what you want to do because you’re worried about the next step and the next stage. Stressing about getting into a good high school and then getting into a good college – it’s like “When do you stop and have time for yourself?” So I think seizing your youth would be about putting in the time to pursue things you really enjoy.

How did you figure out what your passions were?

When I was five years old, that was a big year for me because chess and basketball came together. I was introduced to both of those games when I was that age. I guess I could say that when I was young my dad would always push me to do what I wanted to do and not be afraid. I can distinctly remember on some weekends going with him and playing both chess and basketball with some older kids at the park. I was scared and tentative about doing anything but he forced me to go out there and play with kids who were older than me. Once I got over the initial hesitance, I found my passions.

You are also a talented athlete. Do the two converge and how so?

I could say that they’re pretty different and they converge only in a tiny way. I’m not going to say that basketball and chess were made for each other, and that being really good at chess helps me on the basketball court, because it doesn’t. I really enjoy both of them and I think that when you’re playing basketball, a lot of it is about being athletic. But I was always a point guard or shooting guard, and when you’re playing that position you have to think about what the defense is going to do and think a little bit ahead about how you will react to whatever you see in front of you.

Has basketball helped you at all with chess or vice versa?

I think working with basketball and seeing different patterns helps with the chess side. And on the flip side, when you’re playing chess and you’re playing really long games – they can last from 3-6 hours long – you do need to have that physical stamina at the board so that you’re not making silly mistakes in the last hour and a half of the game because you’ve been thinking and working at the board for that long.

Kassa 7

How do you deal with failure?

A lot of times – at least for me – I hate to lose so there’s a brief period where you question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Sometimes I question why I’ve been playing this long. It’s a crazy thing to say because a body of work has nothing to do with just one game, but sometimes you go to that extreme. And then you pull yourself back and think, “What did I learn from this?”

What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned from competing?

My grandma would take me to most of my chess tournaments, and especially at the national tournaments she always had an emphasis on “win, lose, or draw, you always learn something.” It’s something I really took to heart because whenever you lose, or it’s not perfect, it’s all about analyzing what you did right or what you did wrong, and thinking about how you can become better.

Where do you see yourself after you graduate?

I’m excited to graduate because then I’ll have the chance to make the push towards becoming Grandmaster (GM). I feel like I need to set time aside for myself to pursue that dream and make it a reality. I have to do it. Some people find out much later in life what they’re trying to do – what their purpose is – but my purpose is to be a GM.

What does succeeding in chess mean to you?

I feel like I have a responsibility to “make it” so that I can come back to my community – I’m from Harlem – and show kids that they can do this and to show it’s possible. Because most people would say that my journey wouldn’t have even been possible, and I think achieving GM could build a lot of momentum for kids, especially African American kids, who perhaps didn’t think they had that opportunity. But they can look at my story and see a path to follow and say “Maybe I can become a GM.” It’s not even about me anymore, to be honest.

What was it like to become a National Master at the tender age of 15?

It’s interesting because it was a big achievement but it’s not like there aren’t some other national masters floating around the states – there are a decent amount. But for me it was the perspective of being the youngest black master ever. And more than anything it shed light on how underrepresented African Americans were in the game of chess. And since then it’s gotten a lot better. But to get back to your question, dealing with the success – I think because nothing ever came easy for me, there are certain circumstances for me that make my story unique. I’ve never had a coach, ever. I don’t think anyone else has gotten to my strength without having a coach.

That must have meant putting in even more time than you otherwise would have with a coach?

That’s right. I had a healthy obsession with chess where I really, really wanted to get better. So it was about “How do I get better?” It was a lot of playing in public parks, honing my skills. I couldn’t then and I still can’t travel to play chess the way I would like to. I started more locally, played and followed all the top games of the strongest players in the world. So I knew all of their games and styles really well and from there it was about looking at their games and seeing patterns and things I liked and then implementing them in my own game.

Although you’ve never had a coach yourself, you sometimes act as a coach for younger players. What would you say to younger people who want to pursue something in the same way you’ve pursued chess?

Chess is where I got my self-confidence, as crazy as that sounds. If you put in the time and do the work that nobody else is doing, then you’re going to become good at it even if you’re not initially good at it. It’s funny because I haven’t found other endeavors where I could truly say I’ve worked as hard at or have been as successful at. But that’s exactly it – if you are really interested in something and work hard at it, you can take it as far as you want to go.

Kassa 8

What advice would you give your 15-year old self?

I probably would have told myself that the journey is going to be more important than the destination. Because I’m still not anywhere near where I want to be with chess. It’s frustrating that I’m not a GM yet. When I was 13 I said “I’ll be a GM when I’m 15” and then when I was 15 I said “I’ll be a GM when I’m 20” and now I’m saying I’ll be a GM before I’m 25. And I’m confident that I will be able to become a GM, but still, nothing is guaranteed and sometimes things don’t work out the way you expect them to, and that’s an important perspective. So the journey will take a little bit of time, but you’ll get there.

What do you wish you had known before starting college?

I think I would have told myself to explore more and to try more things than I have. And I don’t mean to sound pessimistic at all, but I look back on the first two years and think that I probably haven’t done as much with my university’s resources afforded to me there. Anything I haven’t been able to do before college I should have tried to do while in college, simply because you’re in a space with a lot of resources and can explore that space.

What made you decide to study abroad?

I knew I was going to study abroad actually because I was intent on keeping my Danish citizenship, and I needed to stay here for a period of time to do that. So it meant I knew I was going to study specifically in Copenhagen.

What has been the main drawback and main takeaway from your experience in Denmark?

I’ve really enjoyed the time here, it has flown and I think it’s been the most fun I’ve had so far during my college career. You’re meeting a lot of different people from different universities, but you also get a little bit of international flavor. Also you step back and people seem like they are happier and more relaxed. I guess I’ve gotten a fresh perspective on life and I appreciate that. And I guess drawback… I think I would have liked to meet more Danish people by now, people I could call up and hangout with. I would definitely recommend studying abroad if you can afford to do it and if you have the chance to, you absolutely should. You lose perspective when you’re in college and a lot of things pass you by when you’re in that atmosphere, but you lose that global perspective that can be really valuable to you.