A New Journey

All journeys come to an end so new journeys can begin.

A 17 year journey came to an end recently as I wrapped up my two final classes at Northwestern University. This teaching adventure started in 2003 over a dinner when I found out that our neighbor and newly made friend, Gretchen Dobie, was an Adjunct at Loyola University. I had always fancied myself as a good teacher because of my ability to cut to the chase and explain things clearly. “How does one become a teacher?” I asked. She invited me to give a lecture to her class. I did, and she encouraged me “to go for it.” 

I knocked on the doors of several universities and told them that I wanted to teach a class that I wish I had had when I was 22.  That is how the class “Leadership, Ethics, and You” was born. I reckoned that teaching was like giving a good business presentation, no sweat. Over the years I have come to realize that teaching is not about how “great” my oratory and presentations are, but it is about the students: what did they learn? What did they embrace within? My goal has always been to have classes that teach lessons that last a lifetime! 

At the end of my first season of teaching, I begged the students to tell me the truth: should I quit teaching or continue? They demanded I continue; so  I did. A couple of years later I switched to Northwestern University where I taught one class a year at first, then two, and then four. The last class – 17 years from our dinner with Gretchen – was on June 11, 2020. 

And what a journey it has been! 

39 classes, 918 students. They came from all walks of life, from all over the globe, with many of the same fears, and a desire to believe in themselves that often seemed elusive, while always exhibiting exceptional abilities. I demanded much; they always rose to the challenge. The best way I can describe this gift is the fact that of the 918 students there were perhaps only six students that I found (and they surely found me) less than satisfactory! 

Many of my students wowed me: some with the quality of their work, a few with their willingness to help others, and yet others by the growth I saw in them sometimes within just one year. One of the great rewards is to hear from my students. Out of the blue someone will call me from Patagonia as they are ruminating on life and the books we read in class, or send a postcard from the Antarctic reminiscing about the Shackleton case we had studied.

The last two classes this Spring quarter became even more poignant with the advent of  COVID and the shutdown of the Universities. But this did not faze the students as they rose to the challenge prompting me to write this final note to them:

The surreal circumstances of the last few months have taught us that life goes on and that we adapt. The “curfew” gave us more time to do even better work. The sense of mortality gave us an added impetus to look within. Your class might turn out to be my favorite class ever.

You now have some starting hypotheses on leadership, developing your inner compass, having a code of conduct, and living a meaningful life.

Question: Will these (hypotheses) be a distant memory by next week or will you continue to polish them in the days and years to come?

Question: Will you blaze your own path or will you follow the crowds?

Question: Will you stand for your beliefs and values or will you succumb to the easy temptations?

Where is truth to be found? Ultimately, within. Not in the sound and fury that engulfs us. 

Keep searching for the truth. Your ideas may evolve and change over time; that is normal. Remember that the best learning comes from people who disagree with you. Echo chambers are just flailing ghosts of our egos.

Every one of you has enormous capacity. I pray you will put all your gifts to good use. Go live the life you were born to live!

It is said that a teacher learns twice: when they prepare and when they teach. But there are at least two more occasions. First, when a question is asked that you have no answer to, and second when you are forced to self-reflect: “Am I living the life I am challenging them to live?”

I thank each and every one of my students for the journey we took together. You know I remember all of you. Heck I still have all your papers on my laptop. By the way, don’t a couple of you still owe me an assignment?

Where to next? Learning, Teaching, Facilitating, Mentoring, Helping all beckon…

Be well, Prof

Written by Verinder Syal
Verinder is the Principal at Thoughtful Simplicity, an award-winning teacher at Northwestern University, and the author of Discover The Entrepreneur Within.