January First Friday Speaker: Ryan Russell
Stephen Gilpatrick

First Friday speaker Ryan Russell, Morehouse College 2018, Phi Beta Kappa Political Science, Ph.D. candidate University of Virginia, Politics and Government, spoke to the Tilton community on this year’s First Friday Theme, Moments Matter. His speech is excerpted:

“Your conformity means nothing.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

After thanking the school for the invitation to speak, Mr. Russell in calm and even tones reminisced about his competitive personality and the blow his sense of self took when he, as a teenage soccer athlete, booted a penalty kick over the goal and afterwards “vowed never to take another one.” His senior year, his coach turned to him as a captain to take a penalty kick in the quarter finals. Russell declined, thinking back on that kick over the net years ago. That was a moment that mattered: ‘Doubt’ had entered into his mind.

The problem, Russell suggested was “While doubt is not inherently powerful, it is something we give power to without even realizing it...replayed over and over in our heads until we finally convince ourselves that we are not good enough, brave enough or strong enough to conquer our goals.”

Further developing this thought, he shared how this sense of doubt affected his choice of colleges, and the attendant temptation to submit to cultural expectations regarding his decision-making process. “It was the norm to attend one of the big state schools...and we were encouraged to work towards that. But in those schools ...the vast majority of students, faculty and administration did not look like me. So, naturally God had other plans. I decided I had an interest in Morehouse College, a historically black college.”  Looking back, Russell realized he had nearly relinquished his choice of college to the expectations of culture and warned his audience, many of whom are in the college application process, “One of the biggest tragedies in life ...is that we find ourselves living our lives for everyone but ourselves...we doubt who we really are and conform to the standards of others.” This is not a new idea to present to those who about to make college choices; it’s a standard theme of graduation speeches.  However, before allowing the audience to lose attention and slightly raising his tone of voice he quoted Emerson, “Your conformity means nothing.”

After proffering the dangers of doubt and its attendant conformity, he risked advice:

“First and foremost, we have to change the way we speak.” Quoting scripture, “Speak those things that are not as though they are.” What we do, what we become begins with what we say...Do not tell yourself that you are not good enough...do not call yourself dumb. Do not let your words betray your actions”

“Secondly, Keep good company. It is important that you surround yourself with people who make you better, sharper and more determined in your life. This means that it is okay to surround yourself with people who are different than you, come from a different place than you or share different beliefs than you. “...racial differences, political differences and religious differences can only divide us if we let them.”

“Lastly, prepare yourself. I have noticed that too often, when we doubt ourselves it is not because we are not good or capable, but because we are unprepared. Preparation takes focus and preparation sometimes takes sacrifice, a sacrifice that forces us to rid ourselves of distraction.”

Russell concluded by returning to his opening remarks, encouraging the students: “When it comes time to take your penalty kick, believe in yourself. Walk up to the line. Take a deep breath and make the moment matter.”

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