Monday, September 7, 2009

Living in truth... and running with joy

So, it's that time of year again... back to school time. I've always loved this time of year -- even as a kid, I would get excited about new pens, backpacks, notebooks.... you get the picture. Let's just say I shouldn't be left alone with the office supply catalogue at work -- there's no guarantee as to the damage I could do.

However, over the past 17 years, my excitement has been less about school supplies and more about reconnecting with people. Since my first year of university in 1992, I have been in some way, involved with helping people move into residence or with new student orientation (frosh week). This is my career. I work in university student services, and from my first days as a student leader, this has been the most exciting time of year for me. Again, not because of the school supplies... but because of the possibilities. Allow me to explain.

Since I first got involved in student leadership, I have had the opportunity to participate in a wide range of leadership training programs. As a residence don at The University of Waterloo, as a grad student at The University of Vermont, and as a professional at both Simon Fraser and the University of Toronto, this time of year has always been characterized by intensive work hours (I'm going on 15 days straight), facilitating lots of training workshops, and more than anything, connecting with young people -- university students -- who are new student leaders, full of potential, promise, and enthusiasm for what awaits them in the year ahead.

As a professional, I've had the chance to visit various institutions and deliver training workshops and keynote addresses related to leadership. This past weekend, I delivered two. On Saturday, I travelled to Huron College at the University of Western Ontario in London, where I delivered a 4-hour workshop on diversity, advocacy, assertiveness, and conflict mediation. It was a bit of a training mega-session, and I hope that the 16 student leaders who participated learned something. My sense is that they were pretty tired from a full week of training, and the last thing they wanted to do was do a 4-hour session on heavy issues like equity, bullying and conflict resolution. I didn't feel like I really connected with them. Even though exploring leadership and its connection to issues of diversity and equity is my research focus in my doctoral studies, I didn't necessarily feel like I was speaking to them from any place of relevance or truth. I don't think they were 'into' it, because I wasn't really 'into' it. In spite of the fact that dealing with this range of issues is such a huge part of my day to day work, they didn't resonate in a way with that sort of authenticity that would allow me to connect with a group of 16 young adults in as impactful a way as I thought I could.

That said, I took the train back to Toronto with a bit of a heavy head... and a heavy heart -- feeling like the keynote speech that I was to deliver the following day at Brock University in St. Catharines was destined to bomb.

I started my day off with a leisurely stroll outside with Rosie, and then a 50-minute spinning class at Legacy Indoor Cycling in Toronto. Spinning is my new addiction. I love it. My friend Liza introduced me to it two weeks ago... and I'm hooked. It provides me with an incredible workout... and it a blast at the same time. But I'll talk more about that in the weeks ahead. So, I started my day off on a good foot.

St. Catharines is 123 kilometres away from my house. And on all-highway driving, it should take just about 90 minutes to get there. It took me 3 1/2 hours to get there... traffic was insane!!! My stress level was on the rise... and I was already feeling anxious because I hadn't done as well as I had hoped the previous day. Even though I spent a few hours the night before fine-tuning my speech (which was about leadership, motivation, and change), I was still worried that it wouldn't go over very well. Add my anxiety from the drive to the mix... and well, you get the picture.

I arrived on campus with one minute to spare before I started my speech.

And I was a wreck.

My colleagues who invited me to speak got my laptop connected, I took a few quick moments to use the loo, and eventually found my 'centre'. It was time to begin. To a room of about 125 students, I spoke about my experiences as a student leader. I told them the story of how my roommate in first year urinated in my closet. I shared with them how I was inspired by a group of students who coloured their residence building as a Pride-flag in response to some homophobic incidents on campus. I told them about how learning with humility and leading in justice were among the keys to success for them.

And then I told them about how living in possibility was what leadership was truly all about. I told them that living in possibility was about doing one thing every day that scared the shit out of them.

And I showed them one of my kickboxing videos.

I showed them that kickboxing with Sebastien was in many ways about scaring the shit out of myself. Not only because it was about the sissy-gay boy learning to kick, punch and fight back... but most importantly because it represented how far I had come in this incredible journey towards better health.

And then I showed them my before and after shots.

They cheered. And they clapped. And a few of them rose to their feet.

I had connected with them. Unlike the day before, where I didn't feel like what I was saying made much sense, something I had said connected with this group. Was it the stories about my time as a student leader? My story about being the target of homophobia? The account of my journey towards better health?

It could have been any of the above... or a combination of them all. But as I drove home from Brock, feeling more joy than I have felt in a very long time, I realized that the connection I made was based on one thing, and one thing alone.

My truth.

My truth is about my journey. My truth is about sharing my story with the people around me. My truth is about being honest with myself and with others and realizing that the only way that I will continue to grow is through being comfortable with my own vulnerability, and scaring myself into realizing my own possibility. My truth is about being 'on display' and exposed. That's what clicked with them.

And I know it clicked because after my talk, I was approached by many of the participants who shared their congratulations with me. They told me I had inspired them. They told me that what I had said and done made so much sense. They encouraged me to keep on going. And one young woman even told me how my story resonated with her because of her own issues with disordered eating. Many of them shook my hand. Some even asked if they could hug me. A few had tears in their eyes. I had never experienced a reaction like this before. It was kind of overwhelming. But so very much needed. Their reaction did more for me than I ever thought possible.

Because the day before, while on the train home from London, I was chatting with Sebastien, and shared with him that I was feeling pretty vulnerable with 'my story'. I've been getting incredible feedback, but I had started to feel like I've been a bit on display. But I am a victim of my own creation, right? I mean, I've been pouring my soul out on-line for the past year, and over 1000 people have visited this blog to read more about my journey. And I've had incredible, wonderful, touching responses from so many readers -- but yesterday, during my talk, was the first time I feel like I really put my story on public display. The story was told by me. On my time. In my voice. And yes, I've been doing that on this blog for some time now, but speaking my truth out loud and in front of an audience is a very different experience. And the incredibly powerful response I got from those student leaders helped me to realize that being on display isn't necessarily a bad thing. My story -- my truth touches people. And it does so because my truth is hard to question. It's hard to argue with. It's hard to deny.

I was chatting with Sebastien tonight (yes, we talk a lot) and I was sharing this experience with him. I wanted to tell him about it, because these students also gave him a cheer and a shout-out because he's an alumnus of Brock University. They're pretty proud that one of their own helped me realize my own greatness... that Sebastien is "kind of a big deal" because he helps me to "be my own big deal" (another key message about leadership I shared with them). Anyway, tonight our conversation helped me to further understand what my 'truth' is all about.

He helped me understand that my truth is irrefutable because my truth is about being full of conviction. I've had to face battles in my life -- coming out as a gay man, dealing with homophobia, learning not to internalize the looks and stares as the former fat man, dismantling my depression, and controlling my anxiety. I've had to learn to fight. And that fighting spirit -- that determination -- is now such an important part of my truth. Embracing challenges head on, and doing what I once thought was impossible is part of my truth. And not being afraid of my own potential and possibility is the cornerstone of my truth.

After our conversation, I was fired up. I needed to do something. Even though I learn a lot from Seb during our training sessions, it's our conversations throughout the week or after our workouts that are the moments where I truly understand what I've been learning. And I always feel like I can conquer anything. I guess that's one of the benefits of having a personal trainer.

That said, I needed to do something with the energy. With the determination. With the conviction. Earlier today, my friend Alison and I went for a run after work. We've been running about 6 kilometers two days a week in preparation for the 5km run on September 27 that is part of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Neither of us were really 'feeling it' tonight. So we decided to do the distance at a brisk walk, knowing that doing something was better than nothing. I mean, I hadn't really planned on doing anything today -- I've been working 15 days straight, haven't been eating very well (two burgers for lunch today and some decadent cranberry-white chocolate cookies), haven't spent any time at the gym in the past two weeks (even though I've been spinning and running), haven't slept a whole lot, and was starting to feel really sluggish and crappy about not having been on my game for the past two weeks. So, at the end of the walk, we were feeling pretty good.

But my chat with Seb made me feel even better. And I have to say I was feeling a bit fired up. I was full of conviction. I needed to do something. So I threw on my shoes, and headed down to the boardwalk for a run. I've been training for this 5km run for the past two months, and this will be the first time I've ever participated in anything like it. I've written about my goal of running a half-marathon in October 2010 -- this 5km run is the first step. A few weeks ago, when Seb and I were chatting about it, he suggested that I simply crank it out at the run and do the 5k as fast as I can. I told him my goal was to finish. In my mind, doing it 'fast' wasn't an option.

Until tonight. I was feeling cranked up.

So I headed to the boardwalk, started my watch, and ran. Most days, I tackle the 5k in intervals, taking a total of 45 minutes on average. But tonight, the run was
over before I new it. I set what runners would call a 'personal best'.


That's nuts. Five kilometres in just over 30 minutes. And that was after weeks of crummy eating, no activity, and a 6km walk five hours prior. The whole time I was running I had Seb's voice in my head, saying "I think you should just crank it and run as fast as you can." So I did.

Tonight... after getting in closer contact with my most authentic self -- with my truth... the day after I gave what I believe to be the best keynote speech I have ever given in my life... 18 months after my first attempt at exercising on an elliptical machine at the gym, when I couldn't last more than two minutes... Tonight, I reconnected with my truth and realized once again that never before in my life, have I been my best possible self.

Life has never been better.
Life has never been more joyous.
Life has never been more true.

So in the next 20 days (before the official 5km run), I'm thinking about getting in under 30 minutes. Thinking about it. I set goals slowly... but at least I'm putting it out there to the universe. I'll decide the night before if I want to do it. Or maybe I'll decide at the start line. Either way... I'll decide.

And it's a decision that the 435-pound man I was a year and a half ago never thought he would ever make.

And that's what I told Seb tonight. My truth is in that moment where I decided I had finally had enough. My truth is in my power to choose.

My choice is clear.

Kia kaha.
Stay strong.