Yesterday I was fortunate to spend the majority of the day (around two placement tests in PX) at the Commencement Exercises of Shanghai American School (SAS). The morning’s ceremonies were for Pudong students and the afternoon for Puxi. Having known some of these students since they were in middle school and now seeing them walk across the graduation stage, my heart fluttered more than once.

It was one of the more magical experiences I’ve ever been a part of. With hundreds of parents tearing up, taking photos, and administering huge hugs to their loved ones, the emotion in the room was unmissable. I don’t remember my high school graduation being so emotional, but perhaps it’s different when you’re walking across the stage. I don’t know if there are cultural differences, or age differences, or idiosyncratic differences that lead this ceremony in particular to be meaningful, but there you have it.

What I do know is that we are making a difference in the lives of these students before and after they traipse across the stage wearing their disposable robes and dispensing their all-too-quick handshakes to the school board members. These high school years - so formative for many of the current LearningLeaders students - we get to play a huge part of! Remembering students in their first lesson piecing together PB & J sandwiches, reciting ‘Word of the Week’ sentences (that used to be a thing at LL, back in the day), and competing in their first ever debate or public speaking competitions are memories I’ll cherish. And for some, seeing them hoist a new trophy or award on the day of graduation will prove equally memorable.

Let us not forget that these students, even when they leave our program, are starting a new chapter in their lives through these Commencement Exercises. It’s the start of something new for them. Of course, I hope it is the start of their relationship with our growing aLLumni program and of a future being a supporter of our work and giving back through mentorship to younger students. Of course, I hope it is the start of a new phase of intellectual and personal exploration for them. And of course, while they very well may not continue with debate or public speaking in the future, I hope it is the start of conscientious application of these skills towards whatever fields they ultimately choose to pursue.

The previous night, on Saturday evening, I had the opportunity to see ‘The Iron Cowboy’ speak. For those of you who haven’t heard his story - give him a quick internet search and prepare to be blown away. James Lawrence, or ‘The Iron Cowboy,’ completed 50 Iron- mans in 50 U.S. States in 50 days, shattering any previous world record by a long shot (He was previously the only person to complete 30+ Ironmans in a YEAR). His story itself is inspirational and touches on themes of (predictably!) perseverance and dedication, teamwork, goal-setting, community-building, and family.

Peppered with quotations from Tolstoy (“There is only one time that is important - NOW! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”) to Carnegie (“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments towards organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”) to Conor MacGregor (“#DoubtMe-Now”), the presentation itself was a 90-minute roller coaster of emotions and to me the gold standard of a phenomenal presentation - a magnificent story magnetically shared.

As you likely know, I’m a big believer in all of that stuff: goal-setting, planning, focused execution, learning day in and day out how to improve. But the highlight of the entire evening to me was part of the Q&A session following the presentation. Asked, “What is it like to be the most accomplished Ironman athlete in the world? How do you keep your edge once you are number one?” Lawrence replied, “I don’t plan on being remembered for the 50/50/50. I think this is just the beginning of my contributions to helping others realize their untapped potential.”

Here is a guy who is world champion/world record-holder/world #1 (however you want to cut it) and he’s out there reinventing himself and just about to embark on a new adventure and challenge. He has an ambitious plan which he shared with us later in the evening over food and drinks and which you can read more about online if you’re curious.

Reinventing yourself is a choice and a challenging one at that. When we’re young, sometimes we need “artificial” commencement ceremonies to kick us on to the next step. Walking across the stage in front of family and friends and to applause is a ritual that tells us distinctly, “Okay - you’re done with Level 5. Time to move to Level 6.” What is more challenging still is when you step off that pre-programmed track and decide what level you’re on to begin with and how you want to level up.

“When do I reinvent myself? How do I know when I’ve reached the peak? Which peak is the right one, anyways? What skills will I need to take me to the next one? Who can help me?” The further along we all progress in our lives and careers, the more thorny these questions might become.

In the final days or weeks that we have with these soon-to-be university students, I hope that every one of us can lend a hand, offer advice, be willing to listen, and help in celebrating their achievements. They are all about to embark on what is likely to be a thrilling and daunting step of self-reinvention. As capable as we think anyone is, encouragement never hurts.