Imagine that you could travel back in time and visit your 10-year-old self. What would you say? How would you use your knowledge and experience to better prepare the young boy or girl you once were for a future full of opportunity and uncertainty? A few weeks ago, I was given this opportunity. Ok… maybe not literally, but when I logged onto my computer to join a Skype call with a large group of 5th grade students in late February, I knew this was about to be the closest I’d ever get. Over 100 young, impressionable minds would soon be staring back at me, eager to learn something from someone who was in their shoes, 14 years ago.

Frankly, I was overjoyed to share my educational and athletic experiences with this group of kids. Of all the opportunities that my careers in data science and bobsled have afforded me, the chance to impact a child’s life is unquestionably the greatest. So, to prepare for this discussion, I spent a great deal of time reflecting on three specific questions about my younger self.  1) What did I want to be when I grew up? 2) What skills and knowledge did I have or not have that would be useful today? and 3) What were my interests at the time and how did they change? With these questions in mind, here are the three lessons that I shared with that room of students.

Lesson 1: Life is Not Linear

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

This is a question that we all have been asked at various times in our lives, and, personally, my answer was hardly, if ever, consistent. At 5, I wanted to be a professional baseball player for the Chicago Cubs. At 9, I wanted to be a ninja. At 11, I wanted to be a doctor. Unfortunately, life intervened in ways that I could not have predicted. Cataract surgery at a young age quickly put an end to my dreams of being a professional baseball player, the market for professional ninjas had taken a downhill turn during the 14th century and had yet to recover, and my older brother decided he wanted to become a doctor first, so of course there was NO WAY that I could be one too… The purpose of this admittedly ridiculous anecdote is to demonstrate how our plans for our lives may change, as children and as adults. Whether by factors out of our control or through conscious decision making, that thing you saw yourself doing at 9 years old or even 20 years old probably didn’t happen, and if it did, it more than likely didn’t happen the way you expected it to. And that’s ok! Whether you’re an elementary school student or a mother to one, just about all of us have some sort of plan for our future selves. And while it is good to think ahead, just know that when your life does not go exactly according to plan, this is not a failure, but rather just a kink in the road. Our life’s journey, more often than not, is simply non-linear.

Lesson 2: Learn How to Learn

In my short career as a data scientist, I’ve had to learn plenty of different skills. Whether it be a new BI tool, coding language, or cloud platform, nearly every project I have worked on has required me to learn something that I didn’t know before. In reality, very few of us end up learning one and only one skill that we will use for the rest of our lives. We are constantly developing and improving, and this development manifests itself through the continuous cycle of learning new things to better solve new or old problems. It’s due to this emphasis on learning that I believe that the best way to prepare someone for the future is not to teach them what to learn, but rather how to learn. What we know as humans, and how we do things is continually changing. What we once believed to be true, someday we may find to be false, and the skills and strategies we use today, may soon become obsolete. The world around us is changing faster than ever before, and by learning how to learn, you give yourself the best shot at keeping up.

Lesson 3: Undefine Yourself

When I was introduced to the 5th grade students at Western Avenue School last February, it was as a bobsledder with an Olympic dream. While this is a significant part of who I am, and probably what they were most interested in hearing about, I wanted to use this time to share with them some of my other interests. I told them about a variety of things, such as my college football career, my degree in mathematics, and my love for data. Very quickly, their perception of me started to change. I went from being a professional athlete, to an athlete that likes, of all things, math…. a mathlete. But, I didn’t stop there. I went on to tell them about a few of the books I had recently read, and the poems that I was writing in my journal every night. After that, I shared with them that my favorite genres of music were opera and classic rock. At this point in our conversation, hopefully, I was no longer just a bobsledder. This final point that I wanted to make to these children was that you can be, and be interested in, many different things. I will never just be a bobsledder, just like you will never just be a Financial Analyst. We all have a diverse set of interests and passions that contribute to the person who we are, and one’s identity as a human is far too complex to ever reduce to a single title.

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