It is inherent to the nature of all FRC teams that our students will eventually leave. As a long-time mentor I've seen many exceptional Robowranglers come and go during my time. Whether they only popped onto the team for a portion of a season, or have been part of the family for years and years - our time with them always feels too short.
Have we done our part in preparing them for what comes next?
Were we successful as a team and as mentors? - How do we define 'successful'?
What lessons does our team want to leave with those who come, and then inevitably go?
Note: Please consider reading this post's companion about Mentoring an FRC Team in College.
As we have an entire group of new alumni moving off into the bigger world, it's a good time to talk about: what it means to be a successful alumni of our program.
From the horse's mouth:
The mission of FIRST is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators...
...by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.
1: To STEM or not to STEM...
I've talked to many FRC alumni who told me they still sometimes feel like failures because they didn't go into STEM. I've even had scientists tell me they feel like disappointments because they're not engineers. They hear this message loud and clear in FRC's messaging, whether it's being said to them or not. No one stands up in front of the crowd and says "become an engineer, or you're letting us down" but they say it certainly feels implied to them.
2: Attending College
Similarly, I've had students approach me saying they feel like failures if they don't go to a 4-year college (ideally to study engineering, of course, as mentioned above). I've had students hide their post-graduation plans from the team leaders, because they're worried about letting us down.
Team's brag that "100% of our students go to college for engineering" as though this is a metric for success. Who decided this is the goal we're working towards?
I went to a 4-year school, and got my degree in engineering. Many of the lessons I share with our students are based on my personal experiences. Do I think students NEED to attend college to be successful? No, absolutely not!
This is a MUCH larger discussion, and probably a deserves it's own blog post... But NO, this is not one of my metrics for a "successful" alum.
I've had students (from my team and others) tell me: "I feel like I need to mentor an FRC team while I'm in college, otherwise I'm letting FIRST down."
Well... I'm borderline angry that they feel that way. I've shared my experiences with mentoring while in college, and encourage all students NOT to mentor. Certainly mentoring shouldn't be expected, and it DEFINITELY is NOT a metric for success.
Right to the Point...
I think it's sad that passionate, brilliant, hard-working alumni feel that they're failures, for ANY of these reasons. Hearing from alumni about their feelings has forced me to think about how we're communicating "success" to our students.
To be clear...
You're NOT a failure because you didn't go into STEM, or into engineering or college, or mentoring.
Those outcomes aren't why the Robowranglers are here, it isn't why I'm here. You haven't disappointed us. You haven't let us down. You haven't let ANYONE down...
The Real Outcomes
Since I don't care whether you get into STEM or not, whether you go to college or not, whether you mentor a team or not... what do I care about?
The Robowranglers, and our mentors are here simply because we want our students to grow.
We are here to facilitate their journey. Our mission statement literally includes the words"...inspiring a mindset of growth."
We want our students to learn some some very hard lessons, and we hope they will take those lessons and do something exceptional with them. We're preparing our students to make a difference in the world.
If you grow at all during your time in our program, that makes me happy.
If you take the lessons you've learned and apply those wherever you end up, that makes me happy.
Take the lessons of the Wranglers and go into whatever field you want. I'm happy, if you're happy. I just hope we've done our part in preparing you for what comes next.
What lessons are we hoping our students take forward?
I often ask mentors from other teams the question: "What is the most important lesson you want your students to learn? If they learn only ONE thing from you, what would it be?"
For me, that answer is related to the concept of failure (no surprise). I believe that if we instill in all our students a mindset of continuous improvement, and teach them that failures aren't permanent - we've succeeded.
The Robowranglers have a set of core lessons:
- Robowranglers celebrate failures as opportunities to learn, grow and improve.
- Robowranglers embrace challenges instead of avoiding them.
- Robowranglers are comfortable trying things that might not work.
- Robowranglers are comfortable solving problems that have no right or wrong answer.
- Robowranglers know how fulfilling it can be to work hard.
- Robowranglers learn how to behave like professionals, and with integrity.
- Robowranglers chase excellence in everything we do.
Yep, that sums it up for me.
If you apply some of those lessons in your future, and if I had something to do with it... I'll be a very proud mentor.
To Those Moving Forward - Some Advice:
When I started to see Robowrangler students moving off to school - I started meditating about what advice I should be giving them. How would I sum up (in some cases) years of mentorship with some culminating "Go Get Em"?
As we say on 148, "the message never changes" - and as such, the Compass Points are always the same:
- Have Fun
- Make Friends
- Chase Excellence
I realized recently that if I just encourage students to follow those compass points in their "real" lives, that's pretty good advice, and encompasses all the other stuff I've been saying for years.
I hope every Robowrangler student comes out of our program using these simple compass points to guide their decisions, and I hope they find new ways to Chase Excellence...
What's that...You want some specific advice?
As I said above college isn't for everyone, and there are plenty of ways to "put a dent in the universe" without higher-education. (I'm not prepared to get into THAT discussion.) Much of the following advice is geared heavily to those who are moving off to school, but much of it applies wherever you're headed next.
First - Choose a Destination, Find a Path, and Plan To Make Adjustments
One of the biggest mistakes I've made in my life is related to setting direction. Too often, I've lived my life "on autopilot" just doing what was expected of me. Too often, I've done what other people thought was best - without making my own decisions. Too often, I've continued striving towards a goal long after that goal had stopped mattering to me.
It is important to set your own goals. To choose your own destination.
It is important to check whether the things you're doing are working towards those goals, or whether you've veered off the path you've set for yourself.
It is most important to check whether those goals are still important to you, or whether it's time to choose a new destination, and new goals...
Whatever you're doing, whatever goals you set, whatever path you choose... Remember to check whether or not you need to make adjustments. If you hit a road-block, don't sweat it... you can always adjust accordingly: either with a new path, or a new destination!
(Life is iterative... failure isn't permanent.)
Second - Work Hard, Get your Degree
IF you're going to school, and spending the money for classes... you should probably make sure you check the final box and get that piece of paper.
As part of this: (I hate to be the one to tell you) you're probably going to need to work harder than you've ever worked before. You might as well plan for this, and learn to enjoy it.
To those going to engineering school...
Yes, it sucks.
I feel like every alumni I talk to looks at me and has that moment of: "Can you believe how terrible this experience is that I'm going through?"
Yes, I can absolutely believe it. Engineering education is hard for most people. It was really hard for me. If it is hard for you, that doesn't mean it isn't meant for you... it just means you need to Keep. Working.
Sometimes engineering education can feel like a war of attrition. If you survive until the end, they give you a degree. Don't give up!
If you're having a bad day, or had a bad test, or need a reminder that "this is supposed to be hard" and you should keep working: drop me a note. I'll be happy to tell you about the time I earned an [11/100] on a Thermodynamics midterm exam (no, there wasn't a curve).
It's easy to assume that "I'm the dumb one, this is easy for everyone else, and I don't belong here" and I'll be happy to help you remember this is NOT true.
Third - Get an Education
You'll note... this isn't the same thing as getting a degree. It is more than possible to get a degree in engineering without learning anything. Everyone knows "that guy" who coasted through school cramming for the tests, and limped his way through to the goal line. Don't be that guy. Keep tabs on yourself: "Do I really understand this?" Take advantage of learning opportunities that come your way, and seek out NEW learning opportunities!
Side Note... It is lots of fun to debate the "priority" of getting an education vs. getting a degree. While I personally feel it is more important to learn and grow, and while there are plenty of examples (Gates, Jobs, Zuck, Dell, etc...) of successful people who used college as an opportunity for learning without ever getting a degree - that path wasn't for me (my father would have literally killed me), and it probably isn't for you.
Fourth - Collect Experiences, Figure Out Who You REALLY Are...
This is the one you probably wouldn't have expected to hear from a technical mentor like myself - and it's something that no one really told me. You should absolutely use your college years to start to figure some things out, like: what you value, what you want to do when you 'grow up', what kind of company you want to work for, what type of people you like being around, what kind of beer you like... you know, the important stuff.
Explore. Iterate. Grow.
Get into trouble! (But always make sure it's trouble you can get yourself out of.)
Make Friends! Find those people who you'll be friends with for the rest of your life. My advice? The best ones are the ones you make through earned respect and shared experiences. What kind of shared experience? Who knows - try stuff!
Surround yourself with diversity. Different perspectives and different viewpoints are necessary for effective problem solving and for success. If you are comfortable working with a group of diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and opinions... if you can train yourself to see problems from different sides and viewpoints - you'll be more successful wherever your future takes you!
This is also a good time to start to figure out what work-life balance will be like for you. Are you a live-to-work person, or a work-to-live person?
You want to be a well-rounded individual, and you want to study things outside your expertise, but what will those be? Study what interests you! Don't be scared to take that class in literature: thought-leadership in the humanities is important for STEM success and can increase your creativity!
In general, many people (myself included) consider their most lasting college lessons not to be academic ones. Take college as a time to expand your list of experiences, and be open to what will end up on that list: don't come into college with one item ("mentor an FRC team") already on the list as a must-do.
Notice, this is all about STARTING to figure out who you really are.
Everything is iterative, and so are you. You're going to be able to start answering these questions about yourself, but really... you probably won't be able to come up with good answers until you've sampled some of the "real world". Don't be afraid to change how you feel (and think) once you have more experiences and information.
The real key? Actively work to gather experiences which will help, and actively work to figure out what you value...
Fifth - Build Bridges
Plan for your future. Don't wait until you get to the "real world" - there is no real world, and there is no time like the present. This is a great time to start making connections to people who are going to help you achieve your goals. In fact - this is a great time to find the people who will help you CHOOSE your goals.
Do you have a mentor?
Not like a robotics mentor (although your robotics mentors might be great) - I mean like a REAL WORLD mentor.
Email someone you admire. Reach out to your favorite professor and ask them if they'll have coffee with you. Join professional organizations. Interested in a field of study, or a company? Find someone on the inside, and buy them lunch.
I know that for many people, especially introverts like myself, this is easier said than done.
1. You only get what you ask for.
2. You'll be amazed how many people are happy to share their experiences and help young-people grow. (And if they aren't happy, they're no friends of mine, and you should probably stay away from them).
Find opportunities. Find internships. Develop skills.
Build yourself, build your network, and build bridges which will shorten the paths to your goals.
Side Note: The best internships at many companies will be gone before December. Get your name in early... don't wait until March to start thinking about the summer!
EVERYONE who joins 148 writes a chapter of it's story...
Some chapters are longer than others, but they're all part of the story, and I'm grateful for each and every one of them.
We Built This Together
Two of the most emotional moments for me from our 2018 World Championship win are related to a Robowrangler alum...
After the divisional playoffs but before we went to Einstein, Parker Francis came up to talk with me. Parker now works at NASA and is a mentor on FRC 118 - Robonauts. Among his many other remarkable accomplishments, he was our World Championship driver in 2008. Parker and I had a very simple (but emotional) exchange which amounted to him telling me: "Go get 'em" and me telling him: "I'm glad you're standing behind us."
After the Einstein finals were over, the security guards let our team-members down onto Minute Maid Field so we could celebrate, take pictures, and share in the moment. At one point I looked up and noticed Parker standing by the side of the field, patiently waiting, blocked by security. When I got over to him, and we shared a hug, and he congratulated me - it was one of the most powerful moments of the event.
NONE of what we did in 2018 would be possible without Parker and his blood, sweat, and tears from when he was on the team. This is true for ALL our alumni.
We stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us... success within FRC takes years and years of hard-work. Everything we do today is only possible because of the efforts of hundreds of our past students and mentors. Everything we accomplish, they accomplish too.
To Our Alumni:
To those who recently joined our alumni ranks, and those who have been off the team for years...
Thank you for writing your chapter of our story. We appreciate all you did to make the Robowranglers special. You will ALWAYS be a part of this team.
Keep in touch, and let us know how you're making a difference in the world.
...Now, get back to work.
Pay it Forward
Do you agree with my advice?
Did you walk this path, and have stories to share?
Have advice of your own to pass along?
Take the time to pass along your wisdom.
Share this post with those people who you think would benefit from reading it...