It was Spring 1992. I was walking out of my last communications class in my senior year at George Mason University. Professor Robert Conley taught me communication and entrepreneurial skills, how to think for myself and take initiative. He forced us to write as a way to express what we believe. His core teaching philosophy, “you need to go out and make things happen in life.” I really looked up to him. You know that feeling when you really favor someone in an almost god like fashion. Whenever he said something I listened and took it to heart.
I was on the way out of the classroom door, my entire entrepreneurial life ahead of me, my college life behind me. Conley yelled, “hey Matt.” He walked over, swung his left arm around my shoulder, with his right hand reached out to shake my hand and looked me straight in the eye. He said,
“I know you are going to do some amazing things in your life, but Matt, can you be great.”
I was shell shocked. “Can you be great?” What does that mean? I was waiting for more but he turned and walked away. That was it, nothing else. I left the room and proceeded to go back to my dorm room. I remember that walk like it was yesterday.
Can you be great? Can you be great? What does that mean? Arghhhh…
This is an emotional piece for me, one that I’ve wanted to share but wasn’t sure how. Outside of my family I’ve never told this story. Everyone who is close to me knows I am passionate, very competitive, and obsessive about succeeding, you know the type, most likely like yourself.
Well of course like you, you’re an entrepreneur.
Those four words, “can you be great,” have somewhat haunted me most of my life. I say haunted only because it’s a recurring thought that I haven’t been able to completely understand.
You know what its like as an entrepreneur. If you can’t figure something out you don’t settle till you understand. You just go, go, go till you get the bottom of it, a trait that suits us well for entrepreneurship but they can also drive us mad.
Over the past few years (as I have started to get some grays) I’ve learned to embrace the unknown better. Earlier in my life I was on a quest to seek out what my professor meant. I even tried to track him down multiple times but to know avail so that didn’t help my cause. I would have flown across the world literally just to ask him what he meant if I had the chance. That is how profound his statement was to me.
After college I married my college sweetheart and we went on to build two successful travel companies the Yellow Breeches House, a fly-fishing lodge and CollegSkiTrips.com an online travel company. We sold both businesses respectively in 2007, 2009 and now I work with travel companies as a business consultant, write about travel startups and talk to CEO’s and entrepreneurs daily.
What do you think it means to be great? What is greatness? If you Wikipdeia or Google it, people say it means this.
Greatness is a concept of a state of superiority affecting a person, object, or place. Being superior, majestic, transcendent, divine, excellent, skill full. Application of the terms “great” and “greatness” is dependent on the perspective and subjective judgments of those who apply them.
After chasing the meaning for years and trying to figure out what it meant to be great, I realize greatness is not something I can attain.
You can’t buy greatness. You can’t touch it. You can only strive for it in your life and hopefully feel it.
Greatness is how people view you. How they feel about you. It’s what you mean to them as a person.
I realize it wasn’t the Professors four words on the way out of the classroom he said to me. It was what he taught me. It was the belief he instilled in me to take action for what I believed and thought. To get going in your life, not to settle for anything less. Go make something happen. It’s “how I felt” about him that impacted me the most, not his words, “Matt, can you be great.”
As founders and entrepreneurs you are busy 24/7 building your travel startups and travel companies.
What may be more important than building a “great” company is aspiring to be a person and leader “who is viewed by others as being great.”
Earlier this month my phone rang. It was Chris Chronister. I hadn’t spoken to Chris in a very long time, too long actually. Chris had worked with my wife Nicole and I as a fly-fishing guide when we started the Yellow Breeches House Fly-Fishing Lodge in Boiling Springs, PA. We both chit chatted and he told me about his family and his kids and then he got to the reason why he was calling.
“Matt, I want you and Nicole to know, that you changed my life. I am the person I am today because of the both of you.”
Wow! My heart was thumping. I got a tear in my eye. I think I may have felt greatness. Was this what Professor Conley meant when he said, Matt, can you be great?
I think so. I felt it.
Chris was a young guy, nineteen when he first came to work with us and we weren’t much older twenty-two and twenty-three at the time. Chris was the most talented fly-fisherman in the area but he didn’t know it. He was shy yet had a great disposition about himself.
We took him underneath our wing. Taught him how to work with people, instilled confidence, taught him initiative and how to think for himself leveraging his personal strengths and his fly-fishing skills.
After two years our repeat customers would come back to the lodge and ask for Chris as their guide and not me so I knew we did something right.
What I didn’t know was that as an employer we were shaping a young man’s life. When I was younger I always thought that we were just building our company but it was way more than that.
As your building your business how you act as a CEO or founder and how you lead in your day-to-day lives impacts people in ways you may never know.
Every day your staff, colleagues and associates are developing perceptions and feelings about you. While you are busy building your amazing company strive for greatness day-in-and-day out by inspiring people, instilling confidence, caring about other peoples work and leading by example.
So I’ll finish this article today by leaving you with a little inspiration like my Professor Conley did.
Can you be great?