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My vessel was a single-sail dinghy called an Optimist, designed for young sailors like me. At age 13, I was in my very first solo race, propelled through the brackish water of the Caloosahatchee River by what felt like a gale but which in actuality was a wind no more than fifteen knots. Salt spray stung my face, and every whitecap I split sent my heart into my throat. Our coach circled the course in her Boston Whaler, but every gust still set my heart pounding. I barely noticed that with every tack upwind, I was gaining on the boats ahead of me.
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When I did notice, I exulted and tacked hard to starboard, then….
The swinging boom, propelled by physics, smacked the back of my head, but all that was hurt was my dignity. I refocused on my competitors, the wind, the chop, and the finish line a half mile distant. I was so zoned in that I never saw the high-powered speedboat cut recklessly across the race course. Too late, I tried to rudder my bow into the onrushing wake. Twenty seconds later, I floated in the chilly water, holding onto my capsized vessel for dear life..To her credit, my coach merely watched from the Whaler, making sure I was safe, but letting me right the vessel myself.
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It was a sober, slow-speed sail back to the dock. I realized that if I had followed my training, used all my senses, and swept the whole of the water with my eyes from time to time, I would have spotted the approaching speedboat and adjusted course accordingly. Instead, I had failed to take account of the big picture. Tenacity was fine, but not when it turned into tunnel vision. Success would only come when I could focus on the small and at the same time take in full context.
I had an opportunity to put this insight to practice when I founded an Impact Investing Club at my high school. I had thought our mission was to learn the basics of socially conscious entrepreneurship, venture capital, and investing. I created a three-month syllabus and curriculum for our weekly meetings, to which I stuck faithfully. Within a few meetings, though, I realized that I was – excuse the metaphor – selling short our possibilities. I had a great cadre of energetic participants in the club who wanted to see the possibilities for socially conscious investment in our own community, to reach out to local businesses and urge them to diversify their product lines or modes of operation to serve underrepresented populations.
One example had to do with the employment of African Americans who had criminal records, but who returned to society. We studied the research of the best academic authority on this subject, Dr. Devah Pager, whose field experiments prove that such individuals have an extraordinarily difficult time finding employers who will hire them. We created a Power Point presentation on this subject that we used not just with small business owners in our county, but to educate other students about a social problem that is easy to overlook. The results were outstanding, both at the school level and in the community. More students joined my club, and many small firms were willing to broaden their hiring outreach and/or revisit their application requirements.
Had I not been clunked in the head, or capsized my Optimist, I would never have had such a teachable moment about focus. I can say with confidence that while I may have finished last that day, I didn’t lose the race. I hope to earn a degree that will allow me to do what I have done with the Impact Investing Club – address social issues on both a micro and macro level. The lessons of that day make me a better student, person, and citizen of the world, as I sail forth into my future.
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