We All Speak Ball

Have you ever seen a group of kids playing? It’s terrifying! You will never see someone so invested in a role or get so intense than when a kid plays. When you are wrestled to the ground by a “zombie” you will actually fear for your life despite the fact that the zombie is actually just a 6 year old kid. They possess a contagious excitement which is impossible to replicate. If a neighboring kid sees a group playing then they’ll want to join in. So why is it that we can’t replicate this? Where’s the difficulty in getting others to want to join in on our ideas? Last Thursday I attended a life-changing talk by Kevin Carroll, and almost immediately he posed the question:

How might you excite others with your perspective?

While visiting SCAD Kevin was able to visit our museum and tour some of our buildings, and how he described his experiences made me sink back in my chair. He was so marveled by our resources and the amount of creative people we are constantly surrounded by, and asked a very thought provoking question: “How could someone not bring their best self here everyday?” He was right, how could we not bring our best self? Shouldn’t we all be excited and amazed to be around people of such diversity and with so much creative energy? His question made me think that perhaps I was taking everything for granted; my tendency to keep to myself or to ever hold back was in some sense a means of being ungrateful. Kevin’s advice really weighed in on me and I’ve been continually thinking: bring your best self.

When we take a look at how children play their excitement and genuine enthusiasm is not only inspiring, but also captivating. It is so interesting to see just how invested children can be when they play — they’re a perfect example of bringing their best self. As we grow older we tend to accept things for what they are while looking only at the surface, on the other hand children are resilient. They’ll are not afraid to repetitively ask why. They will never settle for less than what they think they deserve. They will improvise. They are not fixated on the surface, instead they are able to craft any situation into some type of game. Kevin brought up a much needed point:

“Children are more resourceful than we give them credit for.”

Consider the days when you would build blanket forts that served as your kingdom. Now consider how are your blankets are being used today. What life have you given them? As children we were constantly presented with the question if we were going to see things as obstacles or opportunities? Although it’s likely we were never asked this directly the question was always there. Kevin’s story is remarkable and deeply inspiring I suggest you watch his TedTalk at the bottom of this post. During his rough childhood he too faced the question of whether he was going to see obstacles or opportunities, and he went on to explain that “your story is the most powerful thing you will have at your disposal.”

After overcoming a huge obstacle in his life (again, go watch his TedTalk I don’t want to spoil such an inspiring story) Kevin, like other 6 year olds, found himself with a desire to play, and so there he was playing in an empty playground by himself with a red rubber ball he had come across in a neighborhood he had never been in before. Initially he began bouncing the ball, but soon after found himself slamming and kicking the ball with rage. He wasn’t angry at the ball, but rather he was angry at the obstacles he had faced. As he continued kicking this ball and chasing it down his thoughts and angry became clouded, and with the red rubber ball squeezed between his arms there were no thoughts of anger — all he could hear was his heavy breathing. While others would have seen the playground as vacant, Kevin was determined to play even if it was by himself, but as Kevin stood there exhausted from kicking and chasing this ball a group of other kids watched from a distance before approaching him. Having never been in this neighborhood Kevin anticipated the worst, he figured he was using someone else’s ball and they were going to pick a fight with him. Instead he heard, “You want to play with us, kid?” Never before did Kevin feel as if he belonged considering he never had a stable home and constantly moved around, at this moment a kid who was kicking a ball around by himself was now joining a larger group of kids to play with. Kevin’s desire to play even if it was by himself was what allowed him to connect with a group he had never even met before. He claims that as he walked home holding that red rubber ball that he had made a commitment to belong.

Bring your best self. Obstacles or opportunities? Belong. These three are meant to help you transcend expectations and be a better you, but in the sense that you are in a position to also better those around you. What is particularly interesting is how these three choices are linked through play. As Kevin’s childhood went on he continued to play, but he then felt inspired to try everything he possibly could. He went on to try a variety of sports and other activities, but as these opportunities presented themselves he would continually tell his new friend’s mom — who eventually became a mother figure to him — about everything he was interested in trying and her response was always “why not?” Kevin continued on to explain how this rhetorical question helped transform is life even more. Being told why not created possibility, but most importantly it was a form of accountability. He would then be followed up with the question of “is your idea now a reality?” Are you going to be someone who talks about it or are you going to be someone who acts on it and does it?

These questions helped shape Kevin’s life, but his determination to bring his best self, his willingness to create opportunities, his commitment to belong, and his desire to play brought meaning to his life. Kevin was aware of his story, but he found an interest in other people’s stories; he wanted to connect with others and understand why they are doing what they do. He is a rare individual who will do whatever he can to help someone else reach their full potential because he genuinely believes in them. In 1995 Kevin was the Head Athletic Trainer for the Philadelphia 76ers, and throughout this time his contagious love for sports and inspiring story began to spread. While he was still working for the 76ers in ‘97 he was approached by Nike, they knew of his love for sports and how they’ve influenced his life, and wanted him to join their team. Although they wanted him to become a part of Nike they didn’t have an official position for him, instead he “was directed to create a position at the company that would add value to the overall mission of the brand.” He went around the company meeting people from every field trying to determine where he would fit in best. Nike suggested that Kevin shared his story with others in hopes of inspiring them, but Kevin also invested the time to ask the employees about their stories. He was interested in what inspired them to be where they are now; he wanted to know about their dreams and aspirations. Kevin didn’t report back to Nike with a traditional position inside of a specific team as they may have expected, but rather he felt like he wanted to be a part of it all — he wanted to help everyone. Kevin then created his own position which he held for seven years, he was their “Katalyst.” As a Katalyst he described himself as “an excitatory agent that speeds up or changes a process. He created his own job which was meant to help others change their ideas into reality.

Although he didn’t go into detail as to what he did over those 7 years at Nike he did mention one story worth noting. He managed to get all of Nike to play an extremely large game of toilet tag. By playing you are naturally connected with others. Kevin is a big believer in that you are able to learn a lot when you play. Playing is not only a means of challenge, but it also sparks innovation, and more importantly conversation and engagement.

“You can discover more about a person in one hour of play than in a year of conversation.” — Plato

After Kevin left Nike to pursue a more global influence he went on to travel the world and see how other kids played. No matter where he found himself in the world kids were making their own balls and finding ways to play. He began donating higher quality balls to communities and collected handmade ones. His travels presented the discovery the play is universal. We all speak ball. What unites us all is our desire to play — a ball can change the world.

Kevin concluded his talk with an eye opening claim, there are two great days in a person’s life: when you are born, and when you discover why.

“No dream is microwavable. Nothing will happen overnight.” — Kevin Carroll

Get out there and be someone that takes action. Pursue your vision of excellence, but take note: it’s going to be challenging, and you can’t do it alone.