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August 19, 2013
By Matthew J. Lohr, Commissioner, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services 
Contact: Elaine J. Lidholm, 804.786.7686

Last month I had the tremendous honor to keynote a dinner at the National FFA State Presidents’ Conference in Washington, DC.  This is an annual event that brings two state FFA officers from each state to our nation’s capitol for a week of intense leadership development. I remember attending 24 years ago when I was a newly minted state FFA president from Virginia. It remains one of my fondest memories from my entire year of service.   

At this year’s conference, Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, spoke to the same group on the topic of “Suiting up for Agriculture.” The Secretary noted that as FFA members, we wear a wide array of suits — agriculture educator, speaker, mentor. It is up to us to decide what to do after we take off these blue corduroy jackets and begin our careers. Regardless of what future suits we wear, it is our challenge – our commitment – to suit up for agriculture.

As I developed my message, I wanted to share some advice that I have learned personally in the time following my FFA career. Over the years I remember hearing speakers challenge their audiences to set goals, work hard, dream big and then all their dreams will come true. Granted those things are all very important to finding success, but I’ve learned that sometimes plans can go astray. Sometimes roadblocks and obstacles can hit us from out of nowhere. We can do everything right, but things can still happen to alter our course and set us back. 

What happens then?  How can young leaders pick themselves up and try again? I put it this way: life is not about the hand you are dealt; it’s how you play it.

One of my favorite activities I used to share when I presented leadership workshops was an ABC game. I would explain to the group that each person would randomly get a letter of the alphabet and in five minutes they would see who could form the most words with the letter they were given. Every time they used their letter to make a word, they each earned a point. At the end of the activity I would see who formed the most words and distribute the prizes. 

Most students were eager to participate until they received their letter. Vowels could easily form more words than consonants. The students who received the consonant letters like Q, X and Z were quickly frustrated and often complained, “This isn’t fair. I got an X.”

I always smiled at this point because the students just made my point. Obviously some students were at a distinct advantage because of their assigned letter, just like in real life. Some people begin this world with advantages, but success is more hinged on what we do with the letter we are given rather than the letter itself.

I was leading this activity in Seattle once when the highest word maker was a girl with the letter Q. Everyone was amazed that she found 18 words with a Q. Then she explained that she didn’t like the letter she was given, so she used her thumb to cover part of the Q and used it as the letter O. Very clever. Another person turned his Z sideways and used it as an N, and another student once covered up part of the letter X and formed a Y. 

I told the FFA members that success is not determined by your “letter” or your “hand” in life; it’s determined by how you play it. And how they play it is their decision. 

To further illustrate this point, I said that if they were ever sitting around on a Saturday night and suddenly got the urge to play this game with their friends, the best letter to get is always S. All you need to do is follow everyone around and just make all the words plural. In reality the highest word maker should always be the one with an S.  But many times I would see students become very lazy during the activity. In fact at one event I had a student only find one word with his letter S. 

Such is true in life. Many times the folks who are given the best hands such as wealth, brains, beauty, connections or athletic ability are simply lazy and they fail to take advantage of the rich hand they were dealt. Instead, they waste the golden opportunities afforded to them. We see this in society with celebrities and star athletes all the time. 

As I spoke to this eager and enthusiastic group of leaders, I wanted to let them know that sometimes life is not fair.  In responding to unfairness, many allow their situation to devastate or even destroy them. 

In my own personal life I watched Andrea, my wife of 15 years, pass away two years ago from a long battle with breast cancer. Throughout her illness she was always the most positive and upbeat person in the room. She always looked for the bright side in her situation and she usually found it. She constantly tried to encourage and inspire others, even in her final months – and she succeeded. 

Andrea’s passing was certainly not fair, not to me, our young children, her parents and siblings and the thousands of people who looked to her for inspiration. But she taught me so much about playing a crummy hand and I know I am a better person for her example.

I also know there is a message here for agriculture. All of us have seen devastation on many occasions:  drought, floods, disease, market collapses, fires, fickle public opinion, undeserved media blame, you name it.  These things are not fair. But they are real and what counts is how we deal with them, not the fact that they exist. This is a great lesson for anyone in life, regardless of their age or occupation. 

Let me circle back to the beginning here and restate that the “work hard, dream big and everything will go your way” philosophy that so many speakers offer these days is not always the best advice to hear. I hate to break it to eager young students, but the health, wealth and happiness formula that we sometimes hear isn’t always true. We absolutely need to dream, we need to take risks, and we need to work hard. But we also need to develop a good, old-fashioned set of coping skills because, at the end of the day, events, circumstances and tragedies can get in our way. The question is, will those things derail us completely or will our response refuse to allow that and find a way to work around them?

Real success, in my book, is having the determination, the faith and the real-world skills to get back up and keep on going despite those difficulties. Dealing with life’s challenges, I believe, is our best chance to face them and overcome them. To me that’s great advice for all of us!

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