Start Now

It’s funny how the world works sometimes. You have an intention, you make something to follow through on that intention, and sometimes you even achieve what you intended to do.

But occasionally, you put something out there into the world and somebody else grabs it, and they do something with it that you didn’t intend for them to do at all. And even more rarely, if you’re really lucky, that thing you made is able to make a real and profound impact in the world in ways in which you never imagined.

But enough hyperbole. About 15 years ago, I made a video series called Trombone Player Wanted. Maybe you’ve seen it. I made it for managers to play for their employees, so they could chat about strengths and how to leverage them. And I think it turned out great – it did exactly what I intended it to do. If you want to help your child discover his or her strengths, ask them this simple question. Click To Tweet

But then one day, I got a call from a middle school teacher on Vancouver Island named Donnie Fitzpatrick, who asked if he could play the first 15-minute video in his class of 11-year-olds. Even though I thought it odd, I agreed, and I didn’t hear from Donny again for almost a year.

When he called back a year later, he told me that he took that short video and used it as the core of a year-long curriculum, and he invited me up to see it in action. In his classroom, Donnie was surrounded, floor-to-ceiling, with brown boxes. And the boxes on the floor started out very plain, but the higher they climbed the more ornate and colorful they got. Now as a researcher and professional, I only had one question:

“What’s with the boxes, Donnie?”

And Donnie went on to tell me that at the start of the year, each student got a humble, brown box; their Voice Box. They also started with one assignment; to go home with a flip cam (this was before cell phones, when flip cams were still a thing), and film themselves answering one simple question: “When was the last time a day flew by?”

It’s a question that only the student could answer. And it allowed the students, for the first time, to be the experts of their own lives. Too often, school is simply pumping information into students and then testing them on how well they can repeat it back to the teachers. Click To Tweet

Too often, school is simply pumping information into students and then testing them on how well they can repeat it back to the teachers. Donnie asked the kids to look inside of themselves and use school to draw out the strengths that are there already, in them – instead of expecting their report cards to reflect if they were “smart” or not.

In Donnie’s class, these kids would bring their videos in the next day at talk about them. They would dig deeper and deeper into what particular activities make them feel strong. And as students’ walls dropped, as they found their voices, their boxes became more colorful. More unique. More beautiful.

5,000 students have gone through Donnie’s program. But honestly, it doesn’t take a school program to help a child see themselves, their strengths, their voice. All you need to do is ask a simple question: When was the last time a day flew by? And honor their answer.

Please. Start now.

13 Comments

  1. Kevin January 21, 2020 at 5:43 AM - Reply

    That’s a great question. As an elementary Principal, I find we do a lot of that in some classes… and then when the curriculum and subjects crowd in we forget. I’d love to see that carry on into our high schools and in each subject class that it is remembered what excites them.

  2. Raheem M A January 21, 2020 at 5:51 AM - Reply

    Good thought, Marcus.

  3. Bianca January 21, 2020 at 6:01 AM - Reply

    Wow really touching experience. Thank you for sharing this story. Did they design the boxes during the year? And where did he store them? 🙂

  4. Tom January 21, 2020 at 8:16 AM - Reply

    Any idea if we could see an outline of Donnie’s program?

  5. linda scotti January 21, 2020 at 9:29 AM - Reply

    I love your call to action ‘Start now, you don’t have to wait’.
    You communicate with passion and a strong belief in what you teach. I find it very inspiring.

    I used to facilitate team building activities on strengths and I have beautiful memories of those days.
    I will share the video.

    Thank you, Marcus, for being you.

  6. Marvin Ferguson January 21, 2020 at 12:10 PM - Reply

    Powerful: I thought of the Bible verse.
    Train a child up in the way he/she should go, and when he’s old, he’ll not part from it.

  7. Julie January 21, 2020 at 6:09 PM - Reply

    Thank you Marcus! I needed to hear this message now as our son is struggling to find the joy in school and what makes him strong. Our schools these days gear students for college entrance exams rather than cultivate what makes students unique and distinct. I plan to share this with my son and keep encouraging him to discover his strengths and his superpowers.

  8. Amy January 21, 2020 at 7:37 PM - Reply

    I first saw your trombone video in my Master’s career counseling course and I was blown away. I’m a career counselor at a university and since then, I use that as my basis (along with your shorter video of being 11 again) for everyone workshop, class or presentation I do with first year students, undecided students, and high school campus tours. Even if I only have twenty minutes with them, I ask them that question – When was the last time a day flew by. And I have them reflect on 2 or 3 experiences of there are always similarities. Because those are their strengths! And it is amazing to see the joy on their faces when they do begin to see their uniqueness. Thank you for making that video.

  9. Miwa Nakasato January 22, 2020 at 3:01 AM - Reply

    That’s a great idea. Thank you.

  10. Hana January 24, 2020 at 9:44 AM - Reply

    Thanks Marcus for sharing this beautiful story…I will be asking my 13 year old son this question.

  11. Therese Doherty January 26, 2020 at 2:24 PM - Reply

    Marcus, I am a second grade teacher and I see so many of them(7&*yr olds) already feeling defeated
    I am going to try this and let you know what happens, I can’t wait! I want them to see themselves as special and unique individuals with something great to offer .

  12. Sally Graham January 28, 2020 at 4:42 AM - Reply

    Marcus,
    What a remarkable way of implementing your message from the trombone player! I wish our teachers had more freedom to expose our youth to their unique talents and less quotas and metrics that they have to meet.
    I was raised in a small rural community, my children originally attended the same school district that I had, and my father before me. It had your standard curriculum. Then my family moved to a more urban area and the school district that my daughter attended offered the International Baccalaureate® (IB) programmes. (IBO.org). The IB taught my daughter how to think critically and not just memorize information.I believe some of the core concepts taught through the IB are beneficial and could be used with a blending of Strength concepts.
    My daughter is now at university, and there was a little difficulty transitioning from being used to prepping for an IB exam back to traditional exam formats.
    You may already be familiar with IB, but if not, I thought it could be beneficial information when comparing different learning systems available in the U.S.
    Thank you for inspiring us to be unique individuals and best of luck in this new journey ahead of you!

  13. Gary Highley January 28, 2020 at 7:24 AM - Reply

    Walking into a new leadership role and trying to find a way to quickly evaluate the strengths of a staff. I am going to use this question as I think it applies to adults as well. Where is your true passion? When was the last time a day flew by? I love it!

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