The Styrofoam Cup: Reflections from Leaders Eat Last

Last week, I was at home while my students ran an event on campus.  I had spent a significant amount of time dedicated to my marketing committee, both in and outside of work hours, discussing with them how to promote this event through social media.  After the event ended, I noticed that social media was silent: they had forgotten to make their posts, a simple task that I had invested my time and energy into ensuring would happen.  I took matters into my own hands and made the posts myself, typing furiously on my bed at 10pm.  My frustration mounted, my chest tightened, and I spent the next day venting to anyone who would listen.  I became all-consumed with my work and my event.

Shortly after the Social Media Crisis of 2014, I was in the process of live-tweeting my current read, Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek.  I came across a story about a former Under Secretary of Defense who spoke at a large conference.  The former Under Secretary revealed that the previous year, when he was still in office, was flown to the conference in business class, escorted to his hotel room, and treated to a cup of coffee in a ceramic mug.  When he no longer held the position, he flew to the conference in coach, drove himself to the hotel, and poured himself coffee into a styrofoam cup.  Then came the part of the story that just jumped off the page and slapped me in the face.

“‘It occurs to me,’ he continued, ‘the ceramic cup they gave me last year…it was never meant for me at all. It was meant for the position I held. I deserve a styrofoam cup. This is the most important lesson I can impart to all of you,’ he offered. ‘All the perks, all the benefits and advantages you may get for the rank or position you hold, they aren’t meant for you. They are meant for the role you fill. And when you leave your role, which you eventually will, they will give the ceramic cup to the person who replaces you. Because you only ever deserved a styrofoam cup.”

At work, I’ve been called a “woman on a mission”, so mired in details that I’ve missed out on meaningful moments with students.  I’ve neglected doctor’s appointments, given myself anxiety (see above chest pains), and snapped at countless friends/family members over my job, and for what?  The former Under Secretary is right: whether we want to admit it or not, we are all replaceable.  We all deserve styrofoam cups.  I spend countless hours dwelling on the all-important community service event (granted, community service can have a great impact on students, as all of our work can have) without even regarding my own health or happiness.  Not only that, but I do my students a disservice as I toil away on tasks they could learn, generating a catering order or drafting a reflection workshop.


As a student affairs professional, my goal is for my students to do amazing things for Community Service at Rutgers, not me.  It’s not my work and my event.  It’s their work, and they should celebrate their successes and analyze their failures (with my support).  My students are the ones who should be in the spotlight, giving amazing Ignite-style talks at conferences, being quoted in the campus newspaper, and drinking from their ceramic mugs.  It’s their precious and exploratory four years to pave their way into a career, not mine.

As one of my great friends put it, “If we’re doing our jobs right, no one will even know we are there.”  I tend to agree.  I’m shifting the spotlight over to them.  After all, I am only in the background watching them shine, drinking from a styrofoam cup.


Breathing Fire, A Revolution, & Other Stories from a Changemaker


My mind is still reeling from spending the day with changemaker Adam Braun, the founder and CEO of the for-purpose organization Pencils of Promise (I’m going to use the term for-purpose, as it is a better indication of the organization than the term non-profit).  Between engaging in a professional development workshop with student affairs colleagues, enjoying a small dinner outing, and attending his talk with students, I was immersed in a day full of inspiration that will change and inform my decisions and behavior for the rest of my life.  Adam founded his for-purpose organization less than five years ago with a $25 deposit.  Now they’ve built 100 schools in the developing world, seen actual improvements in learning outcomes of students, and gained half a million followers across social media.  I used to consider myself an entry-level student affairs professional, but thanks to Adam, I recognize what I am now: a Changemaker.  Inspiring college students to make change in their lives, careers, and their communities is what I am meant to do right now.  With his words, “find your revolution”, I am starting to find mine.

I spent some time over the past 24 hours really synthesizing his message and making it relevant to my life and experiences.  Here are three of my major takeaways to help “breathe your fire”.

Find your story.

I truly believe that storytelling is the most important skill you can develop to connect, share, and educate others about your cause. Maybe you’ve been inspired by someone, like Adam, whose grandmother was a Holocaust survivor forced to leave her education at age 14.  He dedicated the first Pencils of Promise school in her name.  Maybe you were a huge nerd in high school and wrote and self-published a young adult novel (me).  Saying, “I work with college students… er… but I’m not a professor…” is not going to inspire anyone.  Adam explained that he would go out of his way to “spill his soul”, even for just a single person, because of the potential impact it could have.  Develop your story – it will be worth it.


Write, write write.

If you read any of my blog posts, you know I’m a broken record on the topic of reflection.  However, writing is cathartic.  Take time to reflect on the day-to-day challenges that bog you down.  Even better, jot down the little things that inspire and excite you.  Reading a marble composition book from my teenage years today brings back memories that I would normally never remember, and it helps inform my work with students today.  Adam recommended using a journal that you really love, so you want to go back to writing in it every day.  I am making a commitment to myself to really write – it’s a passion of mine – and hopefully it will inspire others to write as well.


Adam sought out his personal struggle by traveling alone throughout the world, immersing himself in different cultures and learning languages just to interact with people.  But you don’t need to drop everything in your life and travel the world with a backpack and motorbike.  To be a changemaker, you do need to find things that make you uncomfortable and do them.  Throw your ideas on the table at a meeting full of innovators (maybe one of them will get picked up!).  Eat that weird looking vegetable (maybe you’ll end up cooking an award-winning dish with it!).  Struggle once in a while, and the next time it will get easier.

I know because I felt that struggle.  I pushed for the opportunity to bring Rutgers Changemakers Week to this campus.  I have been lucky enough to meet and learn from Adam and the purposeful promise that he made with his organization. I am in awe of my amazing students and Student Life colleagues who have inspired me in so many ways to take this on and push me toward this reality.  For more information about the initiative or to just share your thoughts, post here or reach out to me on Twitter @kristaknj.