I was in my hotel at the University of Calgary, asking the man at the reception desk to change a Canadian ten dollar bill for a five and five singles.
“Of course!” he said happily, because in Canada everything is said happily, even when it’s twenty below outside.
He opened the cash register, and a look of consternation fell across his face- the kind of look you get from Canadians when they are unable to quickly fulfill your precise request.
“Hmmm…” he said, peering into cash drawer and tapping it with his fingers. He looked up at me apologetically. “Do you only need loonies? Or would you take toonies?”
I had no idea what he was going on about, but clearly Canadian currency had sneaky weird names. Loonies! Toonies! It was like getting tickled.
“Oh, either one!” I said with a dismissive wave, because I didn’t want to sound like an idiot. He looked relieved, and gave me some shiny coins.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I freakin’ love Canada.
It was my second time to the University of Calgary. They were kind enough to choose my book, Little Princes, as their Common Read this year, even printing their own customized edition and handing out several thousand copies to their students. The first time I came was in September, on their first day of Orientation, when I was greeted by five thousand cheering freshman in a gym.
This time I was there for the Canadian Conference on Student Leadership. There were 230 student leaders from across Canada gathered for the weekend. I was giving the keynote on Saturday morning.
I’ve long since passed the days of getting nervous over public speaking – I genuinely enjoy it. I think (and hope) that people who see me speak can see that I really enjoy it.
Speaking to this group, though, was a special thing for me – I think they had more of an impact on me than I had on them.
Now, before you brush that comment off, I want to tell you what I’m talking about. I’ve always thought it sounded terribly clichéd, when some speaker is on TV speaking at a Feed the Hungry benefit or something and they look at the camera and they say to me “You out there – you’re the real hero!” and I’m in my sweatpants on the couch, tipping the can of Pizzalicious Pringles into my mouth and Pringle dust is going all over my face, and I’m like “Darn tootin’!”
But that’s not the case here. Believe me, when you go out and volunteer – let’s say, in a children’s home in Nepal – it’s easy to be inspired. You’re working directly with the kids. You see the need, you see how little it takes to make a difference. That’s not the challenge.
The challenge is when you’re in university. You’re dealing with exams and the pressures of school, of living away from home for the first time, of maybe working a part time job, of girlfriends and boyfriends and family at home. You’re dealing with trying to figure out what you want to do and what you want to be, and everybody seems to have an opinion on what you should be doing. You’re probably pretty broke, on top of all that.
And yet, you carve the time out of thin air to lead a club or a group. More than that, you decide you want to improve on your skills, you want to be a better leader, because you’re genuinely interested in helping your community.
I never even made it to the first of these levels. Therefore I opened my speech with a disclaimer – I was never a student leader. (See: sweatpants/couch/Pizzalicious-flavored Pringles). So I was already impressed with the group I was addressing, in the same way you’re impressed when you meet somebody who has achieved something you never even thought to aspire to.
I got to talking with those leaders – a lot of them. (I love book signings for that reason.) They were asking great questions about Nepal, about our strategy out there, about the best way they could get involved at their universities. They asked about awareness-raising vs. fundraising, they asked about potentially going out to Nepal to see the need for themselves so they could better understand it.
After my talk and book signing and hanging out with the students, I realized that I was behind. I wasn’t working hard enough. These young men and women were, what, like twenty years old? I didn’t even go out to Nepal until I was twenty nine, and even then I was going to try to impress people.
The University of Calgary is starting to feel like a second home, so I had no hesitation about asking one of the students if I could use the University library for the rest of the day. I’m usually a bit tired after speaking and engaging for a few hours, but I realized that if they weren’t taking breaks, then I wasn’t going to either.
So when I wasn’t speaking, when I wasn’t book signing and meeting students from across Canada, I was in that library, working. I sat beside other students who only lifted their heads from their books to crane their necks or say hi to somebody who had come in, and then went back to it.
When I left at dinner time to head back to my hotel, they were still there, books and laptops open, their headphones sealing them off from the world around them, preparing for lives and careers that they could hardly even envision.