When was the last time you saw your people?

On Monday morning I woke up in Orlando, Florida. Most people would be thrilled to be in Florida in February. But before the sun came up I was at the airport, leaving sunny  Florida to head back to Wisconsin. And I was thrilled. Because I had a very interesting afternoon planned.

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I landed at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport at 11:30am. I was eager to get off the plane. But the universe had other plans. In fact, I was kept on the plane for at least 30 minutes, at the gate, while police were summoned to deal with some human shenanigans that unfolded on the flight.

Deplane! Deplane!

Once I finally got off the plane I hurried to the parking garage and jumped in my car. I sped off towards the Illinois border, just 30 miles to the south. I had 3 meetings planned that afternoon. I hadn’t prepared at all. I did no research. No competitive analysis. No powerpoint presentation. Because on a random Monday afternoon in February, I simply made plans to see 3 old friends.

Hello Kenosha!

My interesting afternoon started with lunch at the Waterfront Warehouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin. If you are ever looking for a great place to meet someone for lunch midway between Milwaukee and Chicago, this is the place.

My seat had a great view of Lake Michigan. But what was really fun was having lunch with my friend Bryan Specht. Bryan lives in Chicago. I live in Milwaukee. So we decided to meet in the middle, like Maren Morris said.

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Bryan is a rockstar marketer. We first met when his former agency, Olson, was considering buying my former agency, Engauge. Bryan and I got to know each other through that process, and I really liked him. So we stayed in touch. But we hadn’t seen each other for 7 years.

As we ate we talked about life, and business. We talked about entrepreneurship, private equity firms, acquisitions, and earn-outs. We talked about the challenges of organizational integration. We talked about the people we knew in common. And Steve McQueen. And Monaco watches. (Bryan has the one I want.) We sounded like adult business people who have a lot of knowledge and experience. Which apparently we do.

Bryan and I are the same age. We were both college athletes. Our last names both end in ‘echt’. And he recently started his own marketing consultancy called Salient Group Ventures.  I started my own advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, 4 years ago. So it was great to spend time with someone I had do much in common with. We were both eager for more time together. So we’ve committed to making Kenosha Konversations a regular thing. (We didn’t actually kall them Kenosha Konversations.  That’s just a kute name I made up for this story).

Mark Dahms

After my lunch with Bryan I drove 15 miles north to a spot in Racine, Wisconsin called Route 20.  There, I met with my college track and field teammate at The University of Wisconsin, Mark Dahms.

Mark is wicked Smart. He was the valedictorian of his senior class at Waukesha Catholic Memorial High School. He was a great student at Wisconsin, and went on to get his MBA at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. I always thought that was where you went to study cereal. But apparently it’s like, a good school, for smart people.

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Try to guess which one of us works in finance at SC Johnson, and which one works at an ad agency called The Weaponry. I’ll give you two guesses.

Mark has been with SC Johnson since he graduated from college. But don’t think Mark hasn’t gotten around. He worked for SCJ in England, where he met his wife, who was working for SCJ. #RaisedEyebrow  They also lived in Australia. And apparently, when you clean a mirror with Windex south of the equator, you should wipe it counter clockwise. (I may have just made that up.)

I had not seen Mark in 14  years. So we caught up on life, work and family. I learned that a traditional Polish Christmas celebration may involve keeping a carp in your bathtub. And I was reminded that if you were really tall in college, you are probably still going to be really tall 24 years after your graduate. Did I mention that Mark once made a bet that he could eat 6 giant fudge brownies for dessert at our college training table. That didn’t turn out well for anyone.

A Symphonic Ending

My 3rd meeting of the day was with my friend Camela Langendorf. Camela and I met our freshman year of college at the University of Wisconsin. We met in Symphony class. Which is way harder than it sounds. (I still got an A.)

Camela was always funny and smart and fun to be around. Today, she is a great photographer, and owns her own business called Varitay Studios. The company name comes from the fact that Cam is not just a little bit tay. Or even regular tay.

Before we got together on Monday, Camela and I had not seen each other since… 1995.  That’s right, it had been 25 years since we last saw each other in person! Yet it was like we had seen each other yesterday.

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We talked about life and family and careers. We talked about college and friends and the pursuit of happiness.

We also talked about photography and entrepreneurship. We dug into profitability and business development and the power of great employees. We talked about great books. And we talked about how we should get together again soon.

Why Do This?

So why did I schedule time on a Monday afternoon to see friends who I haven’t seen for 7, 14 and 25 years? Because life is short. And our human relations are extremely valuable. At the end of our days, the only thing that will really matter is the impact we have on each other. So I make staying in touch with my people a priority. It’s one of my best habits (along with smiling first thing when I open my eyes in the morning).

The Question

Who haven’t you seen lately that you should? A friend? A family member? A business associate?  Your waxer? This week I challenge you to make time to reconnect with someone you haven’t seen in years. Maybe even decades. We have a limited amount of time on this planet. You never know when that time will run out. So make plans to see your people now.

Key Takeaway

See your people in real life.

*If you know someone who could benefit form this story, please share it with them.

Why you should get comfortable starting over at zero.

I grew up in the small town of Norwich, Vermont. There were about 3,500 people in town. I knew many of those 3,500. And many of them knew me. After graduating from high school I left Norwich for the University of Wisconsin. The student population was 43,000. That is nearly 40,000 more people than lived in my hometown. Heck, it was more people than lived in the biggest city in my home state. #BurlingtonIsNotBurly

Alone

On my first day of school I moved from class to class within a massive sea of students. Between classes the sidewalks on campus in Madison were as packed as the sidewalks in Manhattan. And as I hustled my bustle through the crowds, I didn’t see a single face I knew. It was really weird.

On the 3rd day of classes, walking across campus from Bascom Hall to the chemistry building I saw someone I knew. One familiar face among the 10s of thousands crisscrossing campus (making you jump, jump). I was so excited that I remember telling people about it that night back at the dorms.

The next day I saw 3 people I knew while walking around campus. It was amazing. The day after that I saw 5 people. I was so excited. The day after that I stopped counting.

The Shift

Within the first month of school I saw people I knew everywhere I went. By my sophomore year I felt like I knew everyone on campus. And by my junior year I felt like 43,000 students were not enough.

The Gym

I was reminded of this story yesterday morning when I went to the health club that my family belongs to. We joined when we first moved to Milwaukee from Atlanta. The first day I worked out there I didn’t know anyone. In fact, I did’t talk to anyone at the club for the first 2 months. Despite the fact that I wore both normal clothes and deodorant.

But yesterday club-goers stopped to talk to me before I got to the locker room. I saw friends on the way to the weight room. Other people I knew stopped by to say hi when I was on the elliptical trainer. And while I was lifting weights. And on the way back to the locker room. What a difference that was from my first 2 months.

Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship works the same way. You have to be willing to start over at zero. With no clients. No employees. And none of the stuff you took for granted before. But when those clients or customers finally show up you value them more than you could ever imagine.

I launched my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry in 2016. Today we have 19 clients. And I couldn’t appreciate them more. Because I remember when I had no clients at all.

Key Takeaway

Don’t be afraid to start over at zero. Don’t be afraid to move, or join a new club, class, church or volunteer organization where you don’t know anyone. Don’t be afraid of that new town, new job or new career. Knowing no one is not the end of the world. It is the beginning of a new one. Starting at zero is the start of something exciting. And nothing makes you value what you have more than starting again at zero.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this story, please share it with them.

To be an entrepreneur you need to know where clients come from.

2019 has been a very good year for my business. Lately, The Weaponry, the advertising and idea agency I started in 2016, has felt like the prettiest girl at the ball. Despite the fact that I am not wearing any makeup and haven’t had my hair permed in months.

Reflecting

As I reflect on this great year, I have been thinking a lot about our clients. Because the key to success as an entrepreneur is your ability to attract, maintain and grow clients. If you are considering starting your own business you need to start thinking more about finding clients than finding Nemo.

Daddy, Where do clients come from?

Clients don’t come from a client factory. You can’t buy them at a store like ClientMart or Clients R’ Us. The don’t grow at a pick-your-own client orchard. And they don’t fall from the sky on clienty days. So where do they come from?

My Client Roster Evaluation

Understanding where clients really come from is critical for aspiring entrepreneurs, startups, or any business who has forgotten how to grow. That’s why I decided to evaluate our client roster to determine where each of our clients actually came from. The following is a list of how we found each of our 19 clients (N-n-n-n-nineteen, nineteen).

How We Met Our Current Clients

  1. I was introduced to the Client by a mutual friend.
  2. The Client is a former co-worker I have stayed in touch with.
  3. The Client is a former Client who I have stayed in touch with.
  4. The Client is a former Client who I have stayed in touch with.
  5. The Client found us through my speaking engagement.
  6. The Client came to us because of one of my co-worker’s relationships.
  7. The Client is an old friend of mine.
  8. The Client is a new friend of mine.
  9. The Client is a former Client who I have stayed in touch with.
  10. The Client is a former Client who I have stayed in touch with.
  11. The Client is a former Client who I have stayed in touch with.
  12. The Client came through a friend’s recommendation.
  13. The Client came through one of our other Client’s Recommendations
  14. The Client is an Old Friend
  15. One of our business partners recommended us to the Client.
  16. A former coworker recommended us to the Client.
  17. The Client is a former Client who I have stayed in touch with.
  18. The Client is a former Client who I have stayed in touch with.
  19. The Client is a New Friend.
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My good friend, former client, current client, and amazing tennis player, Marc-Andre Dubois and I have known each other nearly 20 years. 

Key Takeaway

Clients come through relationships. Maintaining and growing your personal and professional relationships is key to business success. When I first launched my business I quickly realized that much of the hardest work of entrepreneurship, which is developing and maintaining genuine relationships, I had begun decades earlier. If you want to start your own business, side-hustle, or simply help your current business grow, start by focusing on your own relationships. Because that’s where all the best things in business and life begin.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this story, please share it with them. 

The best way to connect with your people this holiday season.

I am good at staying in touch with people. In fact, I make a sport of it. I like to see how many friends, family and professional connections I can interact with each year. Because like volcanoes, an active relationship is more interesting than a dormant one. And the recency of your last interaction has a major impact on both the real and perceived value of a relationship.

Social Media

Social media makes it easy to stay in touch. Likes, hearts and thumbs-up offer us a way to say, ‘I see you baby…’ But they are not really staying in touch. They are kind of like making eye contact and waving at a party. There is very little social investment, and little long-term value.

Next Level Interactions

As we barrel into Christmas and Hanukkah with our noses glowing, one of the greatest gifts we can give one another is the gift of human interactions. Making time for coffee meet-ups, lunches, dinners and drop-bys are great. But they are hard to do this time of year. Those in-person interactions are also limited by geography, and hard to scale (meaning hard to do in large numbers, not hard to put on a scale, or to remove the scales from the body).

My Secret Social Weapon

But there is one social interaction tool that I really love. It is great at keeping people in touch. It works regardless of geography. It is infinitely scaleable. And it is always at your fingertips.

The Group Text

I love staying connected with groups texts. If you don’t know what a group text is, it is a text interaction with a group of 3 or more people. The French call it a Mobile A Trois. And it is an easy way to create your own micro-social networking platform.

My Groups

I have created an eclectic variety of social groups via texts. For example:

  • I have a group text with my parents and my 3 sisters. It enables my original homies and I to reconnect quickly from anywhere. Our group text conversations are like our conversations at the dinner table in my childhood home in Norwich, Vermont. Only now we can’t see each other snarf.
  • I have a group text with my high school football teammates. This group text is a little like the banter on a bus ride home after a road win, sans mooning. This text group includes people in Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, California, Colorado, Illinois and Wisconsin. But we can still huddle together anytime we text.
  • I have a group text with my neighbors from our Madison Hall subdivision in Atlanta. The interactions here are often about planning our next get-together, funny memories or pics from a past get-together, or theories about who called the police with a noise complaint (I always blame you Vickie).
  • I have a group text with the advertising creatives who I worked with at my first job out of college. These texts are so full of inside jokes that military communications seem less encrypted.

Creation

By creating a group text you can instantly reunite and rekindle a social group from the past. But you also have the power to create a totally new social group. You have the ability to huddle up a select group of people like a team, a club, a society or a telephonic gang. And that is a fun gift to give.

Text Me Maybe

We could all use more positive human connections. Especially this time of year. So between now and New Year’s Day I encourage you to create a new group text to help bring people together, or bring people back together again. Just remember, my mobile number is 614-256-2850.

Key Takeaway

It is important for us to invest in our relationships. Creating a group text is an easy way to stay in touch. But it also has the power to make other people feel special. Because being included in a group text means you are considered a member of a special group, team, family or community. It is easy to do. It’s fun. And there is someone in your network who needs it now more than you know.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this story, please share it with them. Or maybe text it to them to start you own group.

 

Why requests to pick my brain hurt my head.

When I was a kid I collected baseball and football cards. Today I collect something far more valuable: knowledge. I add to my collection every day by reading, listening to audio books and podcasts, and talking to experts. I tap into my inner Oprah, and ask questions to try to expand my knowledge, my abilities and effectiveness. Which is why every night I go to bed a little wiser than I was when I woke up.

Pass It On

To return the favor to all those who have shared with me, I try to share what I know with others. That’s why I write this blog. It’s why I guest lecture to college students and why I try to make myself available to those who want to meet with me one-on-one, like Hall & Oates.

Johnny Requests

Because I have openly demonstrated a willingness to talk about the things I know, I get a steady stream of requests to discuss a wide variety of topics. I am happy to share what I know. However, there is one question I really dislike being asked when people want me to share my knowledge with them.

‘Can I pick your brain?’

Newsflash

No one wants to have their brain picked. The idea of brain picking conjures a variety of unpleasant images in my head, of my head. I see graphic depictions of ice picks to the cranium. And vultures picking at my lobes of squishy gray matter. I imagine someone picking my nose and really, really getting up there.

Brain picking makes me think of picking at zits and picking scabs. In other words, asking to pick my brain is not an intellectually enticing pick up line.

Reframe In The Membrane

Brain picking is really focused on the person trying to extract value. Not the person offering the value. Which makes it sound like a selfish request. So let’s not use this phrase anymore.

Pick Your Pick-Your-Brain Substitute.

The next time you want to pick up on someone else’s knowledge try one of the following pick up lines:

  • I would love to learn more about __________. And I don’t know anyone who knows more about it than you.
  • I would love to hear your philosophy on _________.
  • You are the smartest person I know when it comes to _______. Can I ask you some questions?
  • You are the Queen/King of ____________ and I would like to be your subject, of this subject.
  • If I bought you a Butterfinger would you drop some of your knowledge on me?
  • I am extremely impressed by how much you know about __________. Would you consider acting like Sonny, and share?
  • I want to learn how you _______________ because no one does it better. (Baby, your the best.)

Note: you are suppose to replace the ________ with the topic you want to discuss. So don’t actually say, ‘I would love to learn about line from you.’ Unless you want to learn about line dancing.

Key Takeaway

Think about what you are saying before you ask someone if you can pick their brain. There are much better ways to ask those you admire to share their knowledge, guidance and perspective. Including asking someone to share their valuable knowledge, guidance and perspective. Be empathetic. Put yourself in their shoes. Flatter, praise and respect those you would like to learn from. You will be sure to create a mutually beneficial exchange that leaves all brains better than ever. And potentially better than Ezra.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this message, please share it with them.

How to get your foot in the door like an All-American.

I have a strong appreciation for student athletes. As a former track athlete at the University of Wisconsin I understand how hard it is just to earn an opportunity to participate in college athletics. I know how difficult it is to balance the demands of athletics and academics. And I know how well those demands prepare you for life after college. But I was reminded of this lesson again over the past year.

The W Letterwinners Club

A year ago I started attending W Club events at the University of Wisconsin. The W Club is the varsity athlete letter winners alumni club. If you won a varsity letter as a Badger you are automatically in the club. And if I were to rebrand the club, I would name it the W Letterwinners Club, so that the name would express in two words and one letter what it has taken me 2 sentences to explain.

Scott and Stephanie

The incoming club President, Stephanie Herbst-Lucke, and Vice President, Scott Brinen, asked me to join the W Club’s advisory board when I moved from Atlanta to Milwaukee. Because it is much easier to get involved in things centered in Madison when you live in Milwaukee than in Marietta, Miami or Mozambique.

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That’s me in the middle, sandwiched between Stephanie Herbst-Lucke and my college teammate Scott Brinen. Scott is the W Club VP. Stephanie is the P. (#snickering)

They Meet

At my first advisory board meeting in October of 2018, Stephanie introduced me to one of the representatives from the women’s track team named Sarah Disanza. Sarah was an All-American distance runner who had just graduated 5 months earlier. It was clear that Stephanie and Scott really liked this young woman and had invited her to join the advisory board right after graduation.

Badger Athlete Reunion

Following the W Club meeting we all migrated to a fun event the W Club hosts annually called the Badger Athlete Reunion. It was held at the most iconic of iconic Madison bars, State Street Brats. The event, as the name so aptly implies, is a reunion of all letter-winning athletes who ever attended the University of Wisconsin.

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After the party there’s the after party.

The Badger Athlete Reunion is athletically eclectic. Like the Badger’s version of Studio 54. Every sport is represented. Every era is represented. Female and Male athletes are represented. And it makes it clear that being a student athlete at Wisconsin prepares you for great things after graduation. Because the room was full of ass kickers and name takers. Not just athletically. But in business, and life.

Impressed

That evening I spent more time talking with Sarah Disanza and I was impressed. She seemed to fit right in with groups of former athletes who were 10, 20 and 30 years her senior.

The Suggestive Sell

A few months later Stephanie Herbst-Lucke contacted me and said, ‘I think you should consider hiring Sarah Disanza on your team at The Weaponry.’ The Weaponry is the advertising and idea agency I founded in 2016. Stephanie is a rockstar marketer herself, so I took her suggestion seriously.

Sarah

Sarah was the national runner up in cross country, and a 4 time All-American at Wisconsin. She was still training seriously and had been working at a great restaurant in Madison. But she had met her life quota for garlic smashing. And decided she wanted to start her real career.

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Sarah leading a gang of hungry Badgers to Mickies Dairy Bar for some giant pancakes and scramblers.

 

Talent Scouts

I asked Simon Harper, one of my talented account leaders, to meet with Sarah the next time he was in Madison. He did. And he liked her like everyone else does. So we invited her to come to Milwaukee to meet with our broader team. (Broader meaning diverse, not wide.)

Sarah came to our office a week later. She was on time. She was prepared. She asked great questions. Again, everyone liked her. But we didn’t have an obvious opening for her to fill. So we didn’t have an obvious next step forward.

The Surprise

Then Sarah did something that distinguished her from other talented people. Yes, she followed up. Which is always the right thing to do. (See How to impress others with a follow up note for how to crush the follow up letter.)

True Value

But what Sarah did went beyond manners, protocol and good form. She added value. When she followed up with me she noted an initiative I had mentioned during our conversation in my office. It was a research project that I wanted to undertake related to new business development.

WTF!?!

She shocked me when told me she did the project on her own! When she sent me the file containing her research work it was so good I told her that she had to charge us for her time, because it was truly valuable to us.

The Door Opens

I then invited Sarah to do some freelance work for us on another project for a major client. Sarah always showed up early, ready to roll. She took initiative. Displayed great people skills with our client. And she did such a great job we found ourselves looking for more places to get Sarah involved.

High Jumping

Sarah eagerly jumped at anything we offered. And I was convinced we should add this go-getter to our team full-time. But before we did, I wanted to do one last check on Sarah with someone who knew her as well as anyone: her college coach.

Jill Miller
Jill ‘The Coach’ Miller

Jill Miller

Jill Miller coached Sarah in both Track and Cross Country at The University of Wisconsin. I emailed her, asking if she would be willing to talk to me about Sarah. She enthusiastically agreed.

Jill and I had a fun conversation as we connected dots between the people and places we both knew (#DublinOhio #RachelWeber). Then the conversation turned to Sarah. Jill enthusiastically confirmed all of the great things we saw in Sarah. She talked about her work ethic, her punctuality, her sense of responsibility and accountability. She talked about Sarah’s great family and the strong character that clearly came from her parents, Paul and Debbie Disanza.

Just Do Grit

Jill told me that Sarah had the highest pain threshold of anyone she has ever coached. Which is a clear indicator of grit and determination. Which is valuable in every endeavor in life. I had heard enough. But Jill Miller (who I would like to nickname Jiller) had one more thought to add.

‘As a coach I often think about which of my athletes I would hire if I had my own business. I have had a lot of great athletes that I would gladly hire. But there are 2 that stand out as the first people I would hire. And Sarah is one of them.’  – Jill Miller

That was quite an endorsement. I told Jill how much I appreciated her time and insights. And I had all I needed to know.

The Offer

In August we offered Sarah a full time position with The Weaponry. She started the day after Labor Day. And she has been as good as advertised. Or better. She is eager. She is a fast learner. She asks great questions. And she has deftly handled everything we throw her way.

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Sarah and her new team of smiley Weapons.

Best of all, she is super fun, super funny, and has a great personality that really adds to our team. Which means that she is like so many badger athletes, past and present: Hard working, smart and determined. Yet as fun and full of personality as the kids who fail out of lesser colleges.

Taking Initiative

But the reason Sarah is on our team is that she took initiative. She spotted an opportunity during the interview process to wow us. She performed her own research that was highly valuable to our business. She built her own on-ramp. And she was so good we couldn’t ignore her. So we didn’t. Anyone can do this. Although very few will. Just those willing to perform like All-Americans.

Key Takeaway

If you want to get your foot in the door with a new employer, a new client or a new relationship, add value. Show how much you would bring to the table every day. Don’t wait to be asked. Show initiative. It will tip the scales in your favor. Those you are trying to impress won’t want to lose you as a valuable asset. They’ll make exceptions for you. Be patient, but persistent. And keeping adding value. You’ll find that doors will open for you over and over again.

*If you know someone who could benefit form this story, please share it with them.

Are you surrounding yourself with the best people?

The legendary motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. That’s why it’s so important to spend your time with the best people. This past Friday, during the University of Wisconsin homecoming weekend, I spent 6 hours with an amazing group of former University of Wisconsin varsity athletes. These Badgers are some of the brightest, most driven, most fun, and most successful people I know.

Business Up Front

I kicked off homecoming weekend in Madison with a 2-hour advisory board meeting for the W Letterwinner’s Club. The advisory board is like Noah’s Ark. Because it features two former athletes from every varsity sport.

We meet to discuss how we can help our members develop more meaningful relationships with each other, both personally and professionally. We discuss how we can offer assistance, guidance and mentorship to graduating Badger student athletes. And we explore ways that our network can add value to the mission of the University of Wisconsin and its world class athletic department.

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The Dub Club representatives from track & field and cross country. And the handsome profile of a tall soccer alum in the top left.

Up In Da Club

The former Badger student athletes on the board are inspiring. They include Big 10 Champions and National Champions. They include All-Americans and professional athletes. They include school record holders and Hall of Famers. They include athletes who made it to the Final 4 and the Frozen 4.

Our youngest members just graduated from Madison. And our most senior members used to get run with Crazy Legs Hirsch, Alan ‘The Horse’ Ameche and Paul Bunyan when he was just a babe himself.

Today these W Letterwinners are crushing it in their post-collegiate careers. They are executives and entrepreneurs. They are administrators, professors and coaches. They are leaders and volunteers. And they are great parents, wives and husbands. Just spending time with these badasses enhances my own false sense of badassery.

Party In The Back

On Friday night, after the work was done, we did what Badgers do. We played. We migrated to the iconic State Street Brats, and joined hundreds of others at the annual Badger Athlete Reunion. We spent the next few hours together, talking, laughing,  sharing memories, making new friends, connecting dots, drinking beer and eating brats.

While it certainly looked as if we were having fun, we were doing more than that. We were strengthening our personal bonds. The bonds between former student-athletes who know just how hard it is to live up to the demands of academics and athletics at the Big 10 level. We were strengthening the bonds between Badgers who know that if you can excel in both the classroom and athletic arena at The University of Wisconsin, you have the critical tools and the skills to be successful for the rest of your life.

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Former Badger athletes at an impromptu meetup in Atlanta. Badgers are everywhere.

Key Takeaway

If you want to be great surround yourself with great people. Find rockstars who inspire you. Spend as much time with those special people as you can. It will make you a better person. I know it will. Because I learned that lesson in Madison as a student athlete at the University of Wisconsin.

*If you know someone you think would benefit from this message, please share it with them.