Cup 16

person: Lou Anna K Simon, President of Michigan State University

drink: small brewed coffee

Michigan State President, Lou Anna K Simon is a first generation college graduate.

She married her husband, Dr. Roy Simon, while in graduate school but never fully dropped her maiden name, Kimsey. She carries the K in her name and the lessons learned from her Kimsey years close to her heart.

The Kimsey’s didn’t have much money. Lou Anna grew up in a blue-collar community in rural Indiana. For a stretch, the family lived with her grandparents to save money and when it was time to go to college, she chose Indiana State University because it was close to home and scholarship money made it a viable option.

Today she’s at the helm of a University with over 45,000 students, a 5,200-acre campus, and billion-dollar budget.

That’s quite the transformation.

But in all of her success, she’s never forgotten her roots.

After hearing the intricate story of her winding ascent through the ranks of Michigan State—a journey that began with a PhD in Administration and Higher Education in 1974 and reached a pinnacle in 2004 when the Board of Trustees elected her to her current role as President—I asked her one question:

What take-away from her career at MSU would she pass on to college students?

Her answer had nothing to do with her career at Michigan State. It had everything to do with her father—a man for whom Lou Anna had unquestionable admiration and respect.

keep learning

He worked in a power plant. He didn’t finish high school—he left early to fight in World War II and later earned his GED and started work. While he may not have been the most educated man, he had a brilliant mind and throughout his time at the power plant, he was constantly trying to learn more, which seemed senseless to others—with his level of education, there was a limit to the how high he could advance in the company.

But he did it anyways, and it paid off.

When the country experienced an energy crisis that led to a rapid increase in power plants, there was a shortage in workers with the skills necessary to help build the plants and Mr. Kimsey found his expertise in high demand. Suddenly the blue-collar employee with a GED was working alongside engineers.

It was a lesson that stuck with Lou Anna.

become good at things you don’t like doing

When she ran into something challenging or something she didn’t like doing, he reminded her of the importance of becoming good at things you don’t like doing, because some day you might need those skills.

In 30 years, a University goes through a lot of change. And the same went for Lou Anna’s career. She started with research, which she loved. About the same time Edgar Harden became MSU president, the US Government awarded MSU a grant to build a Cyclotron on campus. But before they would hand over the money, the government wanted MSU to pass an Affirmative Action plan. Lou Anna was asked to be the Assistant to the President to help gather data to approve the plan—she didn’t want to—but she said yes because it was the smart career move. The day she loaded a truck with all the collected data to send to Washington (computers and email weren’t around yet) she looked forward to returning to her old job.

But the return didn’t last long. Within a week, she was pulled back into a new project. There was threat of a lawsuit connected to the new Title IX Amendment that had been passed and the University knew Lou Anna had the skills to once again gather the required data.

These projects weren’t ideal for Lou Anna, but she did them, and she did them well. They were opportunities to gain valuable experience and prove that she had the aptitude to advance to higher positions. Throughout the course of her climb toward the presidency, Lou Anna encountered plenty of tasks that she didn’t enjoy, but she knew those tasks could add value to her career down the road so she worked hard to become good at them.  

look at the potential scenarios that can happen

This lesson leads nicely into the final point Lou Anna left me with—the one that hit home.

When Lou Anna was in college, she never envisioned she would someday be the president of a major institution.

Not because she didn’t think she was capable (her father had always said the only person who can define your success, is you, and she took that lesson—like the others—to heart). To some extent, the presidency was a matter of happenstance. One thing led to another and suddenly she realized that if she was going to continue advancing in her career, the last stop would have to be president.

Lou Anna used the term happenstance a few times. It was fate, chance, luck, destiny—whatever you want to call it—that played a large roll in Lou Anna’s career. In any career for that matter. Her husband could have gotten a job in another state, the Cyclotron funding could have gone to another school, her research could have led elsewhere. Different circumstances would have led to a different outcome.

So she’s the President because of good luck?

Kind of. But not really. Sure happenstance played a role—but it was what Lou Anna did with those opportunities that made the difference. She had the what Psychology Today says are the three elements necessary to create your own luck: self-confidence, ability to take risks, and competence. The lessons from her father taught her how to increase her utility—how to look at the various scenarios life might bring and prepare accordingly. How to focus on the skills necessary for the task at hand, but also see the big picture and develop the skills for the long run.  

Preparation is hard work. But Lou Anna’s father instilled the value of hard work, and without that, Lou Anna wouldn’t be where she is today.

Hard work pays off.

There have been many times throughout my college experience where the workload has reached overwhelming levels. Times when I’m so sick of working hard I just want to give up—bury my head in the sand and pretend the world doesn’t exist. Shout from the rooftops that I’m finished, someone else can do the work.

At times I’ve also been caught up in the freedom and fun of college, consequently neglecting the details. Letting little things slip by. Taking shortcuts when no one was looking.

That wasn’t the case before college. When I was little my parents kept me on track. I didn’t get to leave the table until I drank my milk. I had to finish my homework before I could go outside and play.

In high school, I went out for a run every day whether I wanted to or not because I knew that if I didn’t—if I took a day off, if I got complacent, if I neglected the exercises that weren’t fun or easy—others would pass me by in a race and I’d have an angry coach to answer to.

College is about learning to do those difficult things on our own. No coaches, no parents, just the lessons they taught us, the motivation to succeed, and the grit to get the job done.

Unfortunately, the commotion of college can cause us to lose sight of those lessons; it can deter our determination.

Cup 17 was a reminder.

Hard work is the currency that buys good fortune.

To be lucky in life requires doing things that aren’t fun, getting better when you’re already good, going the extra mile. These things might not always seem worthwhile in the short-term, but they pay off in the end.

In the week since I had coffee with Lou Anna, every time I’ve tried making an excuse not to do something on my to-do list, her advice has popped into my head. It’s annoying as hell—I don’t like the added guilt when I’m procrastinating.

But I know one day I’ll look at where I’m at and appreciate the reminder.