By Ralf Quellmalz

Reflection is one of the most powerful and transformative powers we have within us.

To reflect means is to think deeply, honestly, and personally about something that has impacted our lives in some shape or form. Reflection empower us to learn from our mistakes, grow as a person, and help others all while encouraging a happier life – as it enables us to think about what we’ve done right and what we could’ve done better and focus on our personal growth and development.

But above all, reflection allows us to gain perspective. To visualize and deeply think about how our actions and decisions are impacting our life. It allows us gain vision about what future our present actions and decisions are building.

Even though I am just 23 years old, through this post, I want to encourage the topic community to take time engage in careful thought and to unplug with the purpose of finding meaning in the chaos and turbulence of everyday life. I want to encourage our readers to derive learning and purpose from that meaning to cultivate a mindset of constant learning and growth.

But above all, I want to encourage the Topic community to think what would they have told their younger selves. And to take those reflective and meaningful learnings and pass them on to the younger generations in some shape or form – to focus the meaning we derive from our reflections and direct them to the learning and growth of tomorrow’s leaders.

Research has shown that learning from older people stimulates personal growth. Therefore, after graduating college and as I’m entering the workforce amidst a pandemic, I want to share my learnings with the topic community, with those who are entering their college years, or any of those willing to learn from others’ experiences to contribute my grain of sand to their personal development.    

1. Trust & Authenticity Comes First

Authenticity is not a choice, but a definition of who we are.

Without authenticity, we are hiding who we truly are. If we are hiding who we truly are, we are putting fake filters into our lives that prevents us from being our true selves. If we are filtering our lives, we are living superficially. And if we are living superficially, then there is no way we can live our lives with meaning and purpose.

Authenticity brings meaning and purpose to our lives by allowing us to live deep into our values. To truly connect with others, we must authentically live up to what we stand for. Authenticity, as Brene Brown puts it out, is about “true belonging: the spiritual practice of believing in and belong to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.”

The opposite of authenticity is to ‘fit-in.’ We should avoid creating fake relationships where we place fake filters to ourselves and, instead, strive to keep relationships real. It’s only when we engage in honest and authentic human interaction when we can feel like we are a part of something and, ultimately, find belonging. When we engage with others, we should do so in shared meaning.

Authenticity is the most accurate way to measure our integrity due to the fact that it assesses our ability to remain true to ourselves even when other people or circumstances might want to change us into someone we are not. Authenticity is the degree to which we are committed to ourselves. It’s about taking care of yourself first, to then take care of others.

Trust must also come first. Without trust we have nothing. It’s the feeling of mutual trust that drives and fuels connection. Whether in real life or in business, trust is and should be the defining value behind every relationship. Without trust, the relationships we build would be based upon interest and transaction. Trust enables genuine connections based on common ground and empathy.

Trust goes even further, it goes hand-in-hand with authenticity, as we cannot trust someone who isn’t truly being themselves or whose values are misaligned with their actions. Trust, therefore, drives and fuels honest human connections, enabling us to count on others even when we are going through tough times. 

Many hands together to form a unified and engaged team while people are smiling to each other
Trust grows out of authenticity

2. The Only Person You Should Be Competing Against is… You

If there’s something I’ve learned about competition is that it pushes us to test our limits and up our game. Competition holds within it revealing powers, as it signals us where we need to improve as well as were we are excelling.

However, I’ve also learned that competition can bring out the worst in us.

For two reasons. First, intense competition might lead us to cut corners and take ‘the fast route’ towards achieving our goal. Secondly, no one likes someone that is constantly trying to outperform others. No one.

Think about it this way. In a marathon, there is always that person that wants to beat everyone competing in it. There is always that person seeking to stand out by outperforming those around them. Who cheers for them? Very few people.

However, in that same marathon, there is also that person with a disability. Whether it’s an iron leg, cerebral palsy, or some type of disability. That person isn’t running to outperform others. He isn’t competing against others. He is competing to prove himself that despite his disability, he can chase his goals and dreams like no other person, and he will at least try.

Therefore, I urge you to avoid becoming victim of your own success. Don’t let your desire to reach your goals take over your values and who you are. Instead, I encourage you to, as my dad would constantly remind me, try to – each and every day – become the very best version of yourself. Be today a better person you were yesterday. And be tomorrow an even better person than you are today. Be proud of the person you look at in the mirror every morning.

3. Know That You are Building Your Brand – and Reputation Matters

Oprah Winfrey said, “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody is going to know whether you did it or not.”

Everything we do says something about the person we are. As you begin building the brand of yourself, whether it’s at college, at work, or when socializing, you ought to be aware that reputation matters.

I’m not saying to keep your thoughts and opinions to yourself, but the complete opposite. We ought to have the courage to get off the sidelines and onto the playing field. We should not imprison who we truly are and what we believe – we shall never silence our heart and, instead, speak up about the things that matter. And we shall never be a bystander.

Choose doing what feels right in your heart over what’s easy or fast. Know what your values are, and put them into practice. And, whatever decisions you make, do it for the right reasons. You’ll see that by doing so, you will attract those people whose values are aligned with yours and you will build an authentic and engaging brand everyone wants to support.

4. Live a Life of Service

During my first couple of semesters at Loyola University Chicago, I remember being a shy student who wouldn’t speak up nor voice my thoughts, opinions, and opinions. It wasn’t until Dr. Len, one of my professors, saw something in me – something I couldn’t even see for myself – that I had the courage to build self-confidence and turn my situation around. Through his guidance, I developed the inner strength to voice my ideas, expand my comfort zone, and take on leadership roles.

Through his help, Dr. Len taught me that there is nothing more meaningful and impactful than giving back to those who helped you find your voice. His support and coaching enabled me to find mine. His support also inspired me to do the same for others and give back the same way he did – by recognizing talent and potential in people and having the courage to develop them.

Find ways to give back to your community. Whether it’s through volunteering, coaching, writing, or donating – built upon that strong inner desire we all have to, in some shape or form, better the lives of the people to whom we are connected to.

Recently, I’ve been volunteering at the World Trade Center’s Global Activator Program in Denver as a Student Consultant. The program helps provide refugees and immigrants the business knowledge, materials, and skills to build, design, and launch their own business. I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Ahmad, a native from Afghanistan, and help him launch Natural Gems – a startup willing to delight customers with beautifully-designed lapis lazuli jewelry while making an impact in Afghanistan.

Fascinated by his products, I told Ahmad: “I love your products. I cannot wait for you to open. I’d love to buy some of your products for my mom and grandmother.” His response? “Ralf, you are already doing most of the job for my business. I would love you to have some of my pieces for free. I even want you to have shares of my business.”

His response was priceless. No money in the world would suffice for how rewarding that felt.

We are social beings. We want to be remembered for what we did for others. Live a life of service – it’s that simple, yet deeply rewarding.  

A leader climbing a mountain with a red flag while holding hands with his teammates
Grow by identifying and exploiting others’ potential

5. Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and former CEO, encouraged each and every one of us in his Stanford Commencement Speech to “Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Never let go of your appetite to go after new ideas, new experiences, and new adventures.”

Whether in college, workshops, seminars, or on your work, know that you – not your professors – are responsible for your education.

As I was progressing through college, I placed too much focus on my grades. I wanted those As. I thought my grades would differentiate myself and make me stand out.

As I’ve learned, grades have very little to do with life itself. Life doesn’t come with a curriculum. There isn’t a ‘Checklist of Life’ we are to fill-up during our lifetime. What there is, however, is purpose and meaning.

So don’t make the mistake of guiding yourself for the curriculum your college presents you. Guide yourself for your desire to learn and your desire to put those learnings into practice in your real life. Don’t disregard your grades, but more importantly, never disregard your hopes and dreams, which inspire us to set sail.

Instead of thinking: how can I finish college with the best GPA? Think: which are the most challenging and rewarding professors that will empower me to get a step closer to reaching my goals and dreams?

I cannot stress this enough: find ways to expand your comfort zone. In life, find those people/professors/mentors that will challenge you to take on uncomfortable tasks. Find those people who will challenge you not because of their character or personality, but because of their innate desire to build yours.

Steve Jobs with one of his most popular quotes: Stay hungry, stay foolish.
Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and former CEO

6. Authority is not the Same as Leadership

Leadership, as Simon Sinek would explain, is not about title, positions, or authority. There is a difference between having the power and being the leader. True leaders are those whose followers follow them not because they have to, but because they are willing to give their blood, sweat, and tears to follow them. In everything you do, find ways to create a healthy, empowering, and uplifting environment where people can find an environment in which they belong.

I’m a huge fan of sports. As an avid tennis and soccer player, I always ask myself the same question during each game I participate in: “if the game were to end now, would I be happy and satisfied about the performance I put in?” That’s sports. But I’ve learned that the same happens in life, too.

Are you happy with the way your behavior is making your teammates/colleagues feel? Are you an uplifting team member? Are your actions positively influencing those around you? And lastly, are you, as a leader, creating an environment in which people feel safe and can perform at their natural best?

Make your presence count. But above all, make your presence be missed when you are no longer around anymore. 

7. Surround Yourself With People Who Bring Out the Best in You

John C. Maxwell said that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Such statement cannot be truer. I’ve come to learn that in life, everything you do and everything you achieve, it’s going to be with and through other people.

Avoid those people who drain the energy out of you. My mom would always say: avoid at all cost those ‘firefighters’ fighting to turn off the fire and sparkle behind your ideas, energy, and passions. Focus your time and energy with those you know, deep in your heart, have your best interest at heart and inspire you the same way you inspire them.

By doing so, you’ll not only find that time passes by way faster, but also that you’re having way more fun. And after all, what would life be without the fun, adventures, and memories we are harvesting along the way?

People who bring out the best in each other will make a great team. And forming great teams is the first step to achieving great things.

Four people looking at the sunset with their backs looking at the camera
Those who bring out the best in you will also empower you to find yourself

8. It’s Not About Thinking Outside the Box, It’s About Thinking Beyond It

Thinking outside the box is key. It will help your ideas, energy, and passions differentiate from all others. It will allow you to set yourself apart and stand out from the crowd.

But most importantly: think beyond the box.

Think of what your long-term goals are and plan accordingly. I know you are young and you have your whole life ahead of you, but think about the legacy you want to leave behind: the impact you want to have on others, the hopes and dreams that guide your behavior, the things you want to accomplish.

Know that things not always go as planned – and that’s ok. Find meaning in those troubled waters that set out to drown us. See those challenges as motivation – they present themselves in your life to make you ask yourself how much are you truly willing to fight to accomplish your goals. 

9. Success Can Be an Optical Illusion

‘Success’ is a controversial word. What does it really mean to succeed? You ask that question to 30 people and you’ll get 30 different answers. Why? Because ‘to succeed’ is something deeply, profoundly personal.

I made the decision to attend Loyola University Chicago for many reasons: my older brother was already attending, I loved the city of Chicago when I had the opportunity to visit, the campus was breath-taking, my values truly aligned with Loyola’s Jesuit values, and, above all, it felt right. However, I also chose Loyola for the big, fat scholarship I received to attend. My scholarship offered to cover almost 1/3 of my whole four-years of college.

Thinking I could attend college at a prestigious university while at the same time safe that amount of money to my parents, I thought I made it.

I learned a few years later, after graduating as a proud Rambler, the scholarship had nothing to do with my decision to enroll at Loyola as a high-school graduate.

Success, as I’ve come to learn, is about the journey, not the goal.

In January of 2020, as I was finishing my BBA in both Business Management and in Marketing, I’ve received what most business students would call a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’ After countless rounds of behavioral, case-study, mathematics, and situational interviews, I’ve been offered the opportunity to join Amazon in their Seattle Headquarters as a Brand Specialist. As a marketing student, I felt like there was no greater way to measure success than having one of the world’s greatest e-commerce and marketing companies calling you to offer an opportunity to join them. 

Four months later, the COVID-19 pandemic peaked in the US. With an apartment already leased in Seattle and my start date just days away, Amazon calls me and tells me that they would be rescinding my contract as a Brand Specialist as they weren’t willing go through the VISA-sponsorship process that I, as an immigrant, would’ve required after my first year of employment. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. Specially after the fact that Amazon has already decided to go through the VISA-sponsorship process back in February. My heart broke into pieces.

I came to learn that ‘to succeed’ cannot be measured in single events. To succeed, for me, as life made me see it, was to be clear about not only where I wanted to go, but also why I wanted to get there.

To succeed, for me, was about knowing what I wanted to be remembered for and what footprint would I be leaving behind – not about where I worked, how much money I made, or what my position/title was.

But above all, to succeed for me was about having those people who occupy a special place in my heart present in my life to celebrate altogether those small wins, special days, and achievements. 

A person at the top of a mountain looking at the horizon
Success is something deeply personal

10. In Everything You Do, Embrace a Beginner’s Mindset

Why a beginner’s mindset?

In a beginner’s mindset, there are infinite opportunities for growth and development. In an experienced mindset, egos tend to take over rationale and logical thinking. Embracing a beginner’s mindset enables you to be open to new perspectives and new ways of thinking.

But above all, a beginner’s mindset allows you to both accept and welcome change. Change can be frightening, but change holds something powerful within. It signals us that something that is currently stopping us can be transformed. Let your choices reveal not your fears, but your intentions and hopes for the future.

I always have one of my Loyola business professors in mind when thinking about this (you know it’s you Stacy!). In both her Marketing Research class as well as in her Micro-enterprise Consulting course, Dr. Stacy Neier Beran encouraged her students to view learning as happening at the intersection of curiosity, empathy, and vulnerability. And let me tell you, it couldn’t be truer.

Be curious. Curiosity is what fuels and drives innovation.

Be empathetic. Relationships and human connection are the energy flowing within leaders.

Be vulnerable. Show the world who you truly are and stand up for what you believe and think.

An icon of a man typing in his computer with a lightbulb as a background in a purple backgroun image

Reflect, take the time to immerse yourself in deep, honest, and personal thought. Think not only about the ‘today,’ but the ‘tomorrow’ your actions and decisions are shaping.

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