Everyday leadership: Decisions can create a new path in your life

At the beginning of 1971, I had one of my first life-altering decisions to make, where to go to college. My family had a short history with college. My Mom’s parents, who grew up on the Cumberland Plateau in east Tennessee, only graduated the sixth grade. Dad’s parents did not attend college either. So, my Mom and Dad were first generation college graduates. Both of them were school teachers and it was assumed that my siblings and I would attend and graduate college.

I was nominated to the Naval Academy with an invitation to play football by my congressman, Wayne L. Hayes. After much deliberation, I refused the nomination and looked toward Western Kentucky University. It was a family college. Dad graduated in 1924, my sister graduated in 1970 and my older brother was to begin his junior year. Dad still owned land in Kentucky so we all received in-state tuition. My first semester’s tuition was $120 and my books were a little less than $100.

Dad drove me down to the campus, almost 500 miles away and I was set free on campus. Almost immediately, I found some other newly freed freshmen and we located a football and organized a game. As it turned out my roommate did not show up so in a couple of days one of my new friends moved in.

I had a new pair of corduroy pants and a piece of zebra felt material. I unstitched the legs of the pants and sewed triangular pieces of the zebra material in from the knee down, making them bell-bottoms. I bought a curved Swiss pipe for my trips across campus. You could see me a mile away with my high school athletic jacket, exotic bell-bottoms and a stream of smoke rising from my pipe. I thought I was really cool. But I am sure I was the source of more than one giggle. I could have just put a sign on my back saying, “I’m a freshman.”

I made a 3.11 grade point average, the lowest of my college career, due too much extracurricular activity. The next semester I moved to Morehead State University, which was 200 miles closer to my sweetheart back home. After my second semester, I spent a year working in a coal mine, another year in college at Campbellsville College, and then eight more years in the coal mine.

As I think back on those early days, at least a couple of lessons were worthy of learning, although it took me several other serious decisions to understand these lessons. First, with somewhat rash decisions, I dramatically impacted my future opportunities. My life would have been very different had I attended the Naval Academy or stayed at Western Kentucky University. Every decision we make takes us in a specific direction and creates a new set of possibilities. Also, my awareness of the perceptions that others had of me was probably pretty low. My bell-bottoms were probably not as cool as I thought.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s new book, “Tons of Stone above my head: Coal Mining Stories with Leadership Lessons,” visit his Web site, www.raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.