Lorenz on Leadership — Life's experiences: luggage or baggage?

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Recently, I was invited to speak at the United States Air Force Academy's Class of 2013 Commitment Night dinner. Commitment Night is usually scheduled the day the third classmen (sophomores) return to the Academy and become second classmen (juniors). Up to that very moment they begin their junior year academics they may resign from the Academy and owe no commitment to the Air Force. However, once they start junior academic classes, they are now committed for the next seven years; two as a cadet and five years as an officer in the United States military.

The night before the presentation, I could not sleep and tossed and turned thinking about what I was going to say to the 1,000-plus newly minted second-class cadets. At 2 a.m., I suddenly remembered an old suitcase that had many of my cadet papers in it and was buried beneath piles of clothes in our closet and had not been opened in years.
I got up and scrounged around in the closet until I found the 35-year-old beat up brown suitcase. Unfortunately it was locked and I had no idea where the keys were. The next morning, I took the dilapidated suitcase to our building custodian who happened to be a retired chief master sergeant and he had it opened in about five minutes -- chiefs continue to make things happen even in retirement!

As I rummaged through the suitcase and found many of my old cadet papers, waves of nostalgia came over me. In the suitcase were copies of my appointment to the Academy from 1969, my silver-colored class nametag that was placed outside my cadet room and identified the rooms I lived in over the four years I was a cadet. There was a Form 10 that I got for signing in late one Christmas and a copy of the cadet punishment I received for the infraction.

There were also copies of all my grades including the three F's I earned and the letters from the academic board giving me a second chance to graduate from the Academy. I also found a faded "Dear John" letter from an old girlfriend. Finally in the bottom of the suitcase was my commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. The suitcase contained four years of my life's experiences, and not all of them were good.

That night, as I stood in front of the Class of 2013 to give my presentation, I told them the story about the suitcase and dramatically opened it and displayed the contents in front of them. I explained that four years of mementos -- both the good and the not so good -- were in there. I told them how the contents of the suitcase had helped shape my entire life and that I could have used the contents as luggage that would help propel me on my life's journey or as baggage that would hold me back.

You see, life's experiences, like my bad grades, could have taught me that I was not as smart as the rest of my classmates and that I would always be behind. Instead, those momentary setbacks taught me to never give up and that lifelong learning can help you achieve just about anything, including becoming a university president.

The quality of your contributions to our Armed Forces and the nation as an officer, non-commissioned officer or civilian, are not determined so much by your individual successes or failures as they are by what you learn on the journey. It matters what you learn from both your good and bad life experiences and you should use them as a positive spring board into your incredible future. Your life experiences can either hold you back as baggage or help you along the journey as luggage. It is totally up to you.