Laughing My Way to a Better Me

Early in my professional journey I was told by more than one person it would be advantageous to have a mentor. I remember being told that this mentor should be, “7-10 years older than myself,” somebody who “I admired” and a person that could “relate to my passions.” I still believe this to be sound advice. But two years ago, my idea of the perfect mentor changed.

My biggest mentor today is not an expert in any field. She does not have an extensive vocabulary. She does not know how to read. She is not older than me, wiser than me or have life experiences that could aid in my professional development. She is, however, optimistic, curious, funny and has no fear of failure. She is consistently open to new experiences and she has a true desire to learn. She has become my biggest inspiration and the driving force in my personal development. She is a 2-year-old girl named Nayeli and she is my daughter. She has an unadulterated outlook on life that makes her, and other children, more than capable of mentoring me and other adults.

When Nayeli arrived, I was fascinated with how she experienced the world; it was so blatantly different than us “grown-ups.” In the first year of her life, she taught me so much about my own life. She taught me the obvious things like parental multi-tasking, consistency in schedule and extreme patience, but she also taught me deep lessons about listening, perseverance and commitment.

Let me focus on one area in which Nayeli has enhanced my life and mentored me to be a better version of myself: laughter. There are a plethora of decisions you make as a new parent, but no matter the day, you will laugh and laugh hard. The laughter is the lesson. Nayeli makes me and my wife laugh consistently and by this very simple and uncontrollable action our lives have been enhanced fundamentally. One of my favorite quotes is from the great educator and philosopher Paulo Freire: “no laughing, no learning.” Freire believed there is a place for humor not only in our personal lives but also in academia. He believed “humor was the matrix of dialogue” and that “dialogue is enhanced by humor.”

Are you laughing enough day-to-day? Are you causing enough laughter? Are you supporting others to do these two things? Are you using humor to connect with your students? With your co-workers?

Every morning I walk into Nayeli’s room I know laughter will be our first interaction. Multiple times last week, I received a big, “Happy Birthday, Daddy!” (My birthday is in November). Another morning, she stood up, pointed to a very specific book and said, “Hi, Daddy. Read Harry the Dirty Dog, please.” My days start with a laugh and that alone has enriched my entire world.

My daughter sees the world differently than me and that makes me a better person. Most things for her are first investigated for the humor they can provide. To me it is a bowl, to her it is a hat. To me it is a laundry basket, to her it is a race car. Things I see one way, she sees another. She finds the funny in situations I simply cannot. I am better because I laugh more, and I laugh more because she encourages me to.

The laughter my daughter brought into the world has enhanced my professional life, as well. My student-athletes would tell you humor is a large part of our team culture and laughing together has brought us closer. Our classroom atmosphere promotes times of laughter that keep the learning interesting. Using humor as a vessel to connect, teach and lead can be a powerful tool. We have been tasked with mentoring the lives of our future world-changers, which is an amazing honor and one I know we do not take lightly. As we strive daily to lead our students, could adding a little humor go a long way? Vast research suggests it could.

Within our women’s basketball team we put “no laughter, no learning” into daily practice. One example would be our initial team meeting the first week of the fall semester. This meeting usually runs four to five hours as we establish team goals and talk about communication, expectations and dreams. We build an initial understanding of how we aim to function and what leadership will look like.

Although many serious topics are covered, if you walked by at any given moment you might witness a room of blind-folded individuals tossing bean bags at each other, or a group acting out a scenario to eruptions of laughter. You might catch an impromptu dance battle or 16 young women singing Beyoncé in unison. We make it a point to use humor in our teambuilding and it is evident. I have seen firsthand that laughing can aid the learning and development of our team and the individuals that comprise it. There times we take a more serious tone, but we enjoy and maybe learn more from times of laughter.

Laughing and causing laughter are life boosters. There is a time and place for laughter in both our personal and professional lives. Maybe it needs a larger place. I certainly did not realize just how much more I would laugh after I became a father and I am sure I did not realize how much I needed to. My challenge is this—use humor to motivate, lead and inspire. Seek times of humor and use those times to connect with those around you.