Ordinary Stories and Visions of Greatness

Emma Brand, Chocolate University Instructor (and Class of 2016 Alumnae)

“I love igniting wonder and creativity in students and watching it open doors in their lives. I feel like I get to watch the light bulbs burn bright in their heads when they solve a problem or create something brilliant.” 

This is a direct quote from my “Vision of Greatness” written in March of 2016. I was a senior in high school when I wrote this sentence describing what my life would be like in five years. I wrote my vision with my fellow Chocolate University class as we were preparing to visit cocoa farmer partners in Tanzania with Shawn and Askinosie Chocolate. Simplified, our vision-writing process included us imagining ourselves five years in the future, writing it down as if we were there, and sharing it with people we love and trust. We were told to dream big and to write specifically. I remember exactly where I was sitting in the Eurasia coffee shop when I wrote these words. I remember what pen and notebook I used and the doodles I included on the side of the pages. We were told to write for twenty minutes without stopping with the idea that our self-doubt was not to be given time to catch up to our dream future. Besides an emphasis on influencing children and “igniting wonder”, I remember that my vision also included details like a beagle named Charlie, a meaningful job tutoring struggling readers at an independent bookstore somewhere in the Northwest, and thoughtful hikes in which I gave myself space to think about new characters to write about in my novels. It makes me laugh that our visions were supposed to be our absolute dream-case scenario and mine included walking. I’ve always been a “see the glimmer in the ordinary ” kind of gal, as my vision also somewhat regrettably states. 

Reality check. I don’t have a beagle, but I do have a fish. His name is Fantastic Mr. Fox. I do not live in a cozy novelist-worthy cabin in the Northwest. I live in plain and simple Nebraska. I’m a regular on the local trail, though. I don’t work at a hip independent bookstore, but I do get to share my passion for learning every day with middle school students as their English and Literature teacher.

The details of my vision are not perfect, but that’s not exactly the point. My vision of 2021 from my 2016 self was to influence students and show them every day that their stories matter. “There’s a story in all of us,” my vision later states. “It’s my job to notice and to tell it.” 

It’s hilarious to me that I ended up teaching and doing almost exactly what my vision says because I had a terrible time deciding on a college major. Making decisions is often debilitating to me, and through my first two years of college, all I seemed to be able to figure out was that I loved to learn. I ended up taking a bunch of classes that interested me and eventually funneled it all into an education degree when a trusted professor finally sat me down and said, “Emma, we all know that you’re going to be a teacher, and we’re just waiting for you to see it too.” If I would have revisited my vision sooner, I probably would have realized that that’s where I belonged from the start. 

I guess you could say that my vision worked. My vision guided my feet along the trail to where I needed to be, even though the trail often felt unmarked, muddy, and certainly never straight. I’ve since learned to embrace the messiness of it all because the misadventures are much better stories than the times when everything goes according to plan. 

Last week, I had the privilege of leading a class of 15 Drury Leadership Academy students through the same visioning process that I did with my Chocolate University classmates in 2016. We discussed our “prouds” and things that are important to us. We wrote about our lives five years in the future as if we were there, and this time I got to be the one encouraging them to dream big, write specifically, and not allow reality or doubt any space in their visions. We shared our visions, offered each other feedback, and ate plenty of “thinking chocolate” while we did it. 

Besides vision writing, the students also toured Askinosie Chocolate, participated in a chocolate tasting, and engaged with different Askinosie team members about various topics in small business including social responsibility, the Askinosie Foundation, and Shawn’s journey to chocolate. While these activities were interesting and meaningful, they each seemed to find their way back to the idea of visioning. Each team member shared how visioning has impacted them personally and within the company. When asked about the impact of the class, one DLA student said, “It got me thinking about my future when I honestly hadn’t really thought about it all before. It was interesting to really consider how little I really knew that I wanted.” 

Thinking about the future and making decisions to get there is difficult. A “Vision of Greatness” is a tool that uses the writer’s natural storytelling skills to imagine themselves in a story within their future. While the future isn’t real yet, the vision is very real. The process helps the writer connect important things about the present and past to tangible things that can shape a future of greatness. The writer is left with no choice but to make decisions to form their vision into reality. Physically writing a vision on paper takes work and vulnerability and it’s that same work and vulnerability that make the process so powerful and memorable. I find it fascinating that ordinary things often drive us towards our greatest selves. 

It was incredibly meaningful for me to watch these high school students think unapologetically about what they want to do and how they want to feel in five years. Their dedication, open-mindedness, and servant leadership were inspiring and exciting to me and I am thankful for the opportunity to share my story with them and to be a small part of their stories.