Getting an education at the College of Wooster is a gauntlet, and exam week is the final boss. Hours of research, study, and essay writing culminate in a week-long torrent of presentations, projects, and examinations, all undertaken by overcaffeinated and overstressed college students gasping just to reach the finish line.
But during my time at Wooster, there was one thing that made exam week more tolerable, something that helped so many students through the stress and chaos. Every day, my classmate and friend Bobby Berg would get up early and post a motivational status on his Facebook page. He would remind us of the hard work we had done to get here, and all of the wonderful things we were going to do after we finished our degrees. He told us he believed in us, and he meant it. For me, and for so many other students at Wooster, that gave us the spark we needed to get out of bed and get our asses in gear.
After graduating from Wooster, Berg joined the US Army Band, where he currently holds the rank of Specialist and is stationed in Anchorage, Alaska. In addition to serving in the Armed Forces and practicing his musical craft, Berg has begun a career as a motivational speaker.
“Everyone’s had that moment before where you’re really…stuck,” Berg explains. “My job is to come in and help you look at the ground and go, ‘Wait a second…It’s because you’re spinning your wheels in mud. How about turning your wheel to the left a little bit where there’s a little bit of gravel, and that’ll get you started moving?'”
Right now we are all–quite literally–stuck. Many of us have been in quarantine for over a month. Some have lost their jobs; others have lost family members and loved ones. It is an unprecedented scientific and economic catastrophe, but its psychological impact cannot be understated. I spoke with Berg at length to try and find that little bit of gravel to help all of us get through this pandemic.
“I want you to write down why you’re pushing through when everything’s going crazy. What makes you get up in the morning? When things get tough, what makes you go, ‘Alright, I know this is awful, I know I hate this as much as everyone else, but, I have to keep pushing.'”
For Berg, everything begins with accountability. “If you don’t have accountability you also lack discipline in a lot of areas of your life, and for most people, that’s the key to your success. It’s your discipline, it’s the fact that most people aren’t disciplined enough to stick to what they want.”
But don’t get the wrong impression here; Berg is not recommending some Spartan lifestyle of “me against the world,” where discipline and rigidity represent the paragons of virtue. Life is often about doing the best with what you’re given.
“Something we’re taught in the Army very early on is you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. There have been times where we’re given a task and we look around at the equipment we have and we say, ‘There’s literally no way for us to do this.’ And we sit back and we take about ten minutes and say, ‘Okay. This isn’t going to be perfect, it’s not going to be what they want, but listen: we’re going to get as close to that as we possibly can with what we have.'”
A key part of accountability is understanding what you have control over, and what factors are out of your hands. Berg primarily works with “at-risk students” in inner city school districts, where the challenges facing young learners can seem insurmountable. Before the pandemic, he would travel to schools across the continental US to speak to students; now, during the pandemic, he meets with them online to check in on them.
“Oftentimes students in the inner city don’t have the same materials as a more affluent neighborhood, they don’t have the same type of care, they don’t have the same type of education,” Berg tells me. “And I want to help fix that, because these students are brilliant! I’ve talked to kids where I think, ‘you are one of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered, however you don’t see it because you’re not looking at what you’re doing.'”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder for some students. Some have troubled home lives, whether due to an absent father or a mother who works three jobs just to provide for the family. Others, sadly, face abusive relationships and emotional trauma at home. With shelter-in-place orders still in affect around the country, students have no escape.
“These kids loved being at school, not just because they got to learn but because they weren’t home…Because home is not a safe place for them. And…it hurts, man.”
Berg stopped for a moment to collect himself, and continued. “These kids don’t deserve to be in the position they’re in, but they are. And it’s really hard watching them, watching their mental state deteriorate as they’re home. They’re finding out ways to get through class, they’re finding out ways to stay out of trouble, but it still gets to them.”
The conversation turned back to the students’ accomplishments. Berg’s mood perked up noticeably; the words began to come out of his mouth a mile a minute. His excitement was infectious. He shared a story about a student who had to design an app on his iPad, but the device was too old to download the proper software. The student designed it on his iPhone instead. “The next morning,” Berg tells me, “the project was finished. It wasn’t due for three weeks.
“People underestimate how wildly intelligent people are. You just have to give them a reason to try.”
That’s what Berg means when he speaks about accountability. It’s about finding the reason to try, no matter what chaos is going on in the world or what obstacles life decides to throw at you. Berg has found that in his students. As much as he motivates them, they motivate him.
“I want you to write down three goals that you want to get done…either during this quarantine or once the shelter-in-place ban lifts. And after that, I want you to write down two more things. I want you to write down two goals that scare you in this life.”
When Berg is working with a new student one-on-one, he starts by focusing on their goals. The kids he works with “have tons of answers,” he tells me. “A lot of people have this misconception that these kids are gangbangers, and they don’t care about anything except being on the street. [But] these kids have really big goals; they just have no idea how to get there.”
The more specific you can be, the better, according to Berg. “It’s like looking at a map and saying, ‘Oh, cool, I have Google Maps up, and it’s just the state view, and I’m trying to get to around here.’ That doesn’t help you. What do you do? You type in the exact address, and hit ‘directions’ and it tells you exactly how to get there.”
Too often, though, goals are like dreams. They’re easy to imagine in our subconscious as we lie in slumber. But wake up, try to grasp them, try to bring that image forward in your mind and fill it with color and detail and vivacity, and it fades away.
Taking it as a process can help. “Think of your life in your perfect world,” Berg explains, “where money’s no object, everything you could ever want is handed to you, you have food, shelter, your family’s taken care of, there’s no immediate stress of ‘Oh my goodness’ in your life. What would you do?
“Once you know what you really want, then you can start getting into how to get there.”
Easier said than done, of course. Delving into one’s own soul is a daunting task. It’s walking into a hall of mirrors and finding only distortions and illusions when what we came for were answers. It’s a process that takes intense introspection, and a lot of time.
Lucky for us, we have plenty of the latter. “This is historically different,” Berg says. “We’ve never had this happen where this many people have had this much time to themselves, ever.” The excuses we once provided as reasons for not focusing on our goals are no longer salient. The shutdowns of our societies and our economies have given us the chance to slow down and devote a moment or two to introspection.
“Take time with this,” Berg recommends, “As much time as you need. If you need to go out into the woods and sit down and meditate and just be away from society, whatever you need, do it. But I want you to write down those goals that you’re afraid to succeed at. And I want you to focus on those for the next 365 days. Because those goals are what you really want out of life. Sorry. Welcome to school. This is it.”
“What can you do every day to really help change someone else’s life for the better? It doesn’t have to be anything big…Reaching out to an old friend and saying ‘Hey man, I hope everything’s going well with you, I miss you, I hope you’re doing great, hang in there.’ How quick does it take to send that text message? Seconds? Maybe a minute if you really think about it? But that could change their entire attitude about life.”
“Kindness is a very big thing for me,” Berg told me. “You need to be a kind person. I don’t care how rough your day has been, I don’t care how aggressive things have been at home. Your life is never so hard that you can’t be kind to a stranger.”
It’s an issue Berg sees in his students time and again. So often the problem is not in their ability to learn, or even their motivation for improving themselves. It’s that they lack a close connection with positive role models. In search of that connection, they find it by joining gangs.
“No one’s taught them that they have value, no one’s shown them that if they don’t want to be around this person, they don’t have to. You need to be around people that you appreciate and that you want to be around.”
For Berg, though, it’s so much more important than finding positive connections; it’s about sharing them. “As you’re going through this journey,” Berg tells me, “I want you to be taking people with you. I want you to pass this knowledge on. As you’re getting these good vibes and this good knowledge and this really powerful information, I want you to give it to someone else without expecting anything back.
“It’s cool if you and I are learning something, and I say, ‘Here’s this key to success, boom, go do it.’ And you go do it, and all of a sudden you and I catch up in a year and you’ve built a $400,000 business. That’s awesome. But did you teach anybody else how to get to where you’re at? Because if you didn’t, that knowledge is just wasted.”
That, at his core, is who Bobby Berg is. He is kind.
Why does he do all this? Why does he fly thousands of miles from Anchorage to Georgia, to California, to anywhere in the continental United States, just to speak to students? It’s not the money–sure, he gets paid, but we all need to eat, and the US Army isn’t exactly known for its magnanimous pay scale. It’s because he is kind. It’s because he knows that his words can make a huge difference, even if only for one student in his audience. It’s because he knows that what matters in life isn’t how far you rise; it’s how many people you take with you on the way up.
Motivational speakers can be easy targets of scorn and mockery. They can talk in platitudes and soliloquoys of self-betterment and improvement, but their words sometimes ring hollow. To succeed as a motivational speaker, you have to be genuine. You have to be kind. Your tips for success and–more importantly–your belief that anyone can achieve it, must be heartfelt.
Bobby Berg is the real deal. Not because he knows all the right words, or has all the right answers, though his advice is certainly worthwhile. It is because he is genuine. It is because he is kind. It is because when he tells students that they can do it, that they can achieve everything they every dreamed of, they believe him. Because he believes in them.
At the end of our interview, I asked Berg what advice he would give to people struggling with their motivation or their outlook during the current pandemic. Many of the quotes throughout this story, including the headings, come from that answer. At the end, he emphasized the importance of remaining upbeat, even in these challenging times.
“If this virus spreads aggressively, that’s cool. But guess what else can spread that quickly? Your positivity. Don’t ever lose sight of that, y’all. Ever.”
You can keep up to date with Bobby Berg’s work on his Instagram page.