An Embarassed Eagle Scout: Ted Gonder in Kick Ass Interview 5

Welcome to Kick Ass Interview Number 5!

Today I bring you a very motivated and prolific student / social entrepreneur: Ted Gonder. This one’s a bit long but I can assure you that A) I’ve already cut it down a bit and 2) it’s worth it. Here’s a quick peek at what you’ll learn:

  • The surprising lessons he learned from becoming an Eagle Scout
  • The movie that triggered his inner social entrepreneur
  • Where the idea for Moneythink came from and why it works
  • The best advice he’s ever gotten for living a balanced life
  • The four things he does every day to keep his energy and productivity high

1) You were an Eagle Scout – I know that earning this honor is a huge commitment and quite difficult. What did you learn from reaching the top rank in the Boy Scouts?

Scouting was a huge part of my childhood, but as I got into middle school, I started holding it closer to the chest. If the cool kids at school learned I was a Boy Scout, I thought, I’d be the laughing stalk of the school. My insecurity about what others thought of me increased my ambition to achieve the honor of Eagle Scout as fast as possible.

I hopped on the fast track to Eagle, going to every merit badge workshop, camping trip, and local event there was until I had fulfilled the necessary requirements to earn the rank of Eagle. By age 14, I had achieved my goal. This was right before I entered high school, where other commitments drew me away from the activity of Scouting.

It was not until later in high school and college did I understand how large of a service opportunity I missed by rushing through things with achievement-oriented tunnel vision.

That said, I have no regrets. Scouting shaped me as a person, hurling me into a variety of uncomfortable wilderness situations few young people have the opportunity to experience in this ever-increasingly technologized world. I’m grateful for that and honored to be part of the Eagle community.

2) What changed in high school and college with regards to your attitudes around service, community and mentorship? What events or people conspired to show you the light in this area? I sense more interesting stories…

I think my community service paradigm shift happened apart from my direct involvement in Boy Scouts. Basically, I got to high school, saw my peers apathetically participating in community service jobs they hated trying to a) earn their graduation medallion (which requires 100 hours of community service) and b) get into college. This attitude and the education system that produced it pissed me off then and still pisses me off today.

Fortune struck my path in 2006 when I saw Al Gore’s movie about climate change: Inconvenient Truth. One week earlier I had attended the HOBY Los Angeles leadership seminar where I had been urged to and gotten excited about “really making a difference in the world”. Gore’s movie blew my mind, and I seized the opportunity to throw myself into the cause of climate change activism. I founded a nonprofit called Project Cooldown that launched climate change awareness campaigns for students in high schools across California, and I loved it.

I worked on Project Cooldown sometimes 30 or 40 hours a week, but I never logged my “community service hours” because my priorities had shifted. Now that I was focused on building an initiative to solve a problem that was personally important to me – community service felt natural and exciting.

I believe in enlightened self-interest, not altruism or martyrdom.

Service learning needs to be more integrated with entrepreneurship at the high school level – or else you’ll have kids who have seen a bunch of uninteresting community needs and, as a result, dismiss community service as a boring, useless activity that’s not for them. I think this coupling holds immense potential to change the world.

3) You cofounded Moneythink and are working with colleges around the country to setup financial literacy workshops. Why is this important to you? What’s the big deal about this problem?

In the height of the financial crisis, my peers and I at the University of Chicago noticed that while the urban community around us was getting the worst of the recession, our campus was swarming with talented Economics students passionate about finance and business. It made sense to put two and two together: send talented, motivated undergraduates into local urban high school classrooms to mentor high school juniors and seniors in practical financial skills.

Through peer mentorship and a unique, proprietary pop-culture curriculum, the Moneythink model proved to be unique in its focus on deep, human relatability and the creation of an engaging learning environment. After this school year, we’ll have successfully launched 13 new chapters of Moneythink, training 215 college students to teach 1700+ high schoolers nationwide.

I’m jazzed over Moneythink because of the sheer potential for systemic change. It’s easy to point out shortcomings of youth-focused education ventures, but we’re not trying to save the world or prevent the next crisis altogether. We’re simply matching assets with needs in a highly focused, effective, and scalable way.

I see Moneythink as a leading indicator that innovation can indeed happen (and very successfully) in America’s education system, and that we as a society can rise to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

4) Do you see this organization as staying student run or do you want to expand? I founded a student-run nonprofit and know first hand the challenges of scaling and making the thing sustainable. How do you see this playing out?

I’ll tell you first what I’m sure about and then what I’m not sure about.

What I’m sure about: Moneythink chapters on campuses across the country will continue to operate as student-run community service clubs.

Both the high school students and college mentors get value out of the program. The former in financial and entrepreneurial education, the latter in teaching, public speaking and leadership. By having college students run the Moneythink chapters, we keep the experience real and engaging for the high schoolers.

Being student-run at the local level is a risk: college students are known to be inconsistent, unprepared, inexperienced, and unreliable, issues that Moneythink reduces through an its rigorous selection process, big rewards for top mentors and leaders, and a strict absence policy. It’s also a huge advantage: buy-in from students is huge, high school administrators are surprised and impressed by the professionalism of our mentors, and advisors of all types (from university faculty to top CEO’s) want to help students doing real work to make the world a better place.

What I’m not sure about: What the national structure is going to look like a year from now.

Three of the four cofounders are moving onto other things – traveling, working, grad school, etc. I’m the only one still here but I’m not alone: we’ve built the capacity of dozens of young leaders at UChicago who are excited to be part of Moneythink. The key to success will be plugging them into positions that they enjoy and where they can excel.

I’ll definitely be staying on board through June 2012 (my graduation date), and if all goes well funding-wise, I’ll probably take the leap and build Moneythink into the legit national nonprofit it deserves to be after I graduate.

Ideally, Moneythink in three years will be a thriving national social venture with a full staff based in Chicago, with a training team that visits chapters to keep the culture alive and the education quality consistent across all our regional programs.

5) You must be constantly on the go. Conferences, Moneythink, school, etc. How do you keep motivated and energized with all this hustling?

I’m grateful for the travel opportunities I’ve had through work and school, but as much as I love to meet new people and explore new places, sometimes it gets overwhelming. Through the chaotic excitement of travel, I’ve learned the value and importance of routine. Some say that routine is boring, but I think it’s the ultimate liberation.

That said, routine isn’t just about filling 16 hours a day with work. Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten for living a balanced life was “8 hours of work, 8 hours of play, 8 hours of sleep”…how you define work and play varies, but I generally consider work to be of an intense and focused nature, while play is more relaxed and reflective. Personally, I fill my play time with meditation, martial arts, and workouts, the latter of which often serves as relationship-building time, as well.

I see a lot of students living compartmentalized lives wherein their academic, intellectual, and professional interests clash to create undue stress. I’ve been lucky enough to overlap my Geography major with my professional and travel goals, which has helped me sustain intellectual interest through the rigorous, often tiring course load of UChicago.

6) Tell me about your routines and commitment to consistency. What things do you strive to do every day or every week? How do you ensure that you are hitting all the important things and not getting distracted by shiny objects or procrastination?

I try to focus 100% on whatever I’m doing at a single moment. If I’m eating, I engage with my food; if I’m doing emails, I strive to be 100% in the message; if I’m having a conversation with you, I strive to be 100% listening. This is #1.

#2 is about basic routine. I make it a priority to sleep before midnight every night, and to get up before eight every morning. If I don’t get enough sleep, I’ll throw in an afternoon nap or go to bed a little earlier the next night. Sleep is important because I put my body through a lot of stress (crossfit 3x/week, sprint workouts 2x/week, Aikido 4x/week, plus biking around everywhere). I screen emails on my smartphone in the morning to check if there’s anything urgent, but there usually isn’t, so I don’t answer email until the afternoon. Throughout the morning and into the early afternoon, I focus on creative work and things that require hyper-focused attention.  I like to do meetings in the afternoon, because I hit a huge slump around 2pm and meeting with others helps me power through the slump – I feed off their energy.

I used to get really frustrated and judge myself for having a lack of discipline and focus when I got distracted by blogs and email. But those negative emotions weren’t getting me anywhere, so I decided to come up with a better strategy. It sounds obvious, but breaking the big goals into smaller chunks has been a lifesaver. I’ll break a day’s work into clear, 30-60 minute tasks and then set a timer. Filling the day with small victories makes the big victory much less formidable and much more foreseeable.

There are four things I try to do every single day: exercise, meditate, eat cleanly, and read something positive.

Physical active keeps my energy levels high. I meditate to stay grounded and keep things in perspective. Eating cleanly is even more important to me than exercise, but the feedback loop is slower so it’s the one that slips more often. I shamelessly watch Anthony Robbins on Youtube, read Dale Carnegie and Robert Greene, and have calls with “friendtors” in which we keep each other accountable to our goals and give each other pep talks.

I’m an optimist, but life can seem pretty dim sometimes if you don’t take proactive steps to make it more positive.

If you want to follow Ted as he travels to conferences, drives Moneythink forward and does other things, check out these links:

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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  1. Great interview Jason, great to see what shaped Ted to be the inspiring man he is today doing some really important work with kids who are really under-educated with regards to finance these days.

  2. A close friend and now tedgonder have recommended Aikido to me. May have to look into that.

  3. Brilliant, a Geography major. Probably one of the most underrated majors by far; It defies expectations in so many ways when I explain to people why it’s the major I want to pursue (“No, I don’t spend all day memorizing capitals.”).

    This guy’s a bookmark.

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