I spent four years on Whitney Young’s debate team as the League was first beginning in the early 2000s, and that experience was one of the most important of my high school career. I was a pretty shy and nerdy kid, but debate gave me the opportunity to compete and perform, and I’ll never forget the adrenaline rushes from that experience. I never really won much – in four years, I won one tournament, and that was a technicality, our semifinal and final rounds would have been against other Young teams, and since this was one of the last tournaments my senior year, Mr. Neal Rutstein (an amazing teacher and debate coach that I’m thankful to have had) let me have the trophy.
But winning wasn’t the point. Spending all my free time reading and arguing about public policy, foreign relations, governmental process and philosophical praxis was a ridiculously interesting way to go through high school. I met some of the most important people in my life, including the best man at my wedding, who was my first debate partner (Eric Morris). And I’ve never had the opportunity to do more thinking on my feet or public speaking; as I’ve found in the years since I left high school, those are extremely valuable skills.
Today at Google, everything I learned from debate remains extremely relevant to my actual job. For starters, my debate experience was the one thing I mentioned about my high school years during my interview, so without debate I might not have the best job I’ve ever been lucky enough to snag.
My role at Google is to work with news publishers to ensure that we’re aggregating as much of their best content as possible, and to build the tools that our team uses to manage our relationships with tens of thousands of publishers. In that role, I have to answer questions quickly and without getting intimidated: I’ve been alone in a room with fifteen people from USA Today, all grilling me on technical issues they’re confronting in order to make as much of their content discoverable to as many people online as possible. I have to be able to answer quickly and honestly, without putting myself in a corner that I have to back out of later. In meetings, if I have an idea that people disagree with, I have to aggressively defend it without upsetting anyone, and know precisely when to back down so we can get on with other business. Debate was great preparation for all these skills.
But debate’s best gift to me was confidence. In the years since I graduated, I’ve been struck by how much of life is determined by confident people believing in themselves and shaping the world around them as a result. The best things that happened in my life have come about because I was confident enough to make a decision, rather than just letting life happen. Debate changed the course of my life, and for that I’ll always be grateful.