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This May marked 20 years I’ve been out of college. And while I have no regrets, I did think at 22 that my life would play out much more differently than it has at 42. I assumed I’d have it all figured out by now—family, career, friendships, minor household DIY, you know, the big, important things in life. But the truth is, I don’t.

No one does. All we can do is play the cards we’re dealt and learn from the hands we win and lose. It’s called adaptability, and the strongest leaders and most successful people in their fields have that trait in spades.

Many people live a lifetime and never have situations where they truly have to adapt in order to thrive and survive. Life, it seems, blesses them more than others. But the class of 2020 has been thrust into a three-month active hands-on adaptability lesson whether these kids wanted it or not.

Much has been written about the milestones that the class of 2020 missed this spring because of COVID-19 precautions. From canceled spring sports seasons and missed proms, to missed graduations and every “last” in between, it must seem like it’s been three months of the worst hand ever dealt. And while I, myself, don’t have a senior who won’t be walking across a dais in a hot gymnasium, I can empathize with all of those milestones that those families won’t get to celebrate.

But to paraphrase some of the wisest teachers I’ve ever had, they and their families can choose to dwell on the cards, or they can play the ones they have to the fullest.

Just look at the creativity and problem solving that the class of 2020 already has under its belt. Can’t have a prom? We’ll take pictures in our dresses and suits and host virtual dances over Zoom. Can’t have a graduation ceremony in a crowded gymnasium? We’ll project graduating seniors’ photos on the Coop elevator, or take over the drive-in theater, or even have the ceremony at the Texas Motor Speedway with our friends and family watching from their vehicles in the infield.

Can’t show that last livestock project? We’ll hold virtual shows online. Can’t have 4-H and FFA meetings and conventions in person? We’ll create virtual meetings and events for our business meetings and recognitions.

In nearly every instance of a “can’t” there’s been creative young people looking at the technology around them and figuring out how to turn it into a “can make do.”

And those are the young people I want working on my team someday as professionals, as community volunteers and neighbors. The young leaders who when faced with adversity and heartache didn’t wallow or wait around for someone to hand them a solution. But who instead dusted themselves off and tried a different way until finally they succeeded. Those are the employees that companies will be competing for in the future. The ones who saw their dreams grabbed out of their hands and instead made new dreams on the spot are the ones you want helping your businesses adapt to whatever the world throws its way.

Can’t hold a field day in person? Let’s use webinar capabilities to expand the audience and reach those at home.

Office environment closed? No problem, they’ve learned to self-guide themselves without a teacher watching their every move.

Need to communicate a message to clients or other audiences using photos, video, and words? This generation grew up teething on YouTube, grew to love TikTok, and can learn and adapt to new apps faster than the generation who got their first email address in college.

We adults talk a lot about wanting our young people to grow up to be resilient and strong, smarter and with more opportunities than we ever had. Well, COVID-19 handed the class of 2020 an opportunity to stretch its resilience muscles, if we choose to look at it as one. Because life is going to deal everyone bad cards, if not this hand or the next, some future hand in time. You won’t get that dream job at first, but you may get a job that leads you to bigger opportunities if you keep your options open. You may not wind up marrying that first love, but you find someone more worthy while you’re healing that broken heart. You may not get to be a parent, but you’ll have young people in your life you love just as if they were your own flesh and blood.

I wish I could give the class of 2020 and their families all the traditions they missed in the last three months. I really do. But dwelling on what should have been, what might have been, well, that’s not in any leadership book I’ve ever read.

If there’s one thing I’ve figured out in the 20 years since I graduated from Kansas State University, it’s that how you play the cards you’re dealt tells a lot about the person you were and the person you’ll be. Judging by how these young people played their cards, I have no doubt they’ll win at life.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or jlatzke@hpj.com.

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