As I’ve written about many times before, I wasn’t exactly the best high school student in the world. I got rejected from just about every college I applied to except, East Carolina University. When I showed up for my first day of class back in the fall of 1988, I was excited but also a bit skeptical. What kind of institution accepts me as a student? While touring campus I saw rows of fraternity and sorority houses, and my mind flashed to the movie Animal House. Is this what I had signed up for?
A few days later I was in my dorm room when there was a knock at the door. I opened it and a tall, good-looking guy stuck out his hand and smiled. “Hi, my name is Chris Townsend, and I’m the president of Sigma Phi Epsilon. We’ve got a pretty special fraternity on campus and I’d love to tell you about it.” Chris had the firmest handshake I’d ever felt. He certainly didn’t seem like he was about to go to a toga party with John Belushi.
The previous five student government presidents were all SigEps, Chris said. They’d won the intermural championship for six straight years. They held community service events. “We’re less a fraternity and more a leadership development program,” he explained. By the time he had rattled off Sigma Phi Epsilon’s accomplishments, I was sold. I signed up to pledge, and the rest is history. That year, Chris agreed to be my fraternity “big brother”, and no one else had a bigger influence on me during my time at East Carolina University. He helped me find my footing and supported me as I became pledge class president and ran for rush chairman, social chairman, and philanthropy chairman, where we had a partnership with the Special Olympics. My pledge nickname was “Mother Theresa” because I was obsessed with all the ways the brotherhood could volunteer and help the community. Chris taught me what real servant leadership looks like, and to this day I owe him everything.
Chris graduated at the end of my freshman year and joined the Navy to fly fighter jets. He would go onto a distinguished career as an airline pilot with Delta Airlines—he’s now an Airbus A350 captain conducting ultra-long-haul operations throughout the world—and became national president of the Navy League of the United States, a civilian organization that advocates for our sailors in uniform. I remained close with Chris over the years, but one moment in particular has stayed with me ever since.
It was my senior year of college, and I had just finished my junior year being president of Sigma Phi Epsilon and just elected president of the Interfraternity Council. Chris visited campus to congratulate me on my achievement, but he noticed I wasn’t too excited. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
I replied that I was frustrated with the fraternity: while there were some brothers who were just as devoted to volunteering and community service as I was, there were a lot more who just wanted to party, sleep, and play video games. “These couch potatoes are ruining the culture of our fraternity,” I said. “A few of us are doing all the work and the rest are just lying around.”
And then Chris said something that changed my entire outlook. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Tommy, take note of all the people you see sitting on that couch smoking pot and watching TV. In ten, twenty, thirty years, they’re going to be the exact same couch potatoes in their career, in their marriages, and in their communities. Now take a look at your brothers who are out there volunteering and making a difference. They’re going to be the entrepreneurs, the philanthropists, and the movers and shakers of tomorrow.” And then Chris walked away.
I heard a lot of people make a lot of predictions back in college, but no one was more spot-on than Chris. My brothers who were constantly on their feet making the community a better place are the ones who became CEOs and state senators and mayors and school superintendents and nonprofit executive directors. Guys like my brothers Scott Diggs and Paul Adkison, who became serial entrepreneurs and co-founded a major venture capital firm together. Guys like Allen Thomas who went on to become Mayor of Greenville, North Carolina. Guys like Chris Townsend, who went on to serve our country and become a decorated airline captain. I kept in touch with some of my couch potato fraternity brothers, too. Many of them are perfectly nice guys, but let’s just say they did not go on to become community leaders and school principals and philanthropists. It played out exactly as Chris said all those years ago.
When you think about it, we’re surrounded by couch potatoes. They’re not bad people. They’re our coworkers who clock in at 9, clock out at 5, and pick up their paycheck. They’re the middle managers who don’t invest time into their direct-reports or strive to improve the culture of their organizations. They watch football and Netflix all night instead of volunteering at their local church or soup kitchen.
If you look a little harder, you’ll spot the men and women who don’t clock in and clock out of life. They’re the ones who are constantly investing in the lives of others. The ones who see their work as more than just a job title, but as a chance to make a positive impact. They’re people like my friend Trooper Bobby Juchem, who is a captain in the Colorado State Patrol. When Bobby’s not out there keeping us safe, he’s a scoutmaster with the Boy Scouts of America volunteering his time with inner city youth. They’re people like my friend Andy Newland, who runs a hugely successful HVAC company but finds time to coach middle school girls’ basketball.Thing is, doers aren’t born and neither are couch potatoes. Only you can decide how to spend the time you have been given. Take a long hard look at the friends you surround yourself with. Are they spending hours on TikTok and playing Fortnite, or are they going out there and doing something—anything—to make their communities a better place? Choose to be around folks like Chris Townsend, Bobby Juchem, and Andy Newland. When you associate with doers who never stop serving others, you might be shocked how quickly their positive influence rubs off on you. It’s never too late to go out there and make a difference—because even the laziest couch potatoes can be whipped into shape!