This Wednesday, September 12, the North American Interfraternity Conference is asking all fraternity men to tweet, using the hashtag #myFraternity, about the impact of their fraternity experience. The goal, as I see it, is to fill the twitter-verse and beyond with positive reflections of an institution that often faces disparagement.

Okay, I’ll play. 

Here are some initial thoughts about what I might say...
#myFraternity taught me that being a fraternity man is not easy. But nothing in life that's worthwhile ever is.

#myFraternity provided me with countless real-life leadership lessons and experiences. 

#myFraternity was the best way to live my college years.

#myFraternity occupied a house that was often a pit, and made my mother cry whenever she left me there and drove away. But it was home. And when I drove away the last time, I may have cried too.

#myFraternity didn’t shy away from shenanigans. And I’m smiling big right now thinking about one in particular.

#myFraternity has a very compelling Ritual. Which is better than a beautiful one. Because I still think about it.

#myFraternity looked out for each other. My brothers were a constant and daily force in my life back then, and still are today.

#myFraternity wasn’t just a club. It was an education.

#myFraternity taught me the difference between the big things that matter and the little things that don’t.

I appreciate how self-governed #myFraternity was. Sure, we made plenty of mistakes, but we lived to tell the tale.

I love #myFraternity because we basically looked the opposite of those posed, well-coiffed, smiles and shoulder-grabbing stock-photo pictures of fraternity men. 

#myFraternity showcased how tough and relentless men can be when they go at each other, and yet how accepting and forgiving they can be when they come back together.

#myFraternity gave me a set of ideals and values to hold up against my actions and decisions. It's a timeless roadmap.

#myFraternity was a gift to my life. Not a gift that ends up in a drawer or on a shelf...but rather a gift that is always displayed, cared for, and treated as though it's as precious as any possession could be.

#myFraternity led me to a career in higher education, which led me to pursue a graduate degree, which led me to meet a sorority woman who was on the same path, and she became my soul mate, and my wife. 

#myFraternity made me laugh. At least twice as much as it made me mad. That’s a good ratio if ever you can find it.
#myFraternity opened my eyes to all the dedicated professionals devoted to #myFraternity experience. Thank you.
The last place I stood on campus before I walked to the graduation ceremony was #myFraternity house.
#myFraternity stays with me as I journey through life.

I will forever be thankful for #myFraternity.

Join in and follow the hashtag #myFraternity on September 12. I encourage you to avoid the glossy brochure-speak and be real and authentic in what fraternity has given you. 

Reality Fraternity

A big hat tip to Ellen Shertzer and her colleagues for a lunchtime conversation that inspired this post. It's their idea I have expanded upon.

I am a fan of reality TV for two primary reasons:  (1) as an observer of human nature it’s fun to watch some of these shows as a social experiment, and (2) escapist trashy TV can be fun.  

My wife likes The Bachelor, and every once in a while I’ll catch some of it out of the corner of my eye as I’m passing through the ro...ahh...I admit I love it too.  It’s good TV.  Lots of drama, heroes, villains, and suspense.  Don’t judge.

The interesting thing about The Bachelor is that the relationships formed on the show rarely work
out.  Most crash and burn.  But, it’s very obvious as to why.  When the "bachelor" and his female suitors go on dates on the show, it’s the stuff of romantic fantasies.  Helicopter rides.  Dining on rooftops.  Walks on the world’s best beaches.  Floating on yachts under tropical sun.  Everything is hyper-romantic and simply perfect.  And then, the season ends with a hilltop proposal and dancing until the sun comes up.  

A few months later, the perfect couple shows up again to reveal their status, and you can tell from their faces that it has gone South.  A big dramatic breakup typically comes shortly thereafter.  

The show creates impossible expectations for a romantic relationship.  Anyone who has been in a marriage or long-term partnership knows that it’s tough work sometimes.  There are no helicopter rides or moonlit dinners.  Those are replaced by the stuff of regular life.  It doesn’t mean that romance isn’t there - you just have to dig through reality to find it.

Perhaps there are lessons for fraternities here, especially in regards to how we promote and present ourselves to potential members.  Do we oversell the fraternity experience and our own organizations?  

I remember recruitment when I was an undergrad.  Every fraternity I met with claimed the best parties, and the strongest brotherhood.  Each one had the best house, greatest alums, and the tastiest food.  Strangely, each group had also won the previous year’s Greek Week (must have been a 15-chapter tie).  There was no shortage of trophies and awards to display.

And what about the chapters that rely on big splashy events for recruitment? They take recruits to amusement parks, sporting events, or turn their chapter houses into a Hooters franchise. Just like The Bachelor paints love as wine and roses every day, these fraternities are painting a picture that fraternity life is a constant party. 

We have an apathy problem in fraternities and sororities.  We also have a lot of dropouts.  I wonder if some of that can be attributed to the mismatch of expectations and reality.  If we create a lofty vision of the fraternity experience, but don’t deliver, why should we be surprised that people break up with us? And what's more, we're likely not attracting the right members by selling the superficial aspects. We get the party-lovers and then expect them to roll up their sleeves and work.

It’s about being authentic.  Represent yourself honestly, and you may be surprised by what you get in return.  Perhaps if The Bachelor had a few episodes when the couples had to live for a few hours in a house with a screaming baby, or got lost on a stressful drive together, they might be better prepared.  Perhaps if you weren’t shy about your faults as a fraternity, your new members would more likely embrace the experience.  Maybe your recruitment pitch should sound something more like this:

I want you to be a member of this fraternity.  But before you decide, there are some things you need to know.  We have a strong brotherhood, but not because we’re always laughing and having fun.  We fight sometimes.  We argue.  We disagree with each other a lot.  We are a strong brotherhood because we work through those things.   

You won’t like every guy in here.  Some you may actually dislike a lot.  But I can say with great confidence that there are a few future groomsmen and best friends in here as well.
We win Greek Week sometimes.  We lose more often.  Same with intramurals and homecoming competitions.  We don’t have as many trophies as the other guys, but I think we play a little harder.

You’ll need to work.  This house doesn’t clean itself.  There aren’t elves who show up in the middle of the night and cut the grass.  We do those things.  There will be dozens of times in which the state of this house will piss you off.  There are other times when you’ll be too lazy to do your duties, and that will piss us off.

Many of these guys will let you down.  They’ll make stupid decisions and leave you hanging. Many of us will disappoint you from time to time.  You may want to quit.  Or punch someone.  

But, if you find the lessons in each of those moments, you’ll be better.  If you learn understanding, then you’re on your way to mastering the greatest of leadership skills.  If you can learn to hold people accountable without being a jerk, then people will want to work for you some day.  

There may be a fraternity up the street that has only perfect parties, perfect meetings, and perfect sorority relations.  But perfect isn’t a very good teacher.  And, it’s an illusion anyway. 

If you’re willing to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, and to work hard, then you are well-suited to be in this fraternity.  Being a fraternity man isn’t easy, but nothing worthwhile in life ever is.  Just because we may not be the ideal fraternity doesn’t mean that signing this bid card won’t be the best decision of your life. 

And besides, if we were perfect, then we wouldn’t need you to make us better.
Highs and lows.  Joy and conflict.  Success and disappointment.  Terribly frustrating and tremendously fulfilling.

That’s the reality.