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“You Don’t Have To Be The Best To Create Something Impactful” Words Of Wisdom With Mike Smith

“I’m not the best skater, artist or musician — I’m not even very good at any of those things. And I’m certainly not the most creative person on my team. The amount of people who expected me to fail (especially early on) because I wasn’t “the best” was honestly shocking. I tell kids all the time that they don’t have to be the best at something to lead. Truthfully, the best leaders rarely are.”
I had the pleasure to interview entrepreneur and influencer Mike Smith. From his humble beginnings in Imperial, NE, Mike has since founded two non-profits and influenced hundreds of thousands of youth in high schools, universities, and adults in boardrooms nationwide. Mike lives his life as a “professional teenager” that doubles as a motivational speaker, consultant, and ambassador. While other professional speakers struggle to remain current, Mike stays relevant by talking about what he’s doing, not what he’s done. As the Founder for THE BAY, one of the few non-profit skateparks in the country, Mike works with young people from all walks of life, encouraging them to pursue their passions and live out their dreams. Since its first inception in 2011, The BAY has grown into more than just a skatepark — it’s a 30,000+ square-foot youth outreach center that focuses on skate, art, music, coffee, and community. He is also the Founder of Skate For Change (SFC), a youth movement that empowers skateboarders to give back to the homeless in their communities. SFC chapters have now spread to 80+ major cities worldwide. Mike is also the Co-Founder of Find Your Grind (FYG), a career education platform for schools that connects students to the jobs and lifestyles of the 21st century. FYG’s mission is simple: to expose, enlighten, and educate students and teachers to the possibilities of tomorrow. Mike’s reality-based video series, The Harbor by Jostens, brings relevant and engaging content to over 10 million students and educators across the globe every week of the school year.

What is your “backstory”?

I grew up in a small, rural, farm town in Nebraska: human population 2,000; cattle population 100,000 and counting. I was a kid who was into skateboarding, music, art, sports — pretty much anything that wasn’t school. But we were more than three hours away from the closest skatepark, concert venue or arts space. Growing up where kids lacked these kinds of alternative outlets, I was always drawn to the idea of creating a place that impacted kids’ lives. Fast forward to today and I’m the co-founder of a nonprofit, Rabble Mill, that’s working to end generational poverty one young person at a time by empowering kids to discover their passion and build life and professional skills through those very things: skateboarding, music and art.

One of our programs is The Bay, a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Lincoln, Nebraska, that’s home to a skatepark, coffee bar, all-ages concert venue, and art collective (in addition to doing life-changing outreach work for kids and families). Another program we have is Skate for Change, a global network (~80 chapters) of skaters dedicated to empowering youth to use their skateboards to better their communities, often as simply as gathering socks and water and distributing them to those experiencing homelessness in their community.

I’m also a youth and corporate speaker; brand ambassador; host of my own online show for schools (The Harbor by Jostens); and recently published my first book, Legacy Vs. Likes. One of my biggest passions is to get kids to stop talking and wishing and start learning how to actually do what they love. I’m currently on an eight-month tour across the country speaking to student leaders and influencers from thousands of high schools to inspire them to do just that. My crew and I are on a tour bus, living the dream of sleeping in RV parks and never really knowing when or where our next real meal and shower is going to come from!

Are you working on any meaningful projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Outside of my nonprofit work, my friends and I launched a career education platform this year called Find Your Grind (FYG) that exposes and educates students and teachers to emerging career possibilities. We believe we need to stop asking kids what they want to be and start showing them the possibilities of who they can be. So we took a fresh, strategic approach at doing that.

On my mind currently is an epic partnership I have with Vans. For the second-consecutive year, I’m helping promote Vans Custom Culture, a high school arts competition with an insanely important mission: to bring attention to diminishing funding for arts education nationwide. The project helps students show the world their creativity through arts and design, while giving back to communities through a meaningful donation toward sustaining and growing art programs.

This year, Vans is awarding a grand prize winning school $75,000 toward their arts department and four runner-up schools’ arts departments will receive $10,000. I’m so hyped to be able to help invest in the creative class of tomorrow and proud to play a role in supporting Vans in this cause!

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Here’s the true story of the weird luck that changed the trajectory of everything I do now…And it involves golf:

In 2012, pro skateboarder and one of my favorite humans, Ryan Sheckler, invited me to play in his charity golf tournament during the week of the X-Games. At that time, no one knew who I was or cared about what I was doing. I was just a random dude from Nebraska.

Obviously I was stoked to get a free trip to L.A. to hang with some of my favorite skaters and to attend the X-Games, so I of course said “yes.” I showed up to this charity event rocking pink plaid pants and a polo and was more hyped to be taking selfies with the people I grew up watching skating than I was to play golf.

One of the traditional highlights of the Sheckler Foundation’s charity event is a long putt contest. If you hit a 30-foot qualifier putt, you got one chance to make a 65-foot putt for $10,000 in prize money.

I had barely golfed in my life, but I’m good at faking it, so after I pledged to donate the prize money to Skate for Change, I walked up super confidently and managed to sink the qualifying putt. As I waited in line to try and make the 65-footer — and watched person after person before me miss it — pro golfer Rickie Fowler gave me an inside tip on where to aim. He pointed to a spot in the green where the ball would break straight into the cup and told me to aim there.

I walked up, took a deep breath, closed my eyes and did exactly what I was told. Somehow, I hit a perfect 65-foot putt, everyone lost their mind, and I started doing my best Happy Gilmore impression!

I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently nobody had ever made that putt in the years since they started this charity event. Sheckler and his foundation agreed to match the $10,000 prize, so I ended up donating $20,000 back to my organization. We used that money to move The Bay — then just a skatepark — from its original location in our local mall into the massive warehouse where it impacts lives today.

I haven’t picked up a golf club since.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Entrepreneurship is really about finding a problem that you’re cool with solving for the rest of your life, then waking up every day trying to accomplish that.

I see a lot of people drawn to start a company because they’re chasing the lifestyle, or because they’re romantic about the idea of being their own boss, so they start something for the sake of just starting something. They might be in love with the idea of creating something, but they also need to be in love with the work required to do it. When I first started The Bay, I wanted to create a place that helped, in a lasting way, kids who felt like outliers or misfits. But I quickly fell in love with the daily grind it required, including the need to develop the skills and resources to overcome the constant, not-so-fun challenges that mission presented. I think it’s crucial, for your own longevity and sanity, to start something that you’re insanely passionate about being involved in for a long, long time. The problem I’m super passionate about solving now: kids generally know what jobs exist out there, but they have no idea what it’s like on the inside of them, different paths to getting there, nor how to use any of the skills and passions they already possess. We’re working to solve that problem through FYG.

2. You don’t have to be the best to create something impactful.

I’m not the best skater, artist or musician — I’m not even very good at any of those things. And I’m certainly not the most creative person on my team. The amount of people who expected me to fail (especially early on) because I wasn’t “the best” was honestly shocking. I tell kids all the time that they don’t have to be the best at something to lead. Truthfully, the best leaders rarely are.

3. Make sure the loudest voice in your head is yours and not that of someone else.

It surprised me how many of the older “core” skaters hated what I was trying to do when I first started The Bay (and how many still do). Early on, I really thought that their opinions mattered and that their opinions had value, but I came to realize they only wanted things to be the way they used to be. And I’m not interested in what was; I’m interested in creating what’s next. I think so many people want to create something, — to quit their job, start a brand, and just “go for it” — but they never do because they let the haters and naysayers win the argument in their head. I wish I knew from day one how important it was to be the loudest voice in your own head. It’s critical to listen to others and to ask questions, but at the end of the day, you gotta go with your gut and do it your way.

4. Add, subtract, multiply, divide (+ — x %).

I also wish I would have realized much sooner in my journey that the people you surround yourself with are ultimately the ones who will either propel you or hold you back. I only surround myself with people who can add and multiply to my journey and I’ve stopped allowing people who subtract and divide to take up any space in my brain. At some point, you have to cut people loose because they don’t support your professional and personal goals and happiness. Sometimes, it can be extremely hard, but you have to think long-term.

5. Effective mentoring only starts when you offer value to someone first and they help you second.

Early on, everyone told me to get a mentor — to find someone who could help me grow as an entrepreneur. What they didn’t tell me is that people who are successful are super freaking busy and just asking someone to help you without offering them value first rarely ends in a working mentorship. Countless people now ask me to mentor them, and as much as I would like to help or mentor everyone I possibly can, my time is my most precious resource. So I typically end up investing that resource in the people who can also help me in some way. Maybe they’ve volunteered at my nonprofit, or offered to make videos or create content for one of my projects. Maybe they connected me with someone they thought I should know. The truth is, there are tons of people who can and want to help you in your career. The more value you offer those people, the more likely they are to invest in you.

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