Back to School: How to Win at Life

“New seat, new human,” humanities lecturer Daron Roberts repeats over and over, almost like a mantra, as nearly 100 students shuffle into his 9:30 a.m. class, “Gameplan for Winning at Life.” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” plays faintly from the ceiling speakers and head nods are exchanged between classmates as they sit down next to someone new. It’s another five minutes before class officially starts, but Roberts is already imparting valuable lessons: Stepping outside your comfort zone can lead to rich conversations; a little Motown in the morning is an instant mood booster.

“I try to not play into a background,” Roberts says when we catch up after class, which makes sense when you consider his unconventional career path, as both a Harvard Law grad and former NFL coach. The 2011 Outstanding Young Texas Ex recipient founded UT’s Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation (CSLi) in 2014. It’s a first-of-its-kind institute dedicated to developing leadership and character curricula for high school and college athletes; “Gameplan for Winning at Life” is the cornerstone of the center. Over the course of each semester, Roberts, BA ’01, Life Member, covers vulnerability, empathy, rejection, failure management, leadership, and financial literacy.

In the summer, Roberts’ course is around 75 percent incoming student-athletes, but during the school year, it’s closer to 50 percent. Through CSLi, Roberts learned that student-athletes’ No. 1 regret is having few significant relationships outside of the locker room. “Everything we do is aimed at getting these students to have deep conversations,” he says. “We force them to mix and share.”

Which is maybe why I don’t feel out of place as I squeeze between a few incoming freshman football players in the back row. The day’s lesson is focused on budgeting, but to my writerly relief, there are no spreadsheets or any serious crunching of numbers. Instead, Roberts starts with a more esoteric case for keeping track of your money. “What’s leverage?” he asks. “It’s what this world hinges on. Leverage can be knowledge—graduating from UT gives you leverage. But it can also be capital.” Budgeting isn’t about restricting your lifestyle, Roberts explains, but about giving you freedom.

It’s exactly the kind of straightforward conversation about money I desperately wish someone had with me in college. As grateful as I am for my liberal arts education, I often wonder how much easier my 20s would have been had I been armed with a few more tangible skills, too, instead of having to flounder around amid overdraft fees, learning them on my own. Roberts knows what I mean. In fact, it was his impetus for creating this course. “I was a Plan II and government major and I had a wonderful education and thoroughly enjoyed it,” he says. “But I thought, where are some of the tactical lessons that can be beneficial to both athletes and non-athletes?”

Roberts is so engaging and tuned in to the zeitgeist—putting up a slide of the newest Jordans to illustrate need versus want, or describing “love” under Maslow’s hierarchy as “where the juicy stuff comes in, where we’re going to slide into your DMs”—I don’t realize until I look back at all the notes I’ve furiously scribbled that these aren’t just life lessons. He’s also teaching concepts that span across academia.

“My syllabus ranges from Maslow to Brené Brown to Angela Duckworth,” he says. “It’s a mix of psychology and sociology and finance. The best learning experiences I had were when I felt like the professors were drawing from a large canvas.” Plus, he says, teaching undergrads in 2019 means he needs to keep the material fresh. He might pair research about financial literacy with a Jay-Z track where he raps about his wealth, or describe the horror of credit card debt as the “Jordan Peele version of compounding interest.”

Like life, a lot of the learning in Roberts’ course is hands-on. To better understand vulnerability, Roberts has his students take turns leading a blindfolded partner across campus. Or he’ll assign rejection challenges, where they film their partners asking for a free drink at Starbucks, or for someone to pay for their scooter ride. “You can deflate the impact of a ‘no’ if you keep getting them,” he says. “The first time was Earth-shattering and eventually it’s not that bad. We want to use that to incentive students to get outside their comfort zones.”

Roberts is realistic: he doesn’t expect students who take his course to never carry a credit card  balance, or to become expert empaths overnight. But he’s hoping to at least make them more aware of the tools they can use to succeed. He remembers something he heard Bob Duke, director of UT’s Center for Music Learning, say during new teacher orientation in 2015: “Listen, as teachers we’re just planting seeds and all of us want 100 percent uptake in real time and for everyone to stand up and say I’ve seen the light. But some students will come to you two days from your last lecture. Some students will come to you twenty years later. Let’s just keep planting the right seeds.”

“Lately,” Roberts says, “I’ve become more confident with planting those seeds.”

Illustration and animation: Peter Hoey


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