As a teenager, Tom Bull was one of those kids who struggled with young adulthood and nearly failed out of school. His own challenges as a young adult are part of the reason why he’s so effective at working with troubled teens today. He can see himself in the young people he works with as a Behavior Support Counselor at Peru Junior and Senior High School. Due to his own journey to successfully overcome obstacles, he can also see the teens he works with overcoming adversity as he did. He is energetic, positive, and passionate about personal empowerment. “A big part of why I do what I do, and why I love it so much, is because after almost failing in school I went on to graduate magna cum laude with honors from Syracuse University. I have learned through these experiences how to take life’s challenges and transform them into real strategies for living an empowered and fulfilling life. I want to share this with everyone,” he explained.
Bull is one of those people who can’t help but uplift and empower those with whom he interacts. In addition to working in the schools, he is writing a book based on his philosophy of personal empowerment and touring the region delivering motivational seminars and workshops to schools, youth organizations, agencies, and businesses. These include Northern Insuring, the Miner Institute, the Lake Placid Central School District, Northwood School, JCEO, Mental Health Association of Essex County, Autism Alliance, Clinton Community College, and the United Federation of Teachers in New York, to name a few.
Tom sat down to share some of his thoughts and positive empowerment work with Strictly Business during a recent interview.
Occupation: Independent Speaker and Consultant, Behavior Support Counselor at Peru Central School
Education: B.A., Psychology, Syracuse University; M.A., Counseling, SUNY Plattsburgh
Hometown: Enfield, Connecticut
Community Involvement: Invited speaker at 2017 Stepping Out for Your Heart awareness and fundraising event in Plattsburgh, Youth Empowerment Summit at SUNY Plattsburgh, member of the Anti-Bullying Taskforce.
SB: How did you get interested in your line of work?
TB: As a young person I was interested in ways to better myself. I was drawn to thinkers like Wayne Dyer, Tony Robbins, and Deepak Chopra who intrigued me. I began to explore how can we find our best selves. At 17 I developed a framework for all the ideas I was listening to. I woke up one night, took out a white board, and started drawing out this framework that ended up becoming the acronym “CRUTCHES” which is the basis for a book that I am writing right now. It is called The Walking Stick.
SB: How long have you been a motivational speaker?
TB: I’m careful about calling myself a motivational speaker. What I do is more empowerment than anything else. In 2004 I first presented my ideas to the public as a graduate student at a counseling conference in Syracuse. To my surprise, they just ate it up and from there I ended up getting one speaking gig after another. It began to evolve, and everything I did was aimed at trying to find out how to develop ourselves personally and recognize that challenges are valuable. I get excited about challenges in life because I know that in the process of experiencing them, we come out better than when we went in.
SB: Tell me about personal challenges that have helped you grow.
TB: I welcome life challenges. We learn so much about ourselves when we are living on the edge of uncertainty. For me, one of those times was when I was working at Chazy Central School and decided to leave in order to pursue speaking full time. I had speaking gigs that were all set up and then the stock market crashed. Schools cut professional development and cancelled my bookings. I learned that you have to leap. You have to try something new, and then embrace failure if that is what you get. If you don’t learn along the way, even if you make it big, you still could fail. Success is also about maintaining momentum and knowing how to keep going.
SB: Who are some of your greatest mentors?
TB: Former SUNY Plattsburgh faculty member Dr. Stephen Saiz was a professor of mine as a graduate student. We were at a professional conference together, and one night we were socializing in the company of many academic giants in our field. It was Dr Saiz who invited me to tell all of them what I had been working on. I was hesitant to participate and tried to deflect, saying, ‘Nah, it’s nothing…’ when one of them— Wes Wingett was his name—said something I still haven’t forgotten. He said, ‘Listen, if you want people to get excited about what you believe in, then you better get excited when people are asking you to tell them about it.’ I got the lesson. When you have an opportunity to share, you need to take it. So, I took a chance and told them about my framework and my ideas. After I did, they all brought in different components from their research that was happening all over the country and helped me to build on my ideas and see them from new perspectives.
SB: What qualities do you believe are necessary for success?
TB: You need to have a relentless passion for your mission and your message. You have to know your “Why?” and be connected with it. Anybody can find a “What” thing they go out and do, and then find a way to get there. To be successful you have to have a definitive “why” you do what you do. Usually when people really dig into their “Why?” it is about connecting with people. When you make that connection, then you get that flow. You realize that it is all about reciprocity. Whatever you give gets returned to you.
SB: Do you think that everybody wants to connect with people?
TB: I think everybody wants to feel a sense of belonging. Whether they want to be in the background or to be out in front, I think everybody wants to feel cared for and to care for others. I really believe that people want a sense that they are significant, that they are part of something bigger than themselves, and that they matter in whatever system they belong to. Whether the system is a family, school district, corporation or agency, it doesn’t matter. People want to feel important. When you get people to feel important, that is where success can happen. If they feel like they are connected and that they belong, they are going to succeed.
SB: How can people put your idea of connectedness in practice in their daily lives?
TB: In a variety of ways, small and large. When you walk by someone and they are by themselves, just smile at them. When you smile at someone, you are acknowledging that you are both present. It seems so simple, but it really is important because it sets up what is to come. If I cross your path and smile at you and acknowledge you, then down the road when you and I need to work together, there will already be a connection there. You’re already going to feel comfortable with me. Doing the small things is important. If you really want to get ahead you have to do that even a little bit more. A smile is a small thing that can have amazing Return On Investment. That is all it takes.
SB: How would you like to be remembered?
TB: It is essential to me that I leave this world better than I found it, either in a small way or a big way. I really want to do it in a big way, so that I can serve as a model to inspire others to do the same thing.
SB: If you could have dinner with any well-known person, who would you choose?
TB: UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. He did not pay attention to winning. He paid attention to what mattered, because he knew that you start winning when you pay attention to each other. He got his players to achieve that.
SB: What are some important lessons you’ve learned in your career?
TB: Believe in yourself and in your message. If it is coming from an authentic place, then believe in it and be authentic about it. The most important thing that we do in our lives is serve others. We serve others by doing something or by providing a service that adds value to their life. I learned early on that what people really care about is each other. It’s not about a product or a service, it is about you. People just want to know whether or not you care. For me, whether I am going to be speaking, or counseling or anything else I do, it is about bringing value to someone’s life and letting them know that I authentically care about them. I learned early on that success is about relationships.
SB: What are you most proud of professionally?
TB: Professionally, I think my best days are coming. What I am most proud of is being in a position where I have the opportunity, every day, to positively impact someone’s life. I have the opportunity to impact an individual or a group through my work every day, to change their life for the better. I am in a position to serve, and to do that just by being a support and acknowledging them—there is nothing better than that.
SB: You work with troubled teens at some of their most challenging moments. How do you stay centered?
TB: A lot of people think this is not a desirable job, but as far as I am concerned, I think I have the best job in the district. I am set up to help others recognize their best selves every single day.
SB: How do you spend your free time?
TB: I love spending time with my funny, beautiful, sassy, and talented daughter. She keeps my feet nailed to the ground. I enjoy being around family and friends and meeting new people. I’m an avid sports fan and make a point to visit the Syracuse University campus for a basketball or football game every year. I love to read, especially books about empowerment and entrepreneurship. I’m always planning for the next big thing!
SB: What is something no one would guess about you?
TB: I love dancing. When I was young I used to teach breakdance lessons. I actually taught classes locally.
SB: What advice do you have for someone starting their career?
TB: Everybody has a voice inside of them that puts them in the driver’s seat to greatness. There is an innate push. Some people respond to that voice and do it, while others are afraid and convince them- selves that they should not listen. This is a human thing. Let today be the day that you listen to that voice and do what you can to bring balance and peace to your life. If you believe you can, you will surround yourself with things that will validate you. If you believe that you can’t, the opposite is true. You have to make the decision to surround yourself with people and things that validate how great you are.
SB: What do we have to do in the North Country to ensure that we have a prosperous future?
TB: Collaboration is key. We also need to work on keeping our talent here. How do we make people feel like they are part of the plan? We can do it by building a strong network of young business people. I work with the Chamber of Commerce, with its leader- ship series to help young leaders to become more efficient professionals. When we recognize what we have, we will be better at keeping young people in the area. It is also important to remember that you don’t have to wait for someone to create something. There are many opportunities for growth here.