This is part two of an interview with Mychael Willon, discussing volunteering your time and resources, and the importance of learning from your mistakes. For readers interested in Part One of the interview, it can be found here:

What business books, articles, journals, people have inspired you?

“President Obama and Michelle Obama, to me, are consummate patriots that inspire me. They are great role models for Americans and for people around the world. Ms. Obama invited our family to the White House when we were part of a screening of a movie a couple of years ago. We got to hear her speak and got to see a movie premiere and meet the stars in the movie, and so on. Michelle has such a real presence, a very humbling presence. She is a regular person, like we all are, but she comes across as being so very wise. The way she projected her feelings was awesome. My husband is still active duty military so the way she communicated the importance of what he’s doing and what service members are still doing, and how much they are valued, was humbling. When we met her, we really felt appreciated.

The Obamas portray to me what we should all hope to be: Always looking to be better, always looking for the things that benefit society, always being positive, being thoughtful, making intelligent remarks, not reacting, and being accepting. They both had a shared vision of how to move us forward and keep us together. To me, that was inspirational.”

What did you learn from your biggest failure?

“My biggest failure was my inability to cope with college, initially. When I started college, I had a hard time dealing with college life and being away from home. I went from the small town of Cambridge, Maryland and a nurturing environment to the University of Maryland, a large campus with thousands of students. I was stressed from being on my own. I was taking a lot of credits in my first year. The stress was so difficult for me that I actually became bulimic for a number of years. It took me about four years to overcome it, but I learned from it. I told myself, I could not continue that self-destructive behavior because it would end up killing me. I was very, very thin, almost emaciated, and it was not healthy, but I realized that I could control that. I knew the only person that could change the situation was me. I just confronted the disease, this obstacle, knowing I could overcome it, and I think I have applied that lesson to everything else in my life since then.

It is the same thing with adversity. You are going to constantly face adversity. You are going to meet people that are antagonistic or negative. You can put everything together and look at how things are affecting you and other people, especially your health, and realize that you can make a better choice.

I got to the point where I said, okay, this is not good for me, so I’ll stop it. Even though it was years and years ago, there is still a part of me that thinks about that time in my life. It is very easy to let something else control your life, and bulimia controls your life. There are lots of triggers, but you have to learn to control the triggers. I realized it was not a good situation, and I could do better by taking control of the situation.

It helps me to understand what other people are dealing with when they are facing tough things. I never even tried alcoholic beverages, drugs and tobacco, thank goodness, when I was younger because I was afraid I may not be able to control the impulses that they cause. The bulimia helped me to understand how something like that can pretty much overtake your life if you don’t stop it.

It also taught me to never forget to be supportive of friends. It just takes one person to say, okay, I’m listening and make a difference for a person going through a hard time. I try to do that for all of my friends. I try to be a good listener and really go out of my way to spend time and make sure I am aware of knowing them as a person. I think that is absolutely critical in both your personal and professional life.”

What are some red flags to watch out for in daily life?

“We have to be careful to not be influenced by toxic people, people that are constantly naysayers, or people that are never positive and always looking for what didn’t go right or what’s wrong. I have encountered people like that in my personal life as well as my professional life. For some reason, some people just don’t have the insight or the ability to really focus on positive things. Everything could be done better, but they never appreciate what has been done right. Some people always want to find what’s wrong or want to blame something or somebody.

I always believe in fixing the problem and not the blame. It is good to be with people that can encourage and help you. You can’t always avoid the negative people. You will encounter them at work and in your personal life, but you can manage that by not letting yourself get dragged into their negativity.”

What advice can you share with others?

“The most important thing is to really get to know people as individuals. We sometimes dwell on stereotypes or we don’t get to know folks because we only know them in a particular way, but never really get to understand who they really are as a person. When you get to really understand people and really know them, it really helps you to work with them, befriend them and to be a support for them.

The National Council of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) used to always say that no one is born a bigot. Bigotry is taught. We need to un-teach things like racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia. We need to teach in a positive way how we can learn from the mistakes that we’ve made. What did we learn from slavery? What have we learned from oppression? What have we learned from all the things that have held us back as a society or held people back when they could be moving forward? If you get to know the person and not the stereotype, or not what people see, how a person dresses or how a person may look to you, what race they are, nationality, or sexual orientation, whatever, those things shouldn’t be what you see first. It should be getting to know the person.

You will see things and you make judgments based on what you see. We all do that. It’s a matter of trying to learn to move beyond that and get to know a person for who he or she is. Everyone has worth. Everyone adds value to our lives. We need to find ways to really get to know them. We should get to know people as individuals so we can really appreciate who they are and what we can learn from them. There is so much we learn from each other by having meaningful conversations. We can move beyond bigotry by understanding a person’s story.”