Profile in Courage Contest Winners: Where Are They Now?
The annual Profile in Courage Essay Contest, held by the John F. Kennedy library Foundation, invites high school students from across the country to write an essay on an act of political courage by a U.S. elected official. The contest is aptly named for Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, which recounts the stories of eight U.S. Senators who risked their careers, incurring the wrath of constituents or powerful interest groups, to make difficult decisions in the public interest. We had the chance to interview Michael Sloyer, 2003 contest winner, and see what he’s been up to since writing his winning essay twelve years ago.
You were a first-place winner of the 2003 Profile in Courage Essay Contest. Tell us about that experience. What drew you to the contest? What was most rewarding about the experience? Most challenging?
The experience of winning the 2003 Profile in Courage Essay Contest was exhilarating. My 11th grade English teacher, Mr. Becker, encouraged me to enter the contest, and I jumped at the opportunity to learn about and be inspired by a topic (the Vietnam War) I did not know much about at the time.Both the most rewarding and challenging experience for me was when Senator Ted Kennedy, in a room full of a hundred people at the awards ceremony, including members of the Kennedy family and other accomplished politicians, put me on the spot to make a speech about what I thought were the parameters and justifications for authorizing an invasion of another country. I had written about this topic as it related to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution during the Vietnam War in my essay, and there we were in 2003, when the justifications for the Iraq invasion were actively being debated in Congress and in the media. Needless to say it was a hot button issue for all those in the room, so I was naturally quite nervous as I got up to tell everyone what I thought about the topic. The speech was a blur for me with adrenaline taking full control, but I must have said something that they agreed with because I got a big round of applause after finishing the speech.
Describe your current work/learning. What are you doing at the moment? What is most important about it? Is there a particular idea, topic, or issue that is driving your work and thinking at the moment?
I currently live in Tokyo and work for Goldman Sachs as an equity derivatives trader. As a trader, I have the opportunity to think about and react to some of the most important political, social, and economic issues of our time. Although the stress levels can get elevated at times, I wake up (almost) every morning with an excitement for the start of the trading day, and for that, I feel extremely grateful.In my free time, I am pursuing my passion to help people live more fulfilling, self-expressed, and meaningful lives by working with a New York based startup called Upbuild, which offers classes and workshops in both personal and organizational development. The work is focused on building environments of trust by helping people understand their own motivations and fears and the motivations and fears of those around them.I am also a photographer in my free time, with a particular focus on and passion for spontaneous street photography. I recently published a photography book called “Life Living Life” and hosted a photography exhibition in Hong Kong by the same name.
What impact did participating in (and winning) the Profile in Courage Essay Contest have on you?
Participating and winning the Profile in Courage Essay Contest really opened up my eyes to just how crazy and dangerous having courage can actually be. When we separate ourselves from the crowd, particularly in a public forum like politics, we open ourselves up to criticism, failure, and hostility from others. I have always had a fear of failure and fear of not being good enough, and for me personally, having courage often means coming face to face with those fears. It can be quite scary, but my experience with the Profile in Courage Essay Contest showed me just how rewarding and important having real courage can be.
What advice would you give to potential Profile in Courage Essay Contest participants?
My advice is to heed the advice of Andrew Jackson. “One man with courage makes a majority.” For the contest, write about something that no one else would write about. And for the rest of your life, pursue things that no one else around you is pursuing. Be vulnerable with the people in your life. They are looking for same kind of authentic human connection that you are looking for. Although it may be scary and can put you at risk, just like being courageous in the political arena, you will find that being vulnerable will be one of the most rewarding, inspiration, and impactful things you can do.
The JFK Library will be accepting submissions for this year’s Profile in Courage essay contest through January 6, 2016. For more information visit: http://www.jfklibrary.org