Leaders Making a Difference – Tony Aveni

By Kate Sullivan

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

My career started with the end of the world.

No, really. The mentor who changed the course of my entire professional life happens to be the world’s foremost apocalypse debunker—he was even featured in an issue of Popular Science for it.

I suppose you could say that he destroyed my ideas of what life was supposed to be, giving me the freedom to create a new life that actually suited my needs, talents, and passions.

Professor Tony Aveni came into my life and made a difference when I was adrift as a young undergraduate at Colgate University in rural upstate New York. The chair of both the Sociology-Anthropology Department and the Astronomy program, Professor Aveni was the most profoundly intelligent, insightful, kind, and giving person I’d ever met.

Origins of Writing

When I turned up to his Origins of Writing class, I had no idea where I was going with my life. I’d gone to college with the intention of double majoring in neuroscience and art history—a way to pair a theoretically stable career doing something I was good at (science) with something I actually had a passion for (cultural history and art).

Of course, calm and rational plans rarely last beyond exposure to real life. In my first months at school, I discovered that while I might be good at neuroscience, I had absolutely no drive to pursue it.

As a first-semester sophomore, I confronted the need to declare a major and was completely lost about what to do with my life.

Prof. Aveni stepped up to the front of the class and proceeded to give us all a brief rundown of his CV. An astronomer who got swept up in archaeology, he became a leading expert on how the people of the past viewed the stars. And in doing so, he got the opportunity to help in the decipherment of the ancient Maya script.

From there, he developed an abiding passion for Mayan culture and became an expert in both the Maya apocalypse predictions and the origins and history of writing.

I was spellbound. Here was someone who’d taken a seemingly logical career – astronomy, especially back in the days when Prof. Aveni got his start, had any number of commercial applications to the burgeoning Atomic Age, space exploration, satellite development, and more – and hooked a left turn at Albuquerque.

He’d followed his ideas and interests where they led him. And they led him to develop an incredibly rewarding, diverse career with global recognition.

As the semester progressed, Prof. Aveni demonstrated the true qualities of great leadership every day: generosity, wisdom, high expectations, and engagement. He didn’t really have office hours. He was available to his students whenever we needed him, whether by phone, email, or in person.

He used his professional clout and his strong personal magnetism to entice top scholars from all over the world to come to our tiny university to lecture to our class, even getting them to have sit-down dinners with small groups of students to increase our exposure to more ideas and higher-level academic discourse.

Challenges in Making a Difference

He shared his experiences, including the challenges he’d experienced in his career.  These challenges ranged from skepticism about his translation breakthroughs to a dispute with another academic that led to him and an undergraduate team being put under house arrest in Peru while studying the Nazca lines.

He encouraged us to see that challenges aren’t roadblocks. They’re inducements to find a new route forward.

Prof. Aveni held himself to incredibly high standards in his work and as a person. He held us to those same standards. When someone expects quality from you and believes that you’re capable of meeting and exceeding that standard, it becomes awfully hard not to believe that of yourself. And it is even harder to let them down by not delivering.

Support, guidance, encouragement, and pushes forward create growth and develop a sustainable culture of excellence, whether it’s in a classroom or an office.

Eventually, I got to know Prof. Aveni a bit better and was able to personally discuss my concerns about my future with him. He taught me the secret of the Mayan apocalypse and the secret that would change my approach to my own life forever.

Destruction isn’t the end. It’s only the start of something new.

In Maya’s thought, the world “ends” when the calendar runs out. But a new calendar round immediately begins, with a new world offering new opportunities and new insights to be discovered.

It’s the same with life. All our challenges and all the times we think the world is ending because something didn’t go according to plan are really just the starts of something new if we reach out and embrace the opportunity we’re given.

Our Own Path

Prof. Aveni taught me, too, that we don’t have to walk the defined career path that others expect of us. We can instead forge our own paths, melding seemingly disparate talents, skills, and interests to create a new way forward.

Every road has to be mapped out, surveyed, cleared, paved, and marked before it becomes well-trodden.

Some of us are better suited to following a road that’s already laid out or to expanding that route. Others only truly thrive when crashing off course and bushwhacking a new path.

Thanks to Tony Aveni, I wound up doing just that. I transferred schools, went to work under one of the talented linguists he’d introduced me to during his class, and participated in doctoral-level specialist work as an undergrad.

I became a writer and editor, embracing my love of the written word that he helped me to define, and then I set out from there to explore my various interests by adding business strategy, sociology, and graphic design to my professional toolkit.

To this day, I’m exploring new ways to integrate all my areas of interest and expertise into my professional path, constantly plotting new routes and exploring new angles of approach.

And all because of one leader who taught me that the best way forward isn’t always the one we can see defined for us and that the end of the world is another name for a new beginning.

Which Leaders Are Making a Difference in Your Life?

If you have ideas about leaders making a difference that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Kate Sullivan
Kate Sullivan
Kate Sullivan is a business sociologist, writer, and the web editor of TCK Publishing, an independent press dedicated to enhancing authors’ productivity, effectiveness, and income. TCK Publishing is leading the charge to remake the modern publishing environment by creating partnerships with writers and readers to help bring more useful books into the world.
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