TEDxUCLA 2017: Gravity

The unapologetic beauty of focusing on your strengths


About Wendelin

Dr. Wendy Slusser is Associate Vice Provost at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), for Chancellor Block’s Healthy Campus Initiative that was envisioned and is supported by Jane and Terry Semel. Dr. Slusser graduated Cum Laude from Princeton University, received her Medical Degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and her Masters Degree in Science from the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University.


Welcome and hello, everybody! How are you feeling today? Good? Fantastic.

Well, most students arrive at college with no roadmap for success, having just spent their entire high school careers with a checklist on how to get into their college of choice. And after graduation, we often turn to self-help books or motivational seminars sharing their wisdoms on how to be successful and thrive in life.

But what if the path to success was simple and attainable for all of us? What if it was as simple as identifying and building on our own strengths and those of others, and not their deficits?

I’d like everyone in this hall to close their eyes, take one deep breath, and think about a strength that you’re particularly proud of. And I want you to hold on to that thought and to the end of my talk when we will revisit it.

Okay. I’m going to start with me and a prune. Now. When I think of prunes, I think of their unapologetic deliciousness, their nutrient value for iron, and of course their cathartic effect. I also think of picking them and sun-drying them on my family’s Sonoma County farm every summer of my childhood. And I used to use them as a screening device for my friends, and those who love them have been my friends for life.

This is how I view my life, how I view other people, how I view communities. I look at their strengths and not their deficits. And in fact, John McKnight and John Kretzmann from Northwestern University, they pioneered and telegraphed this strategy of identifying your strengths and assets and mobilizing them. And they have found that it’s been a recipe for success for community development from the inside out, and you can apply this to individuals to universities, to cities, in towns and countries. And in fact, you can actually build a culture of well-being, a healthy community, success for life, using this strategy.

Now why are we so interested in the glass half full, not half empty? Well here are the facts. I’d like everyone in the middle rows to please stand up if you can. And I’d like you to stay standing until I tell you to sit down. Okay. One out of every two Americans over the age of 20 are pre-diabetic or diabetic. That amounts to the percent of people standing compared to those that aren’t in this hall.

Now the good news is that if you have pre-diabetes, you can reduce your risk by 58 percent by healthful eating, regular exercise, and a modest weight loss.

Now I’d like the first three rows or four rows to sit down, please. The bad news is, is that only one out of 10 people who are pre-diabetic or diabetic know it, and that amounts to the percent of people who’ve just sat down. In other words, 90 percent of people who have pre-diabetes or diabetes in the United States today do not know they have it. Okay, you can all sit down now, please.

This is not sustainable. This is a tsunami waiting to happen.

What if we stop looking at people with a list of diseases and we look at them with a list of attributes? In other words, instead of treating disease to improve health, we improve health by promoting health, by identifying our assets and our passions for cooking or hiking or running or socializing. This is what is meant by holistic health promotion.

What if we embrace the 1948 World Health Organization’s definition of health, which is the complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity?

Now our greatest assets are our people, like all of us in this room, and like our undergraduate Savannah. Savannah was five years old on 9/11 when her New York City firefighter father lost most of his friends and his fireman family. He not only lost his fellow firefighters on 9/11, he ultimately lost his relationship with Savannah’s mom. Savannah and her mother ended up moving to California where Savannah’s courageous mom started a new life, a new family, but not without financial hardship.

Savannah followed her mom’s lead, devoting herself to her family while she pursued her college dreams. And as a freshman here at UCLA, she would chip in and babysit her younger siblings so her mom could study for her community college exams.

She also often found herself not being able to go out and socialize with her friends because she didn’t have the pocket money to pay for the food. Instead, she would sit in her dorm room and eat cereal by herself.

Now many people would have compared themselves to the students who could go out at a drop of a hat. And while Savannah did admit and does admit to feeling lonely when she sat there and aid her cereal in her dorm room, she was also a brave student. And she shared her feelings and her story about her food insecurity publicly, and she identified her assets for advocacy, and she found professors who got her excited about learning.

And she took this food justice course where she was introduced to a nonprofit called Food Forward that viewed food waste as an opportunity. And then she applied her classroom knowledge to real life, and she observed that the fruits and vegetables that Food Forward gleaned from the fruit trees from private backyards and farmer’s markets could be delivered to the students who are food insecure.

And she didn’t stop there. She identified a student group called Swipes for Hunger that she’s belonged to now for over a year. And this group has delivered 250 pounds per week of fresh fruits and vegetables gleaned from the farmer’s markets to the students’ doorsteps. That’s, yeah.

Now Savannah is amazing, and I not only want to highlight how amazing she is but I also want to emphasize that she identified her strengths and assets and she didn’t dwell on her deficits. And then she took her assets and she mobilized them.

And if you follow this path that Savannah did, a Gallup Purdue study has found whether you’ve attended most highly ranked university like UCLA or not, if you’re a graduate from four-year universities, four-year colleges, you will rank the highest in five areas of well-being in your lifetime, and those include social, purpose, financial, community, and physical.

Social well-being is having strong, supportive relationships and love in your life. Purpose well-being is following your path of what you want and liking what you do and being motivated to meet your goals. Financial well-being is having effective, being effective at managing your economic life so that you are secure and you are not, and you don’t, have less stress. And community well-being is being engaged and liking and feeling safe and feeling proud of where you live. And physical well-being is having good health and enough energy to get your daily activities done.

And following this path of identifying assets and mobilizing them, we’ve seen this great work that Savannah’s done. We also see it in business, in universities, and also in elementary schools that they’re benefiting from this approach.

Like the Ugly Fruit campaign that was launched in 2014 in France, aimed to reduce the 300 million tons of fruits and vegetables that are thrown away annually around the world. The largest supermarket chain in France identified that these discarded ugly fruit were a business opportunity and they discounted the price by 30 percent, and they’re just flying off the shelves. And so not only are the consumers’ pocketbooks winning, but also ugly stressed fruit have been proven actually to have higher nutrient value than their pristine counterparts. So the eater wins, and then the Earth wins because we have less food waste.

Or this, there’s the Let’s Move Salad Bars to School campaign that former First Lady Michelle Obama launched and was based on research that I did with my colleagues here in Los Angeles. And I’ll never forget the Los Angeles consultant when I pitched the idea of the research project. He told me, “Oh Wendy, you’ll never get rid of the sloppy joes.” But the parents and the principals and the teachers and the advocates and the Let’s Move Campaign and us researchers believed in the children’s assets and willingness to accept healthful food if it was presented in a delicious-looking way and it tasted delicious. And now there are two and a half million children around the country who have salad bars, and that’s growing by the day.

And here at UCLA through the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative, we’re embracing and we’ve adopted this strategy of identifying strengths and assets and mobilizing them. And we’re building a healthier community, a culture of well-being, success for life.

And so I’d like to end and return to the prune at my family’s Sonoma County farm, where my dad, who is a fourth-generation farmer, believes in building on your strengths and being a model for others, which I aspire to.

And I want all of you to return back to your strength that you identified at the beginning of my talk. And I want you to think about how you can build on it, how you can mobilize it, how you can share it with others, and see what happens.

And so I’d like to share with you one of my strengths, which are my children, and end with a haiku that my then-third-grade son wrote, and it’s, “Fruit comes from flowers. Fruit is good to eat. I love to eat fruit.” Thank you so much.