The series “Five Years Out” catches up with Bowdoin alumni to learn what they’re up to and where they’ve been since earning their diplomas in 2011.
Schools invite Houston Kraft to speak to their students not because he rails against bullying or cyberbullying, but because he advocates for kindness. He speaks about such themes as how to make kindness an everyday practice and how to choose to love.
Kraft said that when he visits schools, he tells students that he believes love is not just a feeling that happens to you, but a decision. “We can grow in our capacity for kindness when we practice,” he explained. “We practice soccer, science, writing. My thought is why don’t we try to spend five minutes a day getting better at love?”
Kraft became a motivational speaker very soon after leaving Bowdoin. While this career appears to have happened suddenly, in some sense Kraft had been preparing for his unusual profession throughout his years as a student.
Before becoming a sought-after kindness advocate, Kraft explored several possible career paths. After being involved in student government in high school, in Seattle, and at Bowdoin, he thought he would study political science and get involved in politics. But early on at college, he decided the bureaucracy of politics was not for him. Turning to his other love—theater— he dove into all that the Bowdoin theater department offered. He also joined an improv club. “My new path was, alright, I’m going to be an actor,” Kraft said.
Through a Bowdoin connection, Kraft got summer jobs working on two Hollywood movies, including Labor Pains, with Lindsay Lohan. “But at the end of the day, I thought, this isn’t my cup of tea,” he said, explaining that he was turned off by a culture that could wreak havoc on young actors like Lohan. So he shifted focus and considered filmmaking.
When a study-abroad filmmaking program in Prague fell through, Kraft took his junior year off from Bowdoin. This seeming misfortune turned out to be fortuitous. Living at home in Seattle, he got an internship with a program called Ignite that trains teachers and upperclass students to be mentors and role models to younger students. “I fell in love with it,” Kraft said, adding that the job combined his interests in both student leadership and theater. “I felt like I was on stage, explaining games or telling stories, with the intention of teaching or moving people.”
When Kraft returned to Bowdoin, he was inspired to take education classes, and he touched based with Associate Director of Career Planning Dighton Spooner to tell him of his new interest. Hearing that Kraft wanted to find some kind of job that combined acting and education, Spooner put him in touch with a friend, Tyler Durman, a successful motivational speaker. Durman told Kraft he would help him learn the trade.
One of Durman’s first pieces of advice to Kraft has been the key to forging strong connections with audiences. “One of the very first things Tyler asked me when I started was, ‘What is your truth? What is the thing you believe in that is unshakeable or non-negotiable?” Kraft recalled.
“I whittled it down to the idea that fear is a feeling and love is a choice,” he continued. “Oftentimes we react in life based on how we feel, which often comes from insecurity, fear, or shame. When we live from that space, we treat one another poorly.” Durman urged Kraft to “get on stage and speak from that truth.”
In his first year as a motivational speaker, Kraft was hired to speak at 13 schools in Washington state. The following year, he spoke at 35 schools. The next, it was 77. Last year, Kraft worked with 135 middle and high schools, colleges, and organizations in 23 states and in Canada.
He does little marketing. Instead, Kraft said his jobs come by word of mouth. Schools reach out to him when they begin trying to cultivate “a culture of compassion on campus,” according to Kraft.
“When I first started doing this, there was a huge focus on bullying, and my position has been to be an advocate for kindness rather than focus on bullying,” he explained. But attitudes at schools are shifting. “Schools recognize the need for character education,” he said. “Schools want to change the culture of apathy and disrespect and try to make kindness a conversation in kids and a practice.” Students, too, are open to his messages. “Kids fundamentally want to be good people,” he noted.
Looking to the future, Kraft says he’s taking his business in a slightly new direction. After flying 120,000 miles last year for work, he decided he needed to change his approach. With a newly hired business manager, he’s creating more DIY curricula for teachers and school administrators and expanding on a program he started a couple of years ago called CharacterStrong. Offered as an app, CharacterStrong is curriculum supplement that offers simple, daily tips for practicing kindness, humility, and honesty — “things school want kids to be good at, but don’t give them enough opportunities,” Kraft said.