Grit

Lessons from the Caribbean

Spring Break was amazing.  I am blessed to be able to spend time traveling and seeing the world.  This year we visited St. Thomas and St. Maarten, and we met people who embody gratitude and optimism.

Both islands were hit by the hurricanes that ravaged the Caribbean last fall.  Both islands are still very much in the early stages of recovery. St. Maarten was hit particularly hard. What was once an island of shops and bars and restaurants is now an island of rubble.  But the beaches are beautiful and the water is full of colors you can’t imagine and the people we met there were kind and optimistic and grateful.  It was humbling and overwhelming to be in their presence.  They have so much to teach us all.

“You’ve got to have a plan.”  These people had foresight and survival instincts.  They took their mattresses with them into the bathroom as they hid from Irma and Maria.  Those mattresses saved their lives when the storm blew out the windows.  They found temporary shelter for months during and after the storm, using coolers and getting creative when there was no power and no electricity.  They kept their wits about them, and they had a plan for survival.  You’ve got to have a plan.

“It is not the physical damage that causes the most pain.  It is what can happen in your head.”  We heard stories about children after the storm who kept reliving the experience, mothers who worked tirelessly to help them feel better and who are still focusing on the emotional needs of the people around them.  Trauma changes people.  Physical wound heal.  Emotional wounds linger.

“When the storm is over, you pick yourself up, find your family and friends, and start cleaning up.”  No one we met was wallowing or focusing on the negative.  They were all just taking the next step, doing the next thing.

Every person we met on St. Maarten thanked us for being there.  They are grateful to be alive, and they are grateful that people are visiting “even though the island is broken.”  It is an amazing place.  It is beautiful beyond description, and the people who live there are wise and strong.  It has always been a paradise for visitors, but right now it is also teeming with life lessons. I am blessed to be able to spend time traveling and seeing he world.

Mettle and Heart

Much is said in education today about grit. We know more and more about the need to help build resilient children, so they can persevere through struggles of all kinds. Whether social emotional or academic, life is not always easy for the students in our schools. Some have suffered trauma that is almost unimaginable. Some work harder than we will ever know to complete their homework and come to class ready to learn.

It takes grit, resilience, mettle, and not just for our students.

Every day the teachers in our schools are doing almost unimaginable work to help our students be successful. Whether social emotional or academic support, they go above and beyond to meet the needs. This job is not for the faint of heart.

I watch with amazement as teachers sit beside students trying to solve complex problems, prompting and questioning until that magical lightbulb moment.

I watch as teachers give high fives and hugs and tie shoes and zip jackets. I watch as they ask about the soccer game or the dance recital, as they celebrate with students after the musical or the basketball game.

And I watch as they worry about the student who needs a new coat or who might not get any gifts at Christmas.

Yesterday I saw post after post about the families who were adopted and the gifts and meals that were handed out by teachers and administrators and counselors and community members who come together every year to help through an incredible community organization called Project Wee Care.

I was once again amazed by the heart of our teachers.

I caught part of an old movie this weekend, The Guardian. It’s about rescue swimmers in the Coast Guard. After a particularly harrowing experience, the young trainee asks the experienced teacher how he decides who to save. The answer has struck me over the years as a decent motto for the work we do.

“I swim as fast as I can, as hard as I can, for as long as I can. And the sea takes the rest.”

I read a message last week from someone who implied that because we cannot do enough, we should do nothing at all. No one I know in this profession believes that. Everyone I work with in our schools and in our districts believes that each and every child deserves our best effort, and each and every child we can help was worth the work.

This is not easy. It can feel overwhelming. It takes grit, mettle. But it is the most important work I can imagine. And in this holiday season, I am grateful for the teachers who put their hearts on the line each and every day to do whatever it takes to help. You make a difference in the lives of children.

Take Your Shot

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We are in the middle of the high school basketball season.  Last night I watched an outstanding and previously undefeated team fall.  No doubt the coaches and players will analyze the game period by period.  Technique will be studied.  Plays will be debated.  And the halftime correction will be praised.  So many things factor into the outcome of a basketball game, and no doubt each one of them will be evaluated.

But there is one thing that has intrigued me week after week in game after game.  All of the players miss free throws.

Are you kidding me?  There is nothing more fundamental to the game of basketball than a free throw.  If you allow a five year old onto a basketball court, they will almost without fail take the ball to the line and take a shot.  Every day in cafeterias all around the country, middle schoolers rush through their lunch to have just a few extra minutes at the free throw line in the gym before going back to class.  Every elementary team, every high school team, every select team expects players to drill on free throws.  College players and NBA players all know that at any given time they could be standing on the free throw line, the game at stake.  Yet even in the NBA, most players only make 70-80% of their attempts.

So how is it that all of the players miss free throws?  Not just some of them, all of them.

Well, it’s not as easy as it looks.  A little like life.

Free throws and life require practice.  It is not easy for anyone.

Free throws and life require a routine.  There is comfort and  predictability in routine.  Variety is the spice of life, but muscle memory gets most things done.

Free throws and life require an uncluttered mind.  Too much anxiety, too much worry, too much overthinking takes away from our best work.  Meditation, quiet walks, and time to just disconnect allow us to be our best selves.

Free throws and life require balance.  I’m on record as saying there is no such things as a perfect “balance” between work and life. But a balanced person is on solid footing and has time for the things that matter to them.

Free throws and life require keeping your eye on the target.

Free throws and life require follow-through.

Free throws and life require style, and “granny style” is a style.

Free throws and life require getting back to zero.  Absolutely everyone misses shots.  All of us!  Take your shot.  Make it or miss it, move forward.  The next shot is waiting.

And most importantly, free throws are unopposed.  This is perhaps the most interesting thing of them all. It is about you and the ball and the basket.  You are the one who makes it.  You are the one who makes you miss.  Most of the really important things in life are between you and you.  Know yourself.  Know your goals.  Know the work needed to get it done.

Then take your shot.

You will make shots.  You will miss shots.  Such is life!  Even Stephen Curry only makes 90% of his free throws.

REACH

imageI am a creature of habit.  Routines, predictability, and rituals all make me feel safe.  There is comfort in knowing what will happen next.  Every Sunday I clean the house, do the laundry, pay the bills, and water the plants.  It happens like clockwork.  If the routine is disturbed, I don’t feel like the week will go as well.  Yep.  There is comfort in our habits.

But there is not growth.

img_3190Our bodies know this instinctively.  The same 30 minute walk on the treadmill feels good.  But it does not take long before our bodies adapt to the routine and no longer reap the same physical benefits.  We have to add an incline or vary our speeds.  We have to add weights or swimming.  Mixing it up produces results.  It is harder, but it is better for us.

The same is true in other areas of life.  It is too easy to get comfortable in our routines.  It is too easy to stay safe in the same job, the same hobbies, the same predictable habits.  It is only when we reach beyond that we grow.

What were your dreams as a child?

What do you see yourself doing ten years from now?

“What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”  (Robert H. Schuller)

This week challenge yourself to try one new thing.

Trying something new is hard.  There is risk in the adventure.  But it is only when we are willing to risk that we can truly grow.

“And That’s as Good as I Am”

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Rarely do we get opportunities as plentiful as the Olympics to witness strength and perseverance and commitment in action.  Over and over again, we see the results of countless days, weeks, months, years of dedication to a sport.  We watch as the best in the world push themselves to be even better for this one moment in time.

There was something magical in watching Simone Biles and Aly Raisman  land perfect floor routines.  And we all reveled in the almost flawless performances by Michael Phelps.  But for me, it was not the moments of perfection that were the most powerful.  It was the moments when everything seemed to fall apart, the split seconds that went completely off course, that were the real lessons of the games.

Etenesh Diro from Ethiopia finished the semifinals in steeplechase wearing only one shoe.  After a collision with another runner, she struggled to get her shoe back on. When she couldn’t, she just took it off and threw it into the grass.  She pushed on wearing only one shoe to finish 7th in her heat.

Mo Farah of Britain won gold in the 10,000 meters after literally falling down in the middle of the race. Halfway through the competition, Mo was accidentally tripped by a friend.  He sprang back up, retook the lead, and won the race.

Michael Phelps was seconds away from anchoring the men’s 4×200 meter relay when his swim cap ripped.  In a sport where victory is measured in fractions of a second, the drag from loose hair makes a difference.  He grabbed Conor Dwyer’s cap and led the team to victory.

Often the greatest lessons come in the moments when things go wrong.  Because in life, more often than not, things go wrong.  It is not how we perform in the moments that go as planned that make us stronger people.  It is how we perform in the moments of struggle that define our greatest success.

And in these games, I learned more from someone who didn’t medal at all than from all of the medalists combined.  For the first time in history, all three women on the US women’s team finished in the top ten of the women’s marathon.  A spectacular finish- but no medals.  Years of eating clean, training daily, and let’s be honest, suffering serious blisters, and they walked away empty-handed.

In an event that didn’t exist before the 1980s because surely women could not compete at that level in distance running , the three US women were all in the fight.  At the 1/3 mark, Des Linden was actually in the lead, but as some of the other runners began to surge, she fell behind.  Despite what appeared to me to be a super-human attempt to regain her position, she ended the race in 7th place.  Des Linden would have every reason in the world to be upset, but she wasn’t.

“I put everything out there.  I’m not upset at all. I wish I were a little bit better.  I wish I would have been closer.  But we went all in.  And that’s as good as I am.”  Des Linden

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It’s not about the moment someone puts a medal around your neck.  It’s not about a few seconds on a podium or the national anthem.  Those moments are fun, no doubt.  But what lasts, what matters, is the moment you realize that you are capable of the hard work and the commitment and the perseverance necessary to honestly say, “that’s as good as I am.”  And that will always be enough.

Little Shop of Letdown

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Major milestones in our lives offer an opportunity to reflect.  Such has been my spring. And as I have been reminiscing, I have been reminded of the many ups and downs that make up a life.  For me, for my friends, and for my family, life has not always turned out the way we thought it would.  Woven through the fabric of the many celebrations and achievements in our lives are a fair share of failures.

As we celebrated an impressive freshman year and an outstanding grade in college calculus, I was reminded of the struggles it took to get through my daughter’s first AP course.  School was not as easy for her as it was for her older sister.

As we celebrated awards and honors and some amazing achievements as she graduated college, I was reminded of the devastation when my oldest was cut from the musical “Little Shop of Horrors” her junior year without ever even having the chance to read for the part she wanted.  She cried for days.

As I transition to a new job, I am reminded of the year I was so ready for my first administrative job.  I’d earned the degree.  I’d done all of the preparing, and I was sure the next administrative job was mine.  When circumstances caused me to miss the interview and someone else got the job I believed should have been mine, I was disappointed.  I was more than disappointed.

But as strange as this is going to sound, I am so grateful for the failures.  I may appreciate them even more than the successes.

With my daughter’s struggles in school came a strong work ethic, an ability to persevere, and an understanding of how to “do school”.  With my daughter’s loss of a part in the musical came an even greater ability to be humble, compassionate, and sympathetic. Having to wait for my first chance to lead as an administrator helped me learn patience and taught me that with time things work out.

My children are the amazing human beings they are today not because they have always been successful but because they learned how to respond with positivity, grace, and grit when things went wrong.

Failure is not an option.  Failure is a guarantee.  At some point we all fail.  Reaching for our dreams, imagining a different future, trying something new all mean risking failure.  And when we fail, we learn.

Take risks.  Try something that scares you.  Set what one of my friends calls stretch goals. Imagine that you can go well beyond what you thought was your limit physically, intellectually, or emotionally.  And decide now that when you fail, and you will, that you will maintain a positive attitude, persevere, and  learn from it.

Every experience, every success, every failure make us who are.  Appreciate them all!

Own Your Power

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I believe that there are certain fundamental truths in the world. I believe that having a relationship with someone is more powerful that having authority over them.  I believe that doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing is the most important thing we can do with our lives.  I believe that being a good person is more important than being a powerful person.  The people who I respect the most in this world are humble and kind to quote Tim McGraw.  They are also, in many cases, leaders at the highest level.  You can be both humble and powerful.  I see it everyday.

There is an inner struggle when you assume a leadership role, a battle between who you are and what you are required to do.  There are any number of decisions you have to make as a leader that have the potential to frustrate or upset others.  There are issues that divide people.  When your focus is on creating a positive culture and developing relationships, those issues can create fear.  How will your work impact that culture and those relationships?

But you cannot lead unless you own your power.

Strong leaders take the time to build the knowledge and skills necessary to run the team, the organization, or the company.  They start first by developing themselves.  They are lifelong learners who push themselves and challenge themselves to grow.  They have built relationships, and they seek out the people with whom they need to cultivate new relationships.  So when they do step into the role, they are ready to lead. And the organization needs them to lead.

But you cannot lead unless you own your power.

The best leaders are good people who are willing to do what is necessary to move the organization forward.  They have moved past the fear that others might not like them.  They are willing to make decisions and to own the consequences.  They share the credit, and they take the blame.  And people respond well to them.  We want strong leaders who are knowledgeable and decisive.  We want leaders who will take responsibility and have the difficult conversations.  The best leaders do not necessarily enjoy conflict, but they do not shy away from it.

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I am a leader.  I am blessed to be in a position where I get to voice my opinion, influence decisions, and help determine the vision for our district.  There are so many people in our schools and communities who assume leadership roles, big and small, every day.  To do our jobs well, we have to be willing to own our power.

When you are coaching the football team or the baseball team, own the decisions you make about playing time.  When parents question the length of your practice or the position you assigned their child, stand up for your choices.  Don’t hesitate when you are explaining those decisions to players or parents.  You know the skills and the talents of your players.

When you are serving as Troop Leader or President of the Neighborhood Association, be decisive.  Own the choices you make.  You are in that role for a reason.  You do not have to fear explaining the decisions you’ve made.  You are the leader.

And when you assume a job as a school leader, do it with confidence. You have prepared, and you will continue to learn. There will be any number of things about which you are not self-assured.  Do them anyway.  People need leaders who are willing to lead.

There is  nothing shameful in owning your power, the best leaders do it with ease.  You can, and should, be humble and kind.  And you can, and should, own your power as a leader.

 

50 Years from Now

256px-Bumblebee_Transformer_-_Flickr_-_andrewbasterfieldMy family laughs at me every time the movie Transformers is on TV.  Almost without fail, I jump into the story at the exact same moment…the point of inspiring motivation and life-changing wisdom. Do you see now why they laugh at me?  I may be the only person in history who has ever described Transformers as life-changing, but it is.

There is a scene early on when the first Transformer reveals himself as Bumblebee, an alien robot.  (And with that, the rest of you start laughing at me as well.  A movie about alien robots shares life-changing wisdom?)  But when Bumblebee invites the young heroes into his car, leading to unknown adventure and considerable risk, one of the main character hesitates.  The other one utters the words that I’ve been saying to myself ever since…

“50 years from now when you’re looking back on your life, don’t you want to say you had the guts to get into the car?”

Life is full of choices, chances to try something new.  These opportunities can also be filled with risk.  It is not easy to take a leap and jump into something unknown.  It is not easy to take a chance and know that you could fail, but nothing amazing was ever achieved without risk.

From our earliest years, we have to make choices about what adventures we will tackle and which ones we will let go.  Auditioning for the school play is a risk.  Trying out for the football team is a risk.  Taking an Advanced Placement course is a risk.  But those risks are necessary to create the best possible life.

Say yes!

I am a terrible bowler, but I always have a good time when I play.  I am not a runner, but I’ve finished three half-marathons. Stand directly under the frozen, powerful waterfall at Smith Falls on the Niobrara? Every time!

When people are asked about their greatest regret, they almost always list the things they didn’t do.  At the end of our lives, it is not what we tried and failed to do that haunts us, it is the times we failed to try.

Embracing this attitude is essential not just for the day-to-day things, but it is key to living the best possible version of your life.  Taking risks is necessary in order to find success.  Go back and get the degree.  Apply for the job that seems beyond your reach. Volunteer to be the one who fills in at a meeting or on a committee.

Every day there is a chance to say yes.  “Want to go to lunch?”  “I have an extra ticket to the game, want to come?” “We need someone to lead this project, are you interested?”  A good meal, a new relationship, a powerful experience might be the result.

Something we learn as we get older is that things will not always work out when we say yes.  There is a winner and a loser in all epic battles.  We only have one President.  We only have one state champion.  We only have one gold medalist. But without the risk of failing, we cannot succeed.

“50 years from now when you’re looking back on your life, don’t you want to say you had the guts to get into the car?”

 

Relentless Pursuit of Perfection

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Peyton Manning may or may not have played his last professional football game, but his performance this season added to his legacy in ways no one can deny.  His skill, his leadership, and especially his resilience cemented his place among the best of the best in football history.  What Jerry Rice brought to the game physically, Peyton Manning brings to the game mentally.  They might both be described  as genius in their chosen field.

I am a big believer in finding your sparks, your genius, and tirelessly working to become the very best at them. There are those among us who have taken their passions and pursued them relentlessly, seeking perfection.  What do they have that we don’t?  Yes, some of them have physical prowess or intellectual ability beyond what most people possess.  But those are not the things that set them apart.  It is their passion, their drive, and their persistence in the face of obstacles that makes them the best.

Say what you will about Steve Jobs, but there is no one who worked harder to make his vision a reality than he did.  The stories of his drive are legendary.  Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay for the movie Steve Jobs, is known to be just as tenacious in his pursuit of perfection.  He revises his scripts right up until the moment of shooting.

As troubled as Michael Jackson’s private life might have been, he is at the top of almost every list of the greatest performers of all time.  No recording, no stage set, no dance number was ever good enough.  He knew there was always room to make it even better.

Why is it that some people set the alarm to go off at 4:04 am every day and climb out bed to finish a run or complete a workout before heading to work?  They’ve done more before 7:00 am than many will do all day.

Why is it that some people rehearse dance seven days a week, or practice their instrument for hours on end, or write fifty pages a day, every day?  Some people have made a commitment to be the best at what they do.

I’ve wavered on the title of this blog all week.  I struggle with the conflict between done and done perfectly.  In pursuit of perfection, we are sometimes paralyzed.  “In pursuit of excellence” may, in fact, be the better title.  The goal is to be the best you can be, not necessarily to be better than everyone else.

None of this is easy.  Sleep is easier than waking up early to go for a run in the rain. Sitting on the couch is easier than heading off to the dance studio to practice the same routine for the hundredth time that week.  Snapping the quick shot is easier than waiting for hours for the perfect light to get the best possible photograph.  This relentless pursuit of perfection takes stamina and persistence and grit.  There are some people though who embrace the suck.

I don’t have competition in my top five strengths.  (We’ll pause as those who know me best say it must be number six.) But I certainly want to succeed at whatever I do.  My sparks are teaching and learning…and writing.  I was rejected by my first publisher this week.  I submitted a book proposal, and I got a polite email on my birthday that they did not feel the book would be appropriate for their readers.  I am undaunted.  I will continue to work on the manuscript.  I will finish it, and I will revise and revise and revise in a relentless pursuit of perfection.

The Struggle is the Best Part

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This feels good.  Sitting at the computer, looking out at the surprisingly still green grass and the blooming flowers in my backyard.  Typing a new blog for a new year.  This feels good!

Don’t get me wrong, summer has been amazing.  Taking time to rest and sharpen the saw is important.  I have traveled and read and napped.  I have relaxed, and I have reflected.  I feel energized.  In fact, my favorite thing about our profession is the school year cycle.  Each year we get the chance to plan, to implement, to reflect, and to redesign. We get to start anew, and I for one am grateful for that chance.

This past week we welcomed our new teachers, and tomorrow we will welcome back our returning teachers.  I know some of you still have summer left, but we are all closing in on those first days for staff and students.  The excitement is palpable.  What is your hope for those teachers this year?  What is your hope for students?

For me this time of year is about energy.  It is about sharing a vision and generating the energy to make that vision come to life.  We get the unique opportunity to start over each year.  It is a gift not to be taken lightly.  Use this time well.

In our District, we have been focusing on college and career readiness skills.  Are we doing all we can to be sure our students have not just the content but the life skills necessary to be successful in this century?  Our superintendent asked our new teachers to not just teach but to model grit and perseverance for their students.  Easier said than done.

My sister is an amazing mother.  Already so much better at things than I was when I had a 3-year-old.  I am learning from her all the time.  This summer I learned something about creating this grit and perseverance…and about modeling it.

Like I said, her son is three.  And he is curious.  She recently posted the following video on Facebook.  Of course (because he is adorable), she got plenty of comments on how cute and clever he is.  My first thoughts though were different.  I thought, ‘He is going to break those blinds.’  I am sure that if that were my child, and I was the one holding the camera, I’d have told him to stop because he might damage the blinds.  I am sure that I would have gone over, taken the cords from him, and just showed him.  And while he might have learned how to open the blinds (the content), he would not have learned to stick with something until you figure it out (the life skill).  My sister is an excellent teacher.

My hope for this new school year is that our new teachers, and our returning teachers as well, are willing to risk damaging the blinds.  A neat and tidy and quiet classroom might look great from the outside, but it is usually the messier, louder work that results in the greatest learning.

Good luck to you all as you kick off your new school year.  Enjoy the gift of a new start.