Who Will You Become this Year?

photo“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  – Heraclitus

We’re nearing the end of summer in the U.S. As an educator, that always gets me thinking about the start of the school year. One of the questions I’d ask myself before teachers and students returned was, who will I become by the end of this year?

I knew the coming year would bring all kinds of learning experiences – challenges, opportunities, and disappointments. I wanted to remind myself to stay open to the changes that would inevitably come, in fact, to welcome them.

Several experiences this past week reminded me of this question . . .

While having lunch at a favorite restaurant this past weekend, I caught up with a manager there. She shared that she and some of her staff were working through some challenges together. She said, “It’s okay. I know we can figure it out. I just have to look at how far I’ve come. I’m a different person today than I was five years ago.”

I recently listened to an interview with Paul Coelho, author of The Alchemist. He mentioned that he’s been married to his wife for 34 years. He said he’s often asked how he’s been able to stay married to the same person for that long. Coelho laughed and said (approx. 24 minutes in), “She’s not the same person. Neither am I.” He talked about how they’ve both grown and changed together over the years, and he spoke to how important that is.

Finally, I had the chance to read one of my favorite author’s, Haruki Murakami’s, latest books, Colorless Tzukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. In his late 30s and eager to connect more deeply with a romantic partner, Tazaki realizes he’ll need to revisit a painful experience from his past. As he allows himself to work through his feelings in relation to his former high school friends, he gains an empathy and capacity for love he didn’t know he had. By the book’s end, he’s able to see that he’s a different person.

We’re headed into our third year as a company. I remember when our core team was 6 people. Now we’re nearly at 70. As we continue to face challenges and opportunities, and as we continue to grow, I ask myself, who will I become this year?

Who will you become?

What the Best Teachers, Leaders, and Designers Know

photoI had a professor who assigned mind-bending essays on critical theory. These were complex arguments often written in complex ways (think Heidegger, Hegel, and Kant).

For each essay, she’d require a set of assignments. First, we’d have to wrap our minds around a verbal thicket of words. Then we’d have to sum up the argument we thought the author had made in a single page. Next, we’d have to convert that one page to a single paragraph. Then we’d have to pare that single paragraph down to one sentence. Just when we thought we could congratulate ourselves on our mental prowess, she’d push us one step further. That sentence? Pare it down to a single word.


What did this teacher know? She knew it was all about capturing the essence. She primed us to deepen our understanding to the point where we could abstract out the meaning in a complex argument to a single word.

Reading Drake Baer’s article on design lessons Apple employees take from artists like Picasso brought it all back. Designers work to do the same. They strive to capture the essence of a concept. To do that, they have to strip away all the “noise” as they, like Picasso, pare it down to a set of lines, a splash of color, a single image.

Talented artists do this. Writers. Mathematicians. Designers. Programmers. Chefs. Teachers. Leaders. The list goes on.

Here’s what Picasso – an artist – had to say about arriving at the essence (original quote from Sparks of Genius):

To arrive at abstraction, it is always necessary to begin with concrete reality … You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark. 

Here’s what Steve Jobs – a designer – had to say (original quote from Sparks of Genius):

Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.

In my first years of teaching, I’d try to teach everything. I hadn’t learned how to capture the essence of the subject, and I hadn’t learned how to focus on the essence of my teaching. Over time, I taught fewer concepts and skills – I learned what was at the heart of the subjects I was teaching. At the same time, I learned what was at the heart of how I was teaching. What helped me do that? I began to realize that the essence of teaching is the learner.

As I’ve grown into leadership roles, I’ve tried to do the same. Over the years, I’ve learned that the essence of leadership is listening and, in the wisest way(s), responding.

What’s the essence you’ve learned to capture?

‘Fake It ‘Til You Become It’

photoWhether you’re supporting others in becoming more of who they want to be or tackling that goal yourself, you can hit a wall when it comes to finding well-researched, use-‘em-now strategies.

Fortunately, there are some terrific ones out there. I’d like to share three. The messages and strategies in each intersect in a number of ways.

1 – Check out Harvard research and professor, Amy Cuddy’s  powerful TED Talk on how a strategic use of body language can support who you want to become. I encourage you to watch the entire video. By the end, you’ll have specific strategies to help others and yourself “fake it ‘til you become it.” You’ll also be inspired by Cuddy’s own journey in becoming the person she is today.

2 – Likewise, listen to Jonathan Fields’ Good Life Project podcast, Be Your Own Guru. If you want to “become,” you have to be willing to chart your own course, challenge yourself, embrace the fear, and pursue your passions. Good stuff!

3 – Finally, take a look at Stanford professor and researcher, Carol Dweck’s, resources to help you cultivate a “growth mindset.” Along the way to becoming, you’re sure to falter and fail (and learn) as you challenge yourself to grow and stretch. Her research-based approaches can help you rethink how you perceive these pivotal moments of learning.

What do you think of these strategies? What strategies would you recommend?

‘The Skill of Constantly Learning’

Harvard Business Review (HBR) ran an article on Netflix’s hiring practices in their January 2014 issue. In it, Netflix’s chief talent officer explained their hiring strategy: “hire only ‘A’players, and let go of people whose skills no longer fit.” Some of HBR’s readers shared their disdain for this practice. Here’s the author’s response in the April 2014 issue:

The culture we created is not for everybody, and we were honest about that. I wanted Netflix to be a great place to be ‘from,’ no matter how long the journey. Great colleagues, hard problems, tangible deliverables – those experiences create great resumes and careers. I have come to realize that it’s absolutely the responsibility of employees to hone their skills and proactively seek opportunities both within and outside their companies. Sometimes the timing is just wrong for the company or the person, and the next great job is somewhere else. I’ll say that if we don’t provide real life coaching to young workers, then they won’t acquire the skill of constantly learning. I find that technical folks tend to get this more than other people do, because for them it’s clearer when things change. The pace of change for tech workers tends to be faster since technology is always innovating. The thing is, we are all technology workers now, and we should all think that way. 

Real world. 

Our learners need a new set of skills. What are we doing about it?

3 Ways to be Creative

photoCopycat. I’ve never heard the word used in a positive way, and that’s too bad. Copying is an important part of the creative process.

Let me explain . . .

I’ve spent the past few weeks learning about Spanish art and art history. It’s helped me think about how artists engage in the creative process, and about creativity and the learning process, in general.

Here are my three takeaways:

Artists copy. They do it to learn. All creatives and innovators copy, be they painters, writers, teachers, snowboarders, or chefs. The copying process lets us work through the strategies and techniques other, more successful and experienced artists have used before us. We also learn through the doing, something researchers call embodied cognition.

Artists reinterpret. In 1656, Spanish artist, Diego Velasquez, painted what is considered a masterpiece in his work, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor). In 1957, Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, reinterpreted Velasquez’s work in 58 paintings of his own. Creatives and innovators reinterpret, as well. For example, the car service, Uber, reinterpreted what it means to take a taxi. Lyft’s done the same.

Artists innovate. Artists like Velasquez, Goya, Picasso, Miro, and others broke new ground in artistic techniques, styles, and master works over the course of their careers. They set new trends and blew the lid off what had come before. Today, we see a lot of this happening in the tech space. In particular, we see how tech innovations are impacting the fields of medicine and education.

Why are they important?

We are all artists, innovators, and creatives. In essence, we are all learners. That means that any one of these approaches to learning is an important one, with none more important than any other for the creative process.

We can all participate in the creative process, entering it at any point we need to – copying, reinterpreting, or innovating. Each of these ways in to the creative process helps us learn. If we’re trying to teach the creative process, these takeaways can help with scaffolding.

Are you creative? There’s no debate. Yes. You are. The question is, how are you being creative?

3Rs for the Modern Learner

Great WallLIfelong learning, once an aspiration, is now a necessity. When asked to speak to its value, U.S. and Canadian company leaders in a recent study touted its importance: 96% cited its positive impact on job performance; 78% its influence on promotion and advancement; and 87% its impact on compensation and salary. Likewise, economists favor the educated in the race against job elimination from automation.

The irony is that traditional approaches to lifelong learning – taking college courses or pursuing degrees – have grown unaffordable. Between 2007 and 2012, average tuition and fees in the U.S. rose by 20%, while government funding fell by 27%. Fortunately, less expensive options have become available in the form of blended and online learning, and many are taking advantage of these courses. In fact, three of the largest online learning platforms, Coursera, edX, and Udacity, together have registered over 5 million students for courses since 2011. At the same time, blended learning options are proliferating.

However, what has become painfully evident is that access to courses is not enough. Findings from a recent University of Pennsylvania study of MOOCs reveal a 4% average course completion rate. Learners need a new set of skills to navigate all of these new options – 3Rs that can ensure their success in college and career.

Today’s learners will need a new set of skills to learn successfully throughout their lives – a new set of 3Rs for the digital age, namely, reflecting, researching, and resolving. I go into more detail on the 3Rs and what teachers and schools leaders can do to implement them in a recent post for EdSurge.

Why Leaders Should Cultivate a Sardana Culture

Sardana DancersA group of musicians sits on the steps of the Barcelona Cathedral. While band members – the cobla – tune their instruments – woodwinds, brass, and double bass – many of us stop. We position ourselves so that we can see the musicians, and we wait for them to begin.

At the same time, some of the people on the square begin to put their bags down together in a pile. Initially, they stand behind the pile. Gradually, they form a circle around it. Circles consist of six to eight people to start. If you’re standing near what was once a small cluster of people who have now formed a circle, you have no choice but to move out of the way.

When the music starts people in the circle join hands. They raise them above their heads and begin a series of intricate dance steps. Looking down to watch their feet, I see that many of the dancers – men and women – wear Toms-like, white shoes with thick laces that they wrap around their ankles and lower calves like ballet slippers.

While they dance, their faces are serious. They seem to be concentrating on the steps, the changes, and the ways they’re moving in relation to one another. They seem to be counting.

When the musicians take a break, the dancers do, too. Some stay for another dance. Others dance one or two numbers, retrieve their bags from the circle’s center, and leave.Sardana Dancers

A Catalan circle dance, it is called the sardana, and it dates back to the 16th century. When Franco became Spain’s dictator in 1939, he banned sardana, a dance he associated with the rebellious Catalans. Following his death in 1975, the dance returned to several of Barcelona’s public spaces.

Anyone who knows the steps can participate. To succeed in their groups and to keep sardana alive, each dancer must:

  • Collaborate
  • Share knowledge
  • Show up
  • Participate publicly
  • Be all in
  • Take pride in his/her work
  • Concentrate – no room for distractions
  • Practice
  • Know when s/he needs to leave

What if we could build this culture in our teams, our classrooms, our families, our organizations, and into our lives? What if we hired for it?