Why is Commitment so Hard!?

Data is the best thing to motivate and inform a person on what’s happening now, what needs to happen to get better, and to get a plan in place to set a target and hit it. However, the problem is not trying to figure out what to do; the problem is actually following through with it – through good times, illness, setbacks, and just getting run over by life in general. Why is commitment so hard?!

Maybe because Commitment is a little like running a preset course – once you start, you’ve got to see it through to the finish line.  Whether it’s one I’ve run many times or it’s brand new, the beginning is usually met with a certain amount of enthusiasm and determination.  Somewhere around the middle, the initial euphoria has worn off and the sweat equity has begun to chime in.  Things are protesting – muscles, old injuries – but determination is still in the driver’s seat.  Hills, speed intervals to get around obstacles – these all start adding to the grinding down of my enthusiasm.   There’s always a point where I just want to stop.  Stop the pain, stop the struggle, stop the pushing.  But then the end comes thankfully into sight, I rally, and the whole thing comes to an end.  Yay!  I did it!  And then I rinse and repeat.  And repeat.  And repeat.

Ahh – that’s where the grit and sweat meet the road.

Commitment is about sticking with something over time until you see it through to the end.  And the daily recommitment to making it to the finish line is where faith and determination flag a little.  Ok – sometimes a lot.  And if it’s that hard for a big grown-up person like me, how much harder must it be for my students and young athletes?

That’s why I preach “small digestible bites” as my mantra for getting things done and making it successfully to the finish line, whatever that may be.  I love seeing the whole picture, but honestly, I can’t deal with the whole thing everyday, and neither can they.  I feel crushed and overwhelmed when I think of all the things I need to do between here and there, and that’s the same with them, too.  It’s too easy to think it’s all due to laziness, procrastination, or lack of “umph”.  Usually, it’s closer to the truth that they think they just bit off more than they can chew and get that “deer in the headlights” approach to following through.  Much easier to swallow is setting a small, attainable goal that seems doable and a little less soul crushing than the ultimate one.  Meet enough of those little goals and those little goals will eventually lead to conquering the big one.

So if you’re facing a big finish line yourself, try setting some “water stations” along the way to help yourself stay focused and committed all the way to the end.  And if you’re helping someone else reach theirs, you might consider how you can help them see how celebrating lots of little victories along the way adds up to a two-fold victory in the end – reaching the original goal and becoming a commitment ninja!

May good fortune be yours in your race.

MIA – The Update in Song Titles

I know – I’ve been MIA for over a month and yes, there’s an explanation.  As Allen Saunders said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans” and that has been exactly my story. Let me try to catch you up through the songs on my playlist that tell the tale since this all began.

“It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N Roll)” by AC/DC. 

So back in July, my Principal (“Boss Lady” LOL) and I sat down and came up with a plan to reboot the culture and climate of our school for the upcoming year.  When we looked at the data and added in our educational expertise (otherwise known as “teacher gut”), we developed a plan that focused on all the positive things the kids and staff were doing, highlighting and rewarding their hard work, and emphasizing the character traits and mannerly behavior we expected to see everyday in our school world, instead of letting the few things that weren’t working drive all our time and resources.  We bet on the 500 doing it right to take us where we wanted to go rather than getting depressed about the 40 that weren’t.  We knew there would be a lot of work involved, but we were feeling pretty pumped about the road we had decided to follow.

“Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

We shared our plan with the staff and then revealed it to the kids.  Everyone loved it and four weeks into it we had drastically cut our office referrals, suspensions, chronic absenteeism, and general climate of the building.  The district gave us an awesome full-time Social Worker and we added a fabulous Recovery Room teacher.  Both of them, together with our caring Counselors, helped everyone start shifting their thinking from punishment to skill replacement and from feeling under siege to feeling like we were back to being a fun place to learn again.

“Tick Tick Boom” by The Hives

And then our new Board of Education and Superintendent revealed their new vision and it felt like the top of the world fell on top of us.  Just about everything we thought was on track to go one way suddenly ran out of road. Every road map we had evaporated as new goals, new frameworks, and new thoughts began to emerge.  Not wrong.  Not bad – just totally different.  Now what?  To quote the song, “’Cause I have done it before, and I can do it some more, I got my eye on the score . . .”  So Boss Lady and I went back to the drawing board. How to keep our original climate reboot plan on track, while the adults in the building are stressing out from all the changes?  And how do we reorient and rethink our plans to now meet the new targets?

“I Will Not Bow” by Breaking Benjamin

When nothing is as it once was, there’s always a period of time where you’re stunned.  You stand at that crossroads – stop or go forward? Quit or blaze ahead into unknown territory?  As General Custer said, “It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count, its how many times you get back up.”  True enough. Boss Lady and I are pretty bold, tough, smart gals.  It’s going to take more than this to keep us from succeeding.  Game on!

“Move Along” by the All-American Rejects

So we decided to set back to rights what was going wrong and . . . move along.

“What’s Golden” by Jurassic 5

Several Saturday morning strategy sessions, some research and quite a bit of data crunching later, we decided to take it old school.  Go back to “What’s Golden” and stay true to what we know works to grow kids (and adults).

“Well All Right!” by The Hives

As the song says, we all have troubles and woes – brush the chip off your shoulder, that’s how it goes. So back to the drawing board!  The past month has felt a lot like “swimming across the ocean in a concrete suit” but in the end, we’ve got a few plans. We shared our dilemma about how to salvage our climate reboot plan with our Social-Emotional Leadership Team, and they had some great insights and ideas that got us a refocused plan of action. We’ve been revealing our new course direction to our Building Leadership Team and staff a little at a time, and most are beginning to see it as a new challenge in a positive way, rather than as the end of the world.

“On Top of the World” by Imagine Dragons

So now we’re into October and we’re feeling like yes – “it’s always hard when you’re falling down and it’s a long way up when you hit the ground – get up now, get up.”  We’re starting to feel like we’re back on the road to being on top of the world again.  The scary part is that once again Boss Lady and I are betting on our experience and our “gut” to guide us correctly to the finish line of this year’s “race”.  It’s exhilarating to run our own race, but it feels like we’re running the ridge, and it’s a long way down.  So we’re just going to keep our eyes – and our focus – on the target, take a big breath, and start running the race in front of us.

And that brings us back to where we started three months ago . . .

“It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N Roll)” by AC/DC

The thing is, easy never made anyone better and never doing ANYTHING that makes your heart race and your mouth go dry once in a while can’t really be called “challenging yourself”.  The truth is the things that seem daunting or fraught with uncertainty about the outcome are the things that force us to reach in and carve out something new from within ourselves.  It’s in those moments we redefine what we can do and who we are when we meet those challenges.  It might be a long way to the top, but I think I might just be looking forward to the journey this time.

So back on track and I’ll be posting regularly again.  Hope your journey is challenging YOU in all the best ways!

The Gut Check – Kirk vs. Gibbs

If you spend even 5 minutes with me you probably pick up pretty quickly that I’m a total data nerd, maybe bordering on freak. I LOVE data and stats!! (Hey, somebody has to!)   I love it for the same reason I love Math – it doesn’t lie, not in its raw form. When people start trying to spin, “interpret”, or otherwise translate for you what the data says – well, that’s where the shenanigans start. But in its raw, unfiltered form – it’s just the Truth. And I do mean Truth with a capital “T”. It’s blunt, stark, and brutally honest. Sometimes I find validation in that. Sometimes I get a Gibbs back- of-the-head slap (reference NCIS). Either way, it tells me the real deal.

But sometimes, my gut tells me there’s more to the data than what’s on the page. Sometimes, my gut throws a flag on the play and calls for a timeout to review. So what do you do when your gut says one thing, but the conventional wisdom or facts on a page suggest something completely different? How do you know which is the right call?

You don’t. It’s a leap of faith – in yourself.

You put your experience, your knowledge, your mistakes, and your successes in a big mental bowl, stir, and “add seasonings to taste as needed”. THAT’S the expertise part, there.   You’ve been in enough situations, been through enough, that you start to see patterns, guess at outcomes, and anticipate where the situation is going. You pull your mental bowl out, dish up some of your own brand of wisdom, and throw it into the current mix, hoping you’ve guessed right about what it needed to turn out well. Sometimes you’re right. Sometimes, not so much. But you learn from the experience either way and add it back into that mental bowl to make it even richer than it was before.

At least that’s what great leaders – and learners – do.

Two of my favorite characters to watch and learn from in the category of leadership are Captain Kirk from Star Trek and Agent Leroy Gibbs from NCIS. Two vastly different characters and yet both do a lot of relying on their gut when everything is on the line.

In the case of CPT. Kirk, he definitely embraces the idea of “turning into the danger” and being audacious and bold with his responses. His faith in himself and his team borders on the near incredulous and yet his faith is hardly ever misplaced. Things might not always go as planned, but his team is right there with him making it all come out right somehow. His thinking is divergent, and his actions and decisions are frequently swift. But he trusts his gut and it hardly ever steers him wrong. Why is that? Because he trusts in himself. He has faith in his own ability to set everything right – eventually.

Gibbs, on the other hand, is equally open to turning into the danger, but he frequently takes a more covert, methodical approach. He plays his cards close to the vest, but he follows his gut, even when it flies in the face of every other fact and order that he’s been given. Like a hound on the trail of a scent, he never sways from it until he’s run his problem to ground. And his faith in his team’s ability to back his play – and him – is absolutely unshakeable. He believes they will all follow their guts and get it right, so they do.

So how does one develop such a staunch faith in one’s gut? Experience and time.

I know this because I’m finally at a place where I’m seeing it for myself in my own life. I’m coming up on situations that I’m beginning to recognize – it’s not my first rodeo – and I’m drawing on that mental mix to guide my assessment of the situation and determine a response. I’ve succeeded and screwed up enough times to have a feel for the situation now. Part of it is experience, and part of it is trusting my own intuitions and knowledge. In a word, it’s confidence. I’m not always confident I’ve got it completely right, but I’m sure that even if I’m not, I can get there. I can fix it, figure it out, and make it work in the end, even if I initially miscalculated.

So what does this have to do with data?

Well, data is VERY compelling – and it should be. Usually, data tells you the whole story. But sometimes, the data is just downright frustrating. It’s elusive, teasing, and playing a little hide and seek with the whole context. Sometimes, the data leaves you with a cliffhanger decision to make. And that’s where your gut comes in. Your gut knows things that your head hasn’t put words to yet. Your gut is that hound on a scent, that primal guardian that urges you to action without a single reason to base it on – yet.

And there’s the real point. Over the years, when I have found myself in that situation again and again, and my gut wound up being proven right when it urged me one way vs. another, I started trusting and listening to it as I looked at facts and data. Over time, it became my Executive Officer, my right hand in the decision making process. I can only assume that this is the kind of evolution the characters of Kirk and Gibbs have gone through, as well.

So does it matter which “flavor” of gut check we adopt? Not really. What does matter is that we listen – and trust – that part of ourselves that knows more than our minds can express. And as much as I love Mr. Spock, sometimes there is more to be figured into the equation than just the facts and numbers. And they are equally important.

Sometimes, even more.

Summertime Peace . . . year ‘round?

I’ve taken a wee break from just about . . . everything! The school year finally came to its official close, (I survived!) and now I’ve just been filling the “happiness bucket” that got emptied out over the past nine months. I’ve done some gardening, read a bunch of books that have nothing to do with work, and just puttered around doing little things that have needed doing for a while. I’ve been running every day and generally getting my health and wellness back on track. Clearly, not running around like a crazy person opens up a lot of positive things in my life! So how do I find the balance between the summertime peace and the school year whirlwind? Hmm. Great question.

There’s currently quite an emphasis on the need for wellness, mindfulness, calm, and balance in our lives – both in the education world and in society in general – and just about every arena – both professional and personal – has something to throw into the mix for us to consider. There are literally hundreds of books, articles, and gurus out there sharing their thoughts on how to achieve all of this in our busy, modern lives. The thing is . . . it all seems like so much work to make it happen that it completely stresses me out thinking about it! Don’t get me wrong – I completely agree that these things are essential for good health and a good life. I’m just not sure how to merge all of these things into something that is doable, sustainable, and accomplishes the goal – more peace and balance, less stress and cattywompus.

So how to start? (I SHOULD be able to figure this out, right??)

I gathered facts, made a schedule on a daily and monthly basis, filled in my set things, and then looked at what time and days I had left. Damn little, actually. No wonder I’ve been feeling stressed – I really DON’T have enough time in a day / week to fit it all in! Ironically, seeing that in black and white actually made me feel better. LOL!

But after a moment of validation and a little chuckle, the sobering reality was I had more stuff to do than time to do it. Still at square one – not helpful. So now what? Well, solve the obvious problem first: eliminate some “stuff” so maybe I can fit it all in. Easier said than done. What if I really can’t /shouldn’t / don’t wanna eliminate it? (See – this is why I love Math! No matter how much of a tantrum I pitch, 2 + 2 = 4. Period. If something doesn’t add up, you screwed up. Nothing to discuss.) Likewise, my solution is pretty stark: eliminate some stuff or change when / how I do it. Wait – WHAT?!

NOOOOOOO!!!!!!! Not CHANGE!!! Where will it end???

Ok, maybe not that dramatic, but you all can relate to the feeling, right? As old as I am, I can still get that two-year-old mentality of “I want what want when I want it!!” Unfortunately, that’s just not the way the puzzle is going to get solved.

And there’s the point – is doing it MY way more important to me than doing it the way it needs to be done to GET IT DONE?

Wow. That realization was like a lightning strike to my brain. Huge flash, thundering shock wave of truth, and then complete silence as it sunk in.

Maybe my “inner peace” and “balance” problem was less about all the stuff and time constraints and more about me being in control vs. going with the flow. Damn. I hate it when I’M the problem in my problem.

But it got me thinking about how this relates to so many of the issues I see at school. It really is the crux of the matter more often than we may like to admit. And by “going with the flow” I don’t mean just going along with things, but rather that there is a natural way or “flow” for how things fit together to make it all work. The problem is, it’s usually never the way we really want it to go.  There’s that control issue again.

We get so locked into one way of thinking or doing that we find it almost psychologically painful to go with the flow of the situation and go against our own self-chosen flow. But if we truly want to solve the problem and bring ourselves more peace, balance, and getting things accomplished, we HAVE to be willing to disrupt that arbitrary, self-induced illusion of peace and move on to the real thing. And that might mean getting out of our own way. (Oh boy – I feel personal growth coming on!)

So with that in mind, my new goal (as I get ready to head back to work again) is to try to bring that real “Summertime Peace” to work this year. And I’m going to try to do that by getting less stressed about HOW I want it done and focus more on going with the flow to GET IT DONE.

And ok – maybe still eliminate some stuff. 😉

Gratitude CAN be my New Attitude

Let’s be honest – there’s a lot to be negative about on any given day. Some of it’s legit and some is just invented drama that adds to the chaos and noise that seems to have become our new “normal”. We all have legitimate concerns – health, family, financial stability, safety, and just plain survival. We have worries and stress from work, family, relationships, and life choices. We have fears – old and new – and we have baggage we bring along with us that feels like those links Jacob Marley forged in life and carried in death from A Christmas Carol. When put together, we have every reason to feel like we’re trekking across the Sahara Desert – naked and afraid – with nothing but those chains we’re dragging around with us.   In the midst of the negatives that feel soul crushing at times, I find myself asking, “What’s the point? Why am I putting myself through this?” It’s so easy to give into the feeling of being overwhelmed by everything and just quit trying to feel hopeful or positive about anything.  But in the education field, it’s our business to teach – to model how to get through those times, to have the knowledge that we can reason and think our way out of these perceptions, and the ability to share that knowledge with others so they, too, can learn how to navigate themselves through it.  So how do we keep our own mental health positive when all around us is striving to bring us down into the abyss with it?

In my little corner of the world, the school year is winding down, and it seems like the bad behaviors, ornery attitudes, and grumpy staff just increases. I get it – we’re all tired. We all need a break from one another. As the admin, I see the whole school community – so much more than I’ve seen in any of my other roles so far – and I’m finding the weight of all of it becoming heavier as we approach the finish line. I’ve found myself feeling like I’m just trying to keep my head above water most days, and that’s not the mental place I want to be in, for myself, my staff, or my students.  So what to do?

Well, there are those moments . . . the ones that come out of the blue and lift me up and inspire me to keep on keeping on, like a breath of fresh air . . .

. . . like our Music teacher who has literally taken on three extra assignments this year – totally not related to music – with a cheerful calm that helped keep special events for kids going by filling in the gap for missing staff . . .

. . . or our Behavior Whisperer (who’s regular job is a classroom teacher) who volunteers her lunch and plan time to work with our kiddos in crisis . . .

. . . or our amazing Custodians who never bat an eye or let their calm way and easy smile slip, even when we send them some rather eye-popping requests . . .

. . . or our Sunshine and Rainbows guy (who’s actual job is a SPED teacher) who never fails to bring a sunny smile, an infectious laugh, and a sparkling wit just when you need it most . . .

. . . or our Zen master (whose real job was a Reading Specialist) who helped us all stay centered, balanced, well, and calm in the midst of any crisis .  . .

. . . or my secret supporter who leaves me small presents and cards that lift my spirits just when I’m sure I’m the most hated person in the building . . .

. . . or any of the other dozens of people who pitch in, come alongside, and shoulder some weight to lighten the load – just to be helpful. I’m so grateful for every one of those acts of teamwork, selflessness, and comraderie that go so far in helping us all accomplish the mission, which is teaching and supporting students.

When the day is kicking me down, I don’t have far to look to find someone who’s willing to help, offer a kind word, or just be encouraging. I can’t do any less than they are doing, and that gives me the motivation to “keep the pace” even when my energy (and attitude) is flagging.  And there’s the key – seek out help around you, in whatever form it shows up or in whatever form you need it.

And that got me thinking – what would happen if every time I felt like things were going downhill I looked around and found something to point to that was positive? What if I found things to be grateful for in the midst of the swirling mess? Hmm. That sounds like an idea worth pursuing. I’ll keep you posted on what I find.

Meanwhile, as we wrap up another school year, I challenge you to find five things that made you smile, made you feel like it was all worth it, or you’re just plain grateful about. It’s amazing how much “making your own sunshine” lightens up the space around you! And then take those things and see if there’s some way to pay that forward next year / next season by being intentional about being positive, looking for the good, or simply cultivating a new habit of being grateful for all the blessings that surround each of us everyday, if we take the time to look.

Gratitude is an attitude. Embrace the “sunshine” in your life!

The Teacher’s High – Unicorns or Easter Eggs?

Most teachers know the feeling – that elusive mixture of pride, elation, joy, and surprise – when a student you’ve been working with for quite a while finally has the breakthrough. The light bulb goes on, the student has that look of “I’m doing it!” and all feels right with the world. It’s the Teacher’s High, and let’s face it – it’s probably one of the reasons most teachers become teachers in the first place. It sure was for me. That first time I saw a student finally put it together after all the teaching, support, tears, frustration, and try, try again . . . wow! It’s the best feeling in the world to know you had some small part in helping someone else understand and succeed at something they never thought possible.  There’s just no feeling quite like it. And the sad truth is . . . it’s a unicorn.

You glimpse it infrequently, but it’s enough to keep you hooked on finding it again. It inspires and drives you, and just when you’re certain it was a fluke – there it pops up again. It shows up just when you’re pretty sure you’re doing everything wrong as a teacher (or coach) and maybe you should do the world a favor and go work at Quick Trip when suddenly it shows up, like the sun breaking through clouds, and you think – well, maybe I’m doing something right.

However, once I left the classroom, those unicorns got even harder to find. As an Instructional Coach, I never worked with students long enough or directly enough to see those breakthroughs. However, that experience transferred and morphed into seeing that same excitement on the faces of the teachers I coached, but it wasn’t quite the same thing. Now as an administrator, I’ve pretty much accepted that the unicorns have retreated into the mist. But then something happened last week that turned everything on its head for me.

It had been an over-the-top day, and not in a good way. Too many behaviors, too much drama, WAY too many steps – I’d literally been running since I got to work. My head hurt so badly I was pretty sure my eyeball was going to throb right out onto the desk. With my head in my hands, I was pretty sure I was losing the battle that day. I’d been sitting for maybe a minute when one of our secretaries came to my door to say they needed me at the gym. Sighing, I grabbed my walkie-talkie and headed out.

As I came up on the gym doors, I saw it was one of my kindergarten friends sitting outside the door, crying. He’s done this all year, but recently he’s gotten so much better at getting it together. I wonder what set him off today. I squat down and ask him what’s up. He tells me in his unique gibberish that he can’t do the game today. “Ok,” I say. “Let’s go for a walk.” I hold my hand out to him and he grabs it, smiling. Wow, I think. That’s progress.

We walk for the hundredth time around the main floor, my friend “talking” to me all the way, and eventually we end up in the Music room. The Music teacher is working on the Field Day rotation schedule, and we chat for a minute about some details. Meanwhile, my friend is looking up at the wall where an alphabet is posted on the wall. I glance at him and notice he’s saying something. I get closer to him and suddenly freeze, totally shocked. He’s saying the alphabet!! He’s SAYING the ALPHABET!! OMG! He barely speaks, and when he does it’s nearly impossible to understand him because it’s a childish gibberish with a few recognizable words thrown in. I’m so excited I do a little happy shriek – smiling so big I’m sure I look like a nut – and give him the biggest hug ever. He hugs me back and looks surprised that I’m so happy, but he looks pretty darn proud and happy, too.

And there it was. The unicorn that I wasn’t even really looking for just showed up in the empty Music room. I can’t begin to describe how incredibly euphoric I felt at that moment. We’ve all worked so hard and the road has been so long and rough with this student – it truly felt like a miracle. And that it showed up on the day when I was pretty sure I hadn’t done anything right for months – well, that validated all the daily work all of us have done to get to that moment. I suddenly realized how much I’d missed those moments, and in that one instance I felt renewed and ready to take on the world again.

But as we walked back to class, I realized that there was an easter egg in there too (an easter egg is a gamer term for hidden bonuses). The fact that my friend and I had built a relationship over this school year to the point that he would willingly come with me – that was pretty amazing considering he spent the first few months crying in my office for hours, yelling at me. That he holds my hand and tries to talk to me – that’s pretty terrific too. And that he got himself together enough after that to go back to class smiling – wow. So many huge accomplishments wrapped up in small moments – easter eggs – that almost got overlooked because they were so ordinary; and yet, they weren’t. Those small miracles were every bit as potent a high as those unicorn moments I’d had in the classroom. It got me thinking – how many have I missed over the years? Maybe I should be looking for more easter eggs, and less unicorns.

So as we celebrate teachers this week, I celebrate all of us who work with students – large and small, young and old – and get to share those unicorn moments of joy and accomplishment with them and with each other.   Those moments of growth, pride celebration are what teachers live for and they give us that Teacher’s High we can’t get doing anything else. I also celebrate and congratulate all of you who also recognize those easter eggs in your day and get just as jazzed about the little triumphs as you do about the epic ones.

When people ask us teachers “What’s your superpower?” we proudly say, “I TEACH!”

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

Improving on Our Worst-Case Scenario

There has been a lot of interest in and writings on “grit” over the last few years, especially in the education realm. Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit” gave the idea some legs with her research data and recommendations. However, some have found her conclusions to over-reach what the data said, and there is still another camp that believes grit is not really a good predictor of success nor can it be taught.

So what is grit and can we learn it?

In my opinion, grit is your capacity to persevere, endure, and possibly even triumph in a worst-case scenario. Can it be learned? Sure – the hard way. No six-week on-line course is going to really teach you how to stand up to and get through the emotional, physical, or mental hell that you have to face in order to survive to the other side. Most people don’t voluntarily sign up for something like that. Who voluntarily puts themselves through something they’re not entirely sure they’re going to get through without significant damage being done to them somehow?

Not many.

That’s why grit is still appreciated when we see it in action in others because most of us admire them for taking those challenges on. And who are some of these folks where we can see this in action? Our armed forces serving in operations around the world; our law enforcement officers; our first responders; those rescuing, saving, and helping in crisis; those overcoming tremendous personal issues or challenges that help blaze a trail for others to take heart and follow when their time comes, to name just a few. Gritty situations can be epic dramas that everyone sees or small private battlegrounds for you alone, but either way, it’s a scary no-man’s-land that has no guarantee of survival, much less success.   I don’t see too many people signing up for that course. That’s why we are in awe of those who do. So where does that leave the rest of us? How do we “up” our grit? Is there a way to start slowly or do you just jump and pray? Well . . . yes to both.

As a running coach, I’ve always told my athletes that one sure way to improve your performance is to improve your “crap” end – the worst-case scenario. How do you perform when EVERYTHING goes wrong? The weather is the worst, your gear falls apart, you’re sick or injured on the appointed day, you’ve just received terrible, world’s coming apart news as you step off – every bad thing AND the kitchen sink. How do you perform? What can you count on yourself producing in that context? The answer involves one part character and one part training. What – training? Yep.

Where we can’t learn it in a traditional way – classrooms, books, papers, and tests – we can learn it in small ways by putting ourselves into those situations we don’t excel at, those situations where we doubt our ability, those times when we’re a little scared of coming up short or just flat out failing. In training, we push limits, try new tactics, and simulate worst-case scenarios, practicing our response to them both physically and mentally. Courage goes hand in hand with grit, and whether we’re taking on hill repeats or learning something new, every time we push the limit of what we think we can do, take on, or master, we’re increasing our grit. No, maybe not in epic world changing ways, but each one of those hard, scary, uncomfortable challenges we voluntarily meet head on teaches us more about ourselves – what we’re capable of, what matters to us – and it gets us prepped for those truly epic moments we never see coming. But you have to jump in and try – that takes some courage and grit right there!

I’ve had my share of those moments – we all have. At the time, I wondered how I was ever going to survive in tact to reach the other side of the crisis. The truth is – I didn’t survive in tact; I changed. And THAT’S the key to grit. In the digging deep, the humbling of failure, the embarrassment of screwing up, the wonder in getting it right, the awe in triumphing in the end – somewhere in the midst of all that persevering and trying and failing and succeeding, I learn more about myself, and it changes the narrative I tell myself about myself. I learn and I change.

So when the next gritty situation raises its ugly head, I might still feel like my insides are about to fall out, but . . . they’ve fallen out before and I KNOW I can stuff ‘em back inside and succeed because I’ve done it before. Now I tell myself “I KNOW I got this” because I’ve trained myself to “get” this. I recognize the situation or the set-up when it happens so I can stay calm, activate the plan, and tell myself to push through because I’ve already done this before. I don’t go forward because I’m no longer scared; I go forward because I know what to do while it’s all falling apart AND I’m still scared. In that moment, the narrative I tell myself about myself changes my response to the situation. I’ve gone from helpless to hopeful and from surprised to resolved.

So can we learn grit? Sure. If we’re brave enough to look inside and face the biggest obstacle any of us ever really faces – ourselves – and have the courage to rewrite our own narratives about who we are and what we can do on our best – and our worst – days. That’s some true grit that even The Duke himself could appreciate.

Where’s the Next Exit?

A while back I was waxing philosophical about the “Scenic Vistas” of life and the idea of pausing, not parking. I proverbially and literally got myself back out on the road again (running and work), looking forward to the next pull off point or exit ramp that took me somewhere new.

Sounds great doesn’t it? One small problem . . .

Where the @#&*! is the next exit?! OMG!

I started my new adventure thinking this was going to be a moderate scenic drive with regular resting points between paved stretches of road, and I soon found out I was “Jeeping” it in rugged terrain without a map. When did I sign up for this?! Was there small print I forgot to read somewhere? What the heck?! How did I get here? I can’t go back, so there’s only forward but . . . what in the world do I do now?

That was September. I soon started seeing work and running merging into the same issue – where I thought I was going and where I found myself were two very different places. I’d planned for one kind of experience and found myself faced with another. Why can’t anything be easy? I asked myself. But no matter, I thought. I’ll just use my experience and lessons learned to adjust and keep going. I’ll find the road I’m looking for soon enough and all will be well, I told myself. That scenic resting point is just around the corner. You just hit a rough patch – you’ll find that path soon. Just find a way to get there – keep going!

By October I was worried and by November I was exhausted. I kept thinking that if I just worked the problems in front of me, kept moving and looking for signs that things were improving, I would get clear of this morass I had fallen into and find the “pavement” again. With no data whatsoever to base my opinion on, I kept assuming the “exit” from this mess just had to be close – I’d come so far already. I was getting tired and more than a little desperate. That exit has got to be coming into view soon, . . . right? Maybe? I’m on it, I told myself. Just gotta hang tough.

With this dubious logic, I recommitted myself in December and hoped, rather than knew, that January would be better. But I wasn’t “on it” at all. And of course that’s when the wheels came off. It started with the pinched nerve in my hip during the Ground Hog run, quickly followed by my upper back going out and seizing up (an old injury that flares when I’m stressed – should’ve been a sign right? Apparently not.) As my back stopped flaring, my right foot started aching to the point I could barely walk, let alone run. Plantar Fasciitis and loss of heel fat due to overuse led me to more KT tape, Advil, and orthopedic inserts. Really?   Oy vay. There’s a fine line between positive thinking, determination and hubris. I think I just learned that one the hard way.

I’d literally been running myself into the ground trying to find this illusive path I thought I was supposed to be on, both at work and in my running plan, and unknowingly did things that just made it worse because I couldn’t admit that maybe – maybe – I couldn’t muscle my way through this one. It was like Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to fit their feet into her shoe: they can’t. And there was my problem: I liked my plan. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the reality I’m in. I was operating off of old data. Current reality took me somewhere new all right, but it didn’t sink in on a conscious level with me. When things started going wrong, I just applied old remedies to the new ailment instead of stopping and realizing “Hey! I’m not in Kansas anymore,” so to speak. It’s ironic that the one thing that should have been my go-to for guidance – data – (and probably would have saved my poor body some pain and injury) was the one thing that never crossed my mind to consult until I had no choice. The harder I tried to make the old plan fit the new reality, the worse it got. When the data is not what I want to hear, it’s amazing how deaf I can become.

So that left me with a choice to make. To borrow a phrase from my oldest son – I could give up or give more. I’ve never been one to give up – even when it’s PAINFULLY OBVIOUS when I should – so giving more it is. But when all this finally came to a head three weeks ago, I knew I had to go forward with a helluva lot more sense than I had been up to now. So what does that really mean? And is it going to stink as much as I think it will?

The truth is I’m a lot more like Captain Kirk than Spock in this area (yes – I’m a huge Trekkie nerd). I just don’t believe in no-win scenarios. I’ve always been able to find a way through – until now. This little escapade has forced me to reconsider what “through” and “successful outcome” really means. And that’s where a little data – and a good dose of humility – comes in to give me some balance against my determination and confidence.  And then there’s another truth to accept – sometimes the data just bites. Sometimes there isn’t another option; this is it. I’m stuck on a bad bit of road for now, and I just have to make the best of it until I hit a better patch. Period. Not the answer I want at all! But there it is.  Guess I better focus on being grateful for being on any road at all, and look for sunny patches where I find them moment to moment.  The only no-win scenario is not being in the game at all, so I’ll take whatever scenario I’m given and work with it.

So where to go from here? Well . . . I’m not sure. I still don’t have that new map, and I’ve thrown my old one out the window so I guess that makes me . . . an explorer? I’m seeking out new options, new ways of thinking, and boldly going where I’ve never been before – working on enjoying the unknown – LOL!

Never Assume Anything

I was reminded of this piece of wisdom earlier this week while I was reading an article in a professional publication. I was reading along about the value of coaching – for both newbies, veterans, and everyone in between – and was happily surprised to see my school district featured in the article. The author made good points and her suggestions for how districts can continue to grow in this area were solid. The only unfortunate part was that she stopped short in her research and questioning about our district and drew the wrong conclusions about our policies and program. Because her data was missing some key pieces of information, she came up with possible next steps and solutions for problems we don’t actually have. Great ideas but they were completely irrelevant for us, and the article now paints an inaccurate picture of our district and the state of its coaching program. What a missed opportunity to get it right.

But it got me thinking – how many times do I miss those same opportunities because I fail to question or verify what I KNOW to be true (so I don’t have to question it)? When was the last time I verified what I’m just CERTAIN is true? Is it still true? How do I know? What if it’s not true anymore? Wow – just thinking about that makes my stomach do a weird little flip. When I think about the things in my life I KNOW are “True” and then pause to think about what if they aren’t . . . that kinda makes my whole world tilt on its axis – and not in a good way. Perhaps that’s why we tend to assume some things and shy away from periodically verifying them. Verifying just opens up a whole Pandora’s box of possibilities that we really don’t want to face. Verifying is potentially terrifying. However, when I think about the alternative – just going along with my head in the sand and assuming I know all the facts and have them right – makes me feel more than a little uneasy. What if I’m like that author and I’m coming up with good solutions and drawing reasonable conclusions but it’s all based on faulty data? That would mean I’m wasting my time and getting nowhere, wondering why nothing’s working. Hmm. Been there, done that more times than I care to think about.

The perfect example of this was my family’s latest escape room adventure. It was all four of us again and this time we were finally really working well as a team. We put all our past lessons and experiences to work for us, divided up the work and played to our strengths. We were doing great and got to what we were pretty sure was our last puzzle in 40 minutes. It was a math problem, but it was pretty straightforward. We got the answer, solved the puzzle to get the code to the lock and voila! Nothing. What?! We all tried solving the problem separately, and we all got the same answer. Try again. Nothing. Immediately we all started doubting the facts that were in front of us and went off on different tangents. We got a clue from our external observer that said we got the right answer. Use a muscle on the lock! All three guys tried and couldn’t get it to go. They concluded it was broken. The observer said the lock wasn’t malfunctioning. I was determined we weren’t going to lose because of a damn lock! I got mad, grabbed the lock and hit it on the counter HARD. Sure enough – it popped open! Success!! The guys were like “Really?! Mom? We’ll never live this down.”   A good laugh was had by all, but there was a moment of truth in that. Why did we assume that we were ALL WRONG? We had the facts in front of us and yet we were willing to believe that it must be wrong because the solution wasn’t working immediately, rather than thinking maybe we just weren’t applying it right.

Bottom line take-away this time? Never assume anything and stop assuming all the facts you have are all the facts there are.

So how does this play out in the rest of the areas of our lives? For me, although it sounds like being a cynic, I tend to question everything already – that’s the researcher in me. I’d rather live with the truth than base all my decisions on more palatable lies. But if I don’t question and verify everything, then who’s the one living in la la land? Me. But if I’m being honest, there are TRUTHS I shy away from verifying because I’m pretty sure I just don’t want to know if the facts don’t add up. I’ve turned over a lot of those rocks in my life and too often they tend to yield answers I wish I didn’t know. On the other hand, many times they confirm that my faith was placed correctly and things really are the way they seem or I believe them to be. And those are the moments I live for because it confirms that the effort – and the courage to ask – was worth the answer. I guess I’ll just have to keep turning over those rocks – and hoping I find pots of gold and not Pandora’s box.

Am I the Obstacle? The Results

And I’m back! It was an active and interesting two weeks to do my impromptu action research. In my last post, I was sharing research around formatives vs. summatives and questions to ask to get meaningful feedback on how to move forward. That got me wondering if maybe I was the obstacle getting in the way of a solution within my own environment at school. I decided to do a little action research on my own for two weeks and see what the data says. Here’s what I discovered.

My first task was to listen more for understanding – with compassion and without an agenda – and less listening to give people an answer. What I discovered was that when I just listened – really listened –I learned that most people just want to be heard and know that someone understands their point of view. When I listened without an agenda and without thinking about a solution, but just for my own understanding, we learned more about each other, strengthened our relationship, and clarified things for each other. Many times they actually answered their own questions, sorted their own feelings, or even solved their own problems without needing or wanting anything from me other than just being there to listen and support. I missed that previously so when I stopped talking, I learned a lot. My key take away – listening increases understanding and strengthens relationships. 

My second task was to stop assuming my way was the only way or was THE right solution. What I discovered was that good compromises and solutions emerge when you speak last. I have to admit – this one was hard for me. I’ve been in such a mode of triaging and moving from situation to situation this year that it has felt like I don’t have time to wait for others to come up with a solution; it’s just faster if I do it myself.   However, faster or more expedient isn’t always the best OR the only way to get things done. Sometimes, you have to slow down to go faster and more heads thinking through a problem definitely produce better results than one frazzled head trying to come up with everything on her own. And, when I got out of the way and let others take the lead on an idea, even if it doesn’t work out exactly the way we planned, we learned a lot from the effort and my input – when it came – was received more as one of the team’s and less as coming from a supervisor. We all felt more like we were in the work together, collaborating, rather than giving and receiving orders. My key take away – patience and sharing the lead is never a bad response.

My third task was to keep supporting our staff however I could. What I discovered was that being in the work with your team, side by side, means more than you realize. I know from my own past experience that those moments are the ones that end up defining you and binding you to others because of your shared experience. Relationships, trust, and commitment are woven together one moment and one experience at a time. I learned this at my grandmother’s side while we pulled weeds, cleaned dishes, folded towels, and she’d drill one of her favorite sayings into me – “Many hands make light work” – which was right up there with – “Do what you oughtta, not what you wanna.” I heard those so many times growing up that now she’s the voice in my head when I just want to flake out, procrastinate or just walk away. I can’t. Don’t get me wrong – I try! I’m just not successful going up against that voice. Those moments of shared work, shared focus, shared laughs, and sometimes shared sweat built up a strong bond between us over time. What I hadn’t realized is that works just about everywhere with everybody. Staff members have shared their appreciation for my support and sweat equity and I appreciate being able to help and be “in the trenches”, so to speak, with them. We’re building bonds through this shared experience and I hadn’t really noticed that until now. My key take away – commitment is built one moment and one experience at a time; it can’t be rushed or forced.

As I sat back and reflected on these results this past week, I realized it looks a lot like the recipe for a good marriage. Nice symmetry since last weekend was my husband’s and my 28th wedding anniversary. Hard to believe it’s been that long. I literally feel like a blinked and here we are. But those key words – listening, patience, and commitment – make up the foundation of our marriage. And like anything valuable, it was hard earned. We’ve tried, failed, and tried again to get those ideas right, and if we’re being honest, it’s the epitome of life-long learning. Just when we think we’ve gotten it mostly right for one season or reason of our lives, things change and we have to revise and grow with our new knowledge and circumstances.

Which brings me to my last thought: even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there. Life itself is a work in progress so you’re never “done” until it’s over. That being said, you have to keep checking in on yourself, your work, your commitments to see if things are still tracking or not. Take some data, do some reflecting – even if it reveals something unpleasant – and take some action.

So what do you want to check on? Pick a topic, do some action research, and see what you discover!