Saturday, October 31, 2015

Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Greatest Achievement

You might be familiar with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. But, if you're not, here are some of his accomplishments:

  • He's an astrophysicist and cosmologist
  • He has a degree in physics from Harvard, a master's degree in astronomy from the University of Texas, a master's degree in philosophy and a doctorate degree in astrophysics from Columbia University
  • He's on staff at Princeton University
  • He's the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City
  • He's the author of numerous articles and books
  • He's the host and presenter in the 2014 documentary Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
  • He's the host of the television series Star Talk
  • He's the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2015 Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences
  • He was voted by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world (2007) and voted by Discover Magazine as on the the 10 most influential people in science (2008)
  • He's been awarded 18 honorary doctorate degrees
So, I think it is safe to say that he's a pretty accomplished person, wouldn't you agree?

On my drive home from work, I like to listen to ESPN Radio, and my favorite podcast is from The Dan LeBatard Show. It's irreverent and funny, and many of the guest aren't your normal talking heads. Last week, Neil DeGrasse Tyson was a guest on the show. Dan LeBatard and his co-host Stugotz asked him a variety of questions, one of which was, "What is your greatest achievement?" Now, before I give you his answer, let me direct you back to Tyson's achievements listed above. He's no slouch. But, here was his answer, and I'm paraphrasing:

"I know this sounds cliché, but I'm still growing intellectually and personally. I think my greatest achievement in still ahead of me. If my greatest achievement is not in front of me, then what am I doing? All of us should constantly be trying to improve what we know, do, and how we help others. I think my greatest achievement is still in front of me."

OK, so that is a bit cliché, but I found it to be profound. Here you have a man that has accomplished and achieved so much (and he's only 57 years old) still striving to become better, to improve, and to accomplish more. His answer revealed his mentality and the way he approaches life: he doesn't look back at his achievements and bask in his own glory; he's not satisfied. He focuses on continual personal improvement, and at 57 years old, having accomplished more than most people ever will, he chooses to live his life thinking that his greatest achievement is still ahead of him.

He even asks, "If my greatest achievement isn't still ahead of me, then what am I doing?," almost to say that if he somehow knew that his greatest achievement is in his past, that he wouldn't want to continue working; he wouldn't be as driven or motivated; he would lose a little of his purpose. Who knows? Perhaps his greatest achievement is in his past, but that's not the point. The point is he believes that his greatest moment still awaits him.

Consider the possibilities if we all thought a little more like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, convinced that our greatest achievements are still ahead of us, regardless of age, stage of life, past accomplishments or lack thereof. Imagine that if instead of resting on our laurels or, even worse, dwelling on our lack of accomplishments, we believed our greatest achievements are ahead of us and acted accordingly. I bet we'd all be a little more excited and motivated; we'd all live with a little more purpose if we had such a mentality and belief.

But, here's the best thing about being a principal, a teacher, and parent (and most of you reading this blog are at least one of these 3 things): We get work with and raise kids. And, what's awesome is their greatest accomplishments are truly ahead of them. While we should live as if our greatest accomplishment is ahead of us, it entirely possible that it isn't, and that includes Neil DeGrasse Tyson. But, each and every one of our students and children have their greatest achievements ahead of them - that is a fact. What an awesome opportunity we all have; what a great responsibility. Everyday, we get to work with students and kids that are approaching greatness; everyday, we need to remind ourselves of that fact.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Our Greatest Fear

Francis Chan once said, "Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don't really matter." I read this some time ago, and it stuck with me.

Our lives are full of "stuff." We are all very busy and it seems we are all pulled in 100 different directions. We also live in a world where everything is at our fingertips. We can access things and contact other people so quickly. It seems that life moves so fast; it is difficult to keep up with its pace. We all have things in our lives that if we succeed with them, we will have been successful at something that matters. We all have families and friends and opportunities to have a positive impact on other people. The fact is most of us know what matters in our life. And, the truth is if we spend enough time and effort on something, chances are we'll be successful at those things. So, the question is, are we spending time on the things that matter?

Chan's words remind me to slow down and evaluate what I'm spending my time on.

There's nothing wrong with a little leisure activity. But, now everything is so easily accessible and entertaining. Watching one episode of your favorite TV show on Netflix turns in to watching a whole season. Watching one 3 minute video on YouTube turns into 30 minutes. Our phones notify us of every new tweet, email, Facebook post, etc., and even when we tell ourselves that we are only going to look at one post, one email, one tweet, we end up getting pulled in, spending more time than we should.

As I said before, deep down, we all know what really matters - our family, our friends, our children, and the people we see everyday at work or in our daily activity. For me, Chan's words made me realize that if I'm not spending my time with the important people in my life, then I'm probably not being successful at the things that really matter.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Two Plays and a Book

Here are some things that have made me think over the last couple of weeks...

At some point, I was perusing my library thinking about what I remembered about the different books I've read. When I do this, I'll normally take a book off the shelf and thumb through the pages looking notes I'd made and pages I'd dog-eared. I like doing this periodically; I'll come across passages and glean something new as I've had new experiences. Two plays and a book stuck in my mind.

The book that caught my eye was Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline. This a classic piece. Senge has a way giving his readers a fresh perspective, forcing them to reconsider the way they have thought about the organization for which they work and lead. At the crux of The Fifth Discipline is systems thinking and how to become a "learning" organization. One of my favorite parts of the book is an explanation of what Senge calls "learning disabilities" - mindsets and beliefs that keep people and organizations from learning and continually improving. One "learning disability" is the belief that "I am my position."  People with this mindset and belief have a difficult time seeing and thinking about how their actions, responsibilities, and role in an organization impact the entire organization. People with the "I am my position" learning disability are extremely myopic; they have a hard time seeing the "big picture." In an organization, in a community, in a family, it is important for all of us to realize that we are all connected to each other; our actions not only impact ourselves, but they also impact other people, probably even more people than we realize - a ripple effect, of sorts. No one in an organization is simply "their position." We are all more than than our job description, and when we do the right things in our organization, treat people the right way, focus on what matters, and become the best versions of ourselves, it doesn't just mean that we did a good job in our "position." It all spreads throughout the organization; consequently, one person's laziness, lack of effort, or poor attitude also spreads. And, unfortunately, it seems such negativity spreads more quickly than all the good. As I continue to ponder Senge's thoughts on "learning disabilities," two things came to me: 

1. The first is fairly simple. I understood even more that I, as we all do, have a choice in how I act, how I treat others, and the attitude and I have. And, because the choices I make ripple into the lives of others and the organization in which I work, I need to choose wisely and build good habits. 

2. When I realized that I'm not my "position," the stakes get higher, situations become more complex, decisions become more difficult to make, what appears to be black and white gets over run by grey. What did I learn from such a realization? I need other people - we all need other people - to help make decisions, the right decisions, the kind of decisions that when they inevitably ripple through the organization and spill over into the lives of others, they make the organization better, closer to realizing its vision. Unilateral decisions stem from the learning disability "I am my position." Collaborative decisions happen in learning organizations - "we are all connected." 

This led me to two others plays I read a long time ago - Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Waiting for Godot is a tragicomedy and it is absurdist and existential. In the play, two men, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for another man named Godot, though Godot never arrives. Vladimir and Estragon are two characters that have no idea who they are, they have no vision, they have no purpose. The two men reminded me of Willy in Death of a Salesman, which is a tragedy and existential in its own way. Willy didn't know who he was, either; in fact, in reference to Willy, Biff, another character in the play, says, "He had all the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong. . . . He never knew who he was. . . . the man never knew who he was." But, here's the passage in Waiting for Godot that struck me (and, it is a relatively well-known passage): 

Vladmir, one of the main characters in the play says, “Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!"

For the entire play, Vladimir's purpose was in waiting for Godot - he didn't even know who Godot was, which makes Vladimir's purpose so absurd. Vladimir's entire reason for existence rested firmly in someone else, someone outside himself and thus Vladimir never quite feels human; there is an emptiness, a huge void in him. In Death of a Salesman, Willy had "all the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong" and thus "never knew who he was." Likewise, Vladimir had all the wrong dreams in waiting for Godot and thus never knew who was. However, in the passage above, Vladimir finds some meaning, some purpose for his existence, he gets a sense of his own humanity, if only for a moment, and it all comes when he realizes that he is "needed;" he has a responsibility to act, to do something productive, not wait aimlessly for Godot, for nothing, essentially. Moreover, Vladimir finds meaning for his existence when he realizes that "all mankind is us." He becomes aware the he is mankind; he is meaningful because he is human, he has the power to act, and meaning is embedded in his own humanity, not assigned to someone or something else outside of himself - Godot. Vladimir realizes that Godot's arrival or absence is irrelevant; Godot has no more power to do anything than does Vladimir. Vladimir has what it takes to accomplish his goals, whatever they may be.   

Before we think too little of Vladimir and look down on him for doing something as absurd as waiting on a person he'd never met, has no idea actually exists, and doesn't even know what good will come if Godot shows up, let's look to ourselves. What are we waiting for? What external objects do we use to assign meaning to our lives? Let us understand, like Vladimir did, that "all mankind is us." We are here to act and we have everything it takes to accomplish what we want to accomplish. 

Herein lies the conundrum as I go back to Senge's learning disabilities. In today's complex world and in a learning organization, we can't get so swept away with the notion the "all mankind is us" that we forget that we are not merely our "position." Yes, the power to effect change is certainly within us, but we should also realize that more power and more meaning comes when we see that what we do impacts others. When we all come together, collect our individual power, and direct it all toward a common purpose, what we can achieve is far greater and far more meaningful that what can be achieved by just one individual.