Tuesday, August 6, 2013


One of the exercises that I'm doing for my coach is keeping track of my core values. A core value is something that runs through your life like a thread, showing up consistently in all kinds of ways. Even though you may not be aware of them, a core value should jump out at you in hindsight. One of my core values is education. It never occurred to me that I might want to be a teacher for twenty-one years until I was a grad student in chemical engineering at Berkeley. But once I did consider it, I could trace how important education had always been to me since I was a kid. The idea of becoming a teacher suddenly seemed an obvious career choice.

Another is sustainability. When I bought my condo, it was the first place that really felt like mine and I needed to know that I could take care of it. For the first year or two, whenever I cleaned or repaired something, I would note that I could restore whatever I was cleaning or repairing to the same condition it had been in when I moved in. This felt really important to me and it brought a lot of pleasure and satisfaction every time I could sustain my own home.

And now that I've noticed it, I can't help but see how often sustainability shows up as a core value for me. If you read my last blog post on Bill Parcells and Steve Jobs, you'll know that a big part of my admiration for them was their ability to imprint their own unique DNA on any organization they led. Because if you can't reproduce a result, can you really sustain it? I also admired Parcells because his organizations were able to produce players and coaches who were then able to go and imprint that DNA on their own organizations; and I admired Jobs because he wanted to build organizations that would have the capacity to sustain themselves long after he was gone.

I've changed jobs many times in my career, and each time it was out of a desire to test a different hypothesis. I left Brookline after I had proven that I could motivate students and help them perform at levels far beyond what their academic records, or even self-beliefs, indicated. What I didn't know is if these students had established a new normal. Most students don't push themselves very hard in school, so it is entirely possible that I had encouraged them to push themselves in my classroom, but that they would retreat again in the face of less conducive learning environments. I didn't want them to retreat. I wanted them to sustain this new way of being with new skills, attitudes, and habits of mind. I wanted students to say, "No! This is who and how I am, and I'm not going to compromise that just because its hard." It's why I ended up taking a job at the Jewish Community Day School where I could work with kids for three years.

Once I had proven that I could help kids establish new normals in my classroom, I wanted to know if I could help organizations, an entire school or district, do the same. This meant helping teachers establish new normals so that they could help kids establish new normals. And it never got this far, but the next step would have been seeing if any of those teachers or kids could do the same thing in a different school or district on their own.

Business people like to talk about disruption. For me, disruption establishes a new normal. When Apple introduced Mac OS, it didn't disrupt the personal computer market because it was popular or sold a lot. The pet rock was popular and sold a lot. It was disruptive because it established the GUI as the new normal. If Apple had introduced Mac OS in 1984 and then gone out of business in 1985, the GUI still would have taken over as the new paradigm. The genie was out of the bottle and there was no going back.

At a certain level, sustainability is important to me because I want to create new normals. I don't want to accept how the world is; I want to know that I can change the world to the way it should be. And I want know that everyone else can do the same. This means creating things that can sustain themselves and don't go away when you stop driving them. But I think that my quest for sustainability is independent from quest to shape the world around me. That is, unless you can explain why else I'm obsessed with getting the grout in my bathroom back to pristine condition.

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