In my full time role, I am a professor in a school of education, which, by the way is an industry obsessed with “outcomes.” There are outcomes for students (Are you College and Career Ready?) and outcomes for teachers (Are you Highly Effective?). And then, just to ensure that everyone feels the pressure every single day, we benchmark those outcomes over time, so that we all know whether you are ON TRACK.
This post is not about whether the “Era of Accountability” is good or bad for education. This post is about the assumption that these outcome labels (like “highly effective” for teachers or “college and career ready” for students) represent accomplishments that are straightforward to award and permanent once attained…. or whether these (and all the other “enoughness” labels along with them) are, instead, entirely a lie.
Consider that pervasive question of early childhood: “What do you want to BE when you GROW UP?” This assumes that someday you will arrive at adulthood and finally BE something. In education, we refer to this state of having made it as being “College and Career Ready.”
It means you are an organized, productive, persistent, responsible, and passionate critical thinker who can contribute meaningfully in professional domains. It sounds good… but is it actually a real thing?
Are you college and career-ready?
Let me ask you some questions to find out:
- Do you sometimes struggle to meet your deadlines?
- Do you maybe spend a few more minutes (hours?) on Instagram than you should?
- Can you fully articulate arguments warranted by scientific evidence that you’ve personally deconstructed?
- Is there a skill that you should have that you don’t? Maybe something you hide from your friends or colleagues (i.e. “I can’t actually type” or “I really don’t know how to do ANYTHING in Excel”)?
Or, let me ask you this:
Are you all grown up and finally “SOMEONE?”
You’ve got it all figured out, right?
You are totally the career and family person that you always intended to be, fiscally and emotionally stable, completely committed to your budget, and eating clean, wholesome, home-cooked meals every night.
If you are this person, then I probably don’t actually know you. Because nobody I know has all that figured out.
We are all waiting to arrive to an impossible, imaginary place
I have found that people premise their life on the idea that if they keep striving, someday they’ll be done.
They will be universally deemed accomplished, excellent, and ready.
And then, as time passes, and they continue instead to be imperfect, mediocre, and scared they become embarrassed and ashamed. They worry that they are somehow behind, that they missed their shot, or that there is something wrong with them.
And so they continue to wait, running away from new opportunities because they believe either:
- I should already know how to do this and if I try to do it now I’ll be discovered as the fraud that I actually, deeply, am. Impostor syndrome, anyone?
- My time for being a novice is over. I’ll be so old by the time I can actually do that thing (play the piano, speak french, solve matrix algebra, run a marathon), it will hardly be worth it.
Here’s what I have to stay to both of those options: BULLSHIT.
If I sit around, stuck in that fear then nothing will ever change.
I’ve lived my whole life based on this premise– I’ve rushed against the clock trying to reach expert status before it was too late… only to discover now that I’m here that there are a million other things to learn.
I have two options:
- I can sit down and cry, declaring myself a failure stuck on the hamster wheel of accomplishment.
- I can throw out the whole paradigm and see life as a chance to learn a lot of new things, starting at lots of different times. A learning experience that never ends!
What to do?
Well, it’s actually a pretty easy choice because here’s the cruel twist on our story: expertise, accomplishment, accolades, and respect (according to people who study such things) come by way of constantly being a novice.
Trying new things and being willing to fail are the prerequisites to innovation and creativity which, as you know, are the cornerstones of success in an information economy.
So, the world will ask you to live on the premise that you need to ARRIVE while success comes from constantly moving, changing, and growing.
The world is a jerky jerk.
As a community, we need to throw this paradigm out the window. This requires cold turkeying the whole idea of “arriving” and replacing it with a commitment to continuous improvement.
I do a little today, so I can do a little bit more tomorrow.
Eventually, I’ll do so much that other people will say things like “You’re such an inspiration” and “How do you have time to do so much?”
Though I’ve been preaching the importance of having a growth mindset for years, I have really learned the power of continuous improvement as I took up this crazy idea of starting a business. Here is something that I learned the “hard (fun)” way of doing it really badly and then getting slowly better at it until (in an unexpectedly short amount of time) I felt comfortable doing it in a professional capacity.
I am not a very visual person. I actually have something wrong with my visual perception which is a vestige of having seizures when I was a young child. As such, I have never given much credence to the idea that I could be a designer or a visual artist. When I decided to take my website seriously. though, I knew I had to stop ripping images off the internet. I resigned myself to learning how to make them and I was very, very overwhelmed.
Here is the first image that I made for myself:
Pretty terrible, right? I made it in PowerPoint.
I was surfing the internet looking for a better way to create images when I found CANVA and my whole world changed. I used to make all of the images on this website (with the help of a graphic designer who steps in and creates templates and fixes my design fails)!
I recognize that they are not earth-shattering… but I did show my website to my fancy web designer friend so she could give me advice and she said “Well, you have really great imagery on the site, but you need X, Y and Z.”
I was so busy feeling warm and fuzzy about my images that I didn’t feel too bad about the rest of it.
Now, I’m not perfect, for example- what was I thinking with this image?
Is that a hand? Breadsticks?
No one knows.
But, overall I’m pleased with my nascent skills!
This being somewhat visually proficient has made me even more adventurous! My brother is a legitimate artist- he draws things on napkins that I would insist on putting in a frame.
That, paired with my eyeball problem has made me very shy about drawing. But I saw this the other day and I thought it was so funny that I had to create it myself. So I did.
Here it is:
Yes, I know they are stick figures. Sure, it’s kind of lame to be proud of some stick figures and to say things like “That’s a pretty believable ponytail!” But I am, and it is.
The point of all of this is to say:
I want you to stop worrying about how long things will take. Stop pondering how old you’ll be when you can actually do it.
Dip your toe in.
Do it badly!
And celebrate your progress! You won’t arrive, because that’s not a real thing… instead you’ll realize that life is FUN and RICH and AWESOME not because you’ll collect a wall of trophies, but because you learned something new.
You took your dreams seriously and you made a little progress.
And here’s the kicker: over time, as you learn a little bit here and make a little progress there you WILL wake up to discover that you created a life for yourself that you love and that others admire.
When you do, share this message with them, OK?
UPDATE: August 2023
It’s been almost SEVEN YEARS since I wrote this post. It’s fascinating to see how far things have come, both in my writing style and my visual artistry.
It’s maybe even MORE fascinating to see the core idea of Great Work pulsing behind my work a full six years before I wrote and published the book.