1. “We did know what we were doing, but we didn’t know we knew.”
— Joe Walsh, 2013, on the legendary success of the rock band, the Eagles.
2. I am often surprised at how much I find in common with people in corporate and government leadership as I discuss life and leadership in schools. Personally, as a head of school, and like some others in organizational and social leadership roles, I tend to look at human behavior through a playful lens. As one of my students recently expressed at graduation: At the end of it all, ‘Your laugh is the punchline.’ A laugh is better than a real ‘answer.’ Because, in organizational life, as often as not, an answer is mainly just the end of the productive time, the putting of curiosity to a stop. Isn’t it?
It’s easy to be distracted from the real work of play in such a troubled, distracted world. A New Jersey school district decided to give all students a single night with no scheduled activities and, in order to do this, they had to plan six months in advance. What is going on? While I have to suspect that this planning could have benefited the planners, it could do little for kids. As much as I prefer to avoid politics, I must point out that we live in a time when, for educators, the genius of play, at its most innovative and dramatic stages of youth, is being stripped out and skipped over in favor of predictable, restrictive programming that works best in rows and chairs. The point is, in education, it’s common to forget that our graduation candidates are ‘majoring’ in a whole lot more than English or science or math, not to mention philosophy, music, art, theater, writing, or expeditionary learning. What if they majored in openness? What if they majored in wonderment? I know industry and government leaders have to be wondering about the role of play in the workplace, and I worry they will program and measure it to death. Grad students will do longitudinal research to prove wonderment makes us wonder. With chi squares.
Albert Einstein was transcendent in his thinking and told many of my favorite education stories. When he was a child of about 4 or 5 his father showed him a compass. He was excited and spontaneously began to wonder about why and how the needle moved in such a peculiar way, which did not conform to his experience of the world where you had to touch something to make it move. He recalled years later that that experience made a lasting impression and awakened him to wonder that there must be something hidden behind everything. Einstein frequently spoke about that moment and his first sense of wonderment and how, as a result, he wanted to know what God was thinking.
Like Einstein, everyone has key times that awaken their soul. Adolescents appear to be developmentally prime for awakening, which is a reason I love working with them. And maybe because I spend so much time with them, my own search for awakening (and play) has never subsided. Hence, in my role as a teacher, I continue to wonder about the biggest questions I can:
What if we would not sign the diploma of a student who was majoring in a lineup of classes, but only of those majoring in life as an expedition?
What if our valedictorians were graded in connection, kindness and courage…in the rhythms of life, its patterns and beauty? Is this perfectly what the world needs of them? It is definitely what I need from them.
Diderot wrote: “Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.” This must be what the world needs of our graduates, because it is what will make them joyful entrepreneurs, business leaders, and cultural greats. It is why I attempt to hire teachers who are role models of that — though it is never found on their resumes. What made anyone think passion should be codified into checklists? Like enlightenment, the moment we codify it, it is gone. This is why a computer, no matter how many billions of dollars we spend using it for mapping the brain, will never know what we really need.
“don’t establish the
the squares, triangles,
life into them, trimming
off left-over edges,
– A.R. Ammons, American poet
6. At the last Graduation of Grauer School seniors, I asked our audience of 400+, to applaud for our 25 graduates. But before they started, I thought I’d add in a twist. I asked them all to applaud all in unison. Naturally, their clapping started out in chaos. If you do this for your next large gathering, you will notice that, after a few seconds, as the clapping continues, a unison develops out of the chaos. Who decides the frequency of clapping we reach together? Who is guiding it? Not a human, we know.
In every organizational meeting, consultation, and presentation there is something beyond human in the room if we can sense it. Something that joins us to one another. Like flocks or swarms. What is it? Whatever it is or whatever you call it, this connected system is infinitely more intelligent than an individual: Where does our collective, guiding sense come from? … What is this muse we all seem to hear, in unison? And are we creating the kinds of organizations — the kinds of containers — where our people have the space to hear it and seek it out?
The ultimate behavior of our best students, spouses, team members, and friends emerges early in our relationship, before its unisons could ever have be planned or even imagined. We know it’s there. We first picked up that thought in our pineal gland but we didn’t know it well enough to act on it until it worked its way to our prefrontal cortex. And then we thought, I knew that all along! Why did I wait? Why didn’t I fire them or divorce them or prosecute them? (Here is the reason we waited: Because we are believers. We risked it all, and all for human connection. We built the case we needed.)
As the Buddhists are fond of saying, life ends suddenly and unexpectedly. Hence (follow this logic), if you don’t seek loving connection, you’re crazy.
When we connect in small groups and tribes, with trust, we have a chance to realize a connected sense, a larger self. Harmony. It is also true that many people in organizations resist bringing newcomers into the harmonious groups they have formed, knowing they may have to bear multiple perspectives or discord — which is a lot of work. In challenging settings like this, our identity can be revealed for smaller than it is. Crossing into a new perspective could cost us a promotion or expose carefully cultivated turf.
Are we attempting to create a community, or really just a hierarchy of promotions, raises, grades, and domination?
It takes courage to invite in diversity. Imagine accepting that we function at the risk of others. (Then, imagine not doing that. Feels like: fear.)
7. Way down here in the education arena, government and district bureaucracies are literally attempting to hold art teachers accountable to checklists for teaching creativity. A checklist to teach creativity. Imagine an onion with no layers. As Josh Linkner details in Disciplined Dreaming, companies that have ‘innovation processes’ often stifle the creativity of their organization by making those processes too rule-driven, formal and restrictive. This is because there are no rules to creativity other than openness to genuine connection. I can harmonize with a recorded album, but how can I harmonize with a room full of people, an organization, or a culture in the very process of becoming itself? The answer:
8. More than 90% of our decisions, motivations and reactions are influenced by automatic, non-conscious processes.
9. Some people are skeptical of wonderment and multiple perspectives talk, as though it were Eastern mysticism or phrenology. Have at it, skeptic! Human negativity bias is well documented. Moreover, the human ego has no limits in its desire to prove its preconceived theories-in-action or to create boundaries that keep others out. In the twentieth century, we slaughtered over 100 million of one another with our wars. Meanwhile, we turned education into a race for national security rather than an effort to pass along culture and clarify the emerging thinking of the young. One president even branded U.S. education as a ‘race to the top.’ And way down here at school, a 13-year old student (and her parent) complains that she absolutely must have her complete weekly schedule laid out for her or she will have anxiety and suffer headaches. Over 20% of all students in America feel something like this.
A race? To the top of what?
Curiosity. Play. Wonderment. Are these really ROIs (returns on investment), or can they just be open and unquantifiable?
Humans divide themselves. Organizational leaders need courage in facing divisiveness and needless complexity in all its forms. Leaders concerned with emergence need ask only: What is possible, right here? Can I have a great conversation, now? Look into some eyes.
The outcomes of human divisiveness as systems get too big to manage are vivid and shocking. Enemies used to be human-sized and immediate. Maybe it is the first time in history that things are so overwhelming and emergent that we can’t even see them, can hardly imagine them: vanishing topsoil, vanishing water, vanishing forests, acceleration of species extinction, proliferating nuclear weaponry, extreme money hoarding and corporate greed, countries spewing refugees by the millions. Who could have even predicted any of this, or seen the patterns, a mere century ago or, in many cases, a decade ago? Rogue terror groups spinning off like cyclones, fueled by tremendous disenfranchisement — are these the authentic, new entrepreneurs? …For what is more entrepreneurial than unpredictability? How strange to believe that still bigger and more complex human organizations — or a bigger incorporation of any kind – will put an end any of to this.
Did I mention it’s easy to be distracted from the real work of play in such a troubled world?
The belief that our strength is measured by the giganticness of our systems is the first stage of a delusion psychologists call ‘magical thinking.’ We are prevailing! We’ll have a legacy! We’ll be heroes! We’ll build systems too big to fail! This thinking has been the end of every organization, and every corporation studied by Jim Collins and our whole generation of leadership scholars. The thinking is not just magical, it is egotistical if not autistic. So let’s drop that. At any rate, I will drop this in my own organization.
There is no candy the human brain craves more after than rejecting and accepting facts all in a pretty row, so as to prove what it already believes.
There is no greater way to develop a compassionate human mind than keeping it open.
We are now 10,000 years into an experiment in settled, human life. How’s that going? Strange to wonder about the best answers to questions like this, and to embrace the wonderment more than the answers. Stranger still to wonder if problems like these have answers outside our own, connected communities and the reality of our personal relationships.
As a teacher in a small school, I have no aspiration to end intractable challenges. I understand I won’t be getting the Nobel Peace Prize. At heart, I want to be of calm presence for those I can be with. There we gather and the good stuff emerges in the most natural way in the world. With some good questions, I know I can help my students clarify thought. Gathering people together like that is the real work of teachers, and real teachers belong in every organization.
Dr. Stuart Grauer recently authored Fearless Teaching, his second book. He heads The Grauer School and founded the Small Schools Coalition. His work has been cited in the NYT and the Discovery Channel.