On Being a Passionate Beginner

The following was adapted from a post on my old Savvy Technologist blog for the December 2016 newsletter of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

I read an article by Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton a few years ago that has stuck with me ever since. In his article entitled How To Keep Innovating, Buxton advocates for staying fresh in your professional calling by pursuing your passions outside of work.

Specifically, he recommends (quoting the article):

  • Always be bad at something that you are passionate about.
  • You can be everything in your life—just not all at once.
  • When you get good at one skill, drop another in which you have achieved competence in order to make room for a new passion at which you are—yet again—bad.
  • Life is too short to waste on bad teachers and inefficient learning.
  • Remember: You can learn from anyone.

Are you comfortable being a beginner? Perhaps, like me, you’ve had the good fortune to have one of your personal passions turn into your career (technology in my case). However you’ve landed in your position as an education leader, chances are good that you feel a certain amount of mastery in your work. It’s all the more important, then, to find something you are passionate about and at which you are still a novice.

My latest adventure with being a novice began approximately 3½ years ago when I took up competitive target archery. My son was a beginning archer then, and it became apparent almost immediately that doing archery is much more fun than watching archery. Since I began my journey as an archer I’ve met amazing people; competed in archery events with some of the best archers in the world; reconnected with the teacher in me by coaching at a local club; utilized my leadership skills to make an impact in a statewide archery organization; and developed new appreciation for goal setting, the pursuit of perfection, the importance of practice, and the connection between achievement and the mind. And to think I got all of that from deciding one day to try something new.

The dictionary definition of novice speaks of being a beginner or learner. That sounds great in theory, but in practice, being a novice is often uncomfortable and frustrating for someone who is accustomed to feeling competent in his or her day job. Breaking out of your cocoon of competence is an act of vulnerability and a great way to build empathy for students and staff. If I begin to feel impatient at work when coaching a staff member who is working on building skill in an area where I have a lot of experience, it helps me to remember the current struggle I’m having with my archery form or that arrow that just barely missed scoring a 10 during my last competition.

This summer I took my department managers for an off-site strategic planning session where, amid the chart paper, smelly markers, and goal setting activities, I spent an hour teaching them archery. There was a lot of laughter and fun to be sure, and there was some good-natured competition too. But there was also plenty of frustration about not being able to hit the center of the target. That experience provided a great jumping off point for a conversation about empathy and supporting teachers and other staff who often don’t know as much about elements of technology as those of us in the technology department.

It’s a lot more comfortable to stick with what you know. We often encourage students to follow their passions and dreams. (It might even be in your school district’s mission statement.) Are we encouraging students to take academic risks, or has GPA pressure squeezed out some of their passion? How about teachers? Have we designed our appraisal systems to encourage teachers to try new techniques and learn new skills?

Leaders, are you following your passions? Are you cultivating interests outside of work that help recharge your batteries and broaden your perspective? If so, take some time to share those interests with your staff and encourage them to share theirs. If not, what are you waiting for?