Follow the Leaders

Jordan Spieth, a 20 year-old, made $3,879,820 playing golf this year. Two mil more than Rory Mcilroy. Spieth’s coach, Cameron McCormick, recently gave an interview that anyone that wants to get a job, or wants to get better at their job, should read.

McCormick says: A job came open at a private club, Dallas Country Club, one of the best clubs in town. I started teaching a lot at Dallas C.C. I’d do 40 hours a week in the shop and another 15 to 25 hours a week teaching. It was a quick trial by fire on what works and what doesn’t work and do I like to do this? And I did. I got some good word of mouth and some good results. I was there three and a half years. Brook Hollow, a similar club a few miles down the road, was hiring an assistant-in the fall of 2003, I became a full-time teaching pro. When I turned 30, I wrote renowned teachers in golf and asked, “Would you mind if I came and watched you work?” I wrote Butch Harmon and David Leadbetter and Randy Smith and others. Over the course of six months, I traveled around the country and observed these great coaches and gained an appreciation of what makes them great.

The “secrets” to McCormick’s considerable success: 1) When starting out, he worked 55-65 hours a week; 2) He actively sought out better opportunities; 3) He sought out respected people with much more extensive experience and spent six months traveling around the country studying the “secrets” to their success.

McCormick elaborates: I sent (letters) out to the top 75 coaches in the country and I got 25 or 30 responses. Out of those 25 or 30 responses, I got 10 or 15 affirmatives that you can come watch, with stipulations. Some of them respectfully declined, which I totally understood. The most surprising was Butch (Harmon). He said, “Absolutely, come on down, spend a couple of days,” and I did. He was fantastic.

This week I observed an excellent Spanish teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, WA. After describing her teaching repertoire to the The Good Wife over dinner, she decided to carve out a day and drive 60 miles roundtrip to watch her teach. The Good Wife is already a very good Spanish teacher, but she wants to get better.

What do you want to get better at? Being a school principal, a nurse, a social worker, a swim coach, a fourth grade teacher, a pastor, a web designer? Make a list of more experienced and accomplished people in your field of choice, contact them, and carve out time to visit those willing to lift the curtain on their day-to-day work. 

Gordo Byrn is a cerebral triathlon coach whose writing I often like because it’s more philosophical than normal. I like how Byrn seeks out mentors for his personal life. For example, a relatively new father, Byrn has been intentional about sitting down with more experienced parents whose examples he greatly respects. He doesn’t observe them as intensively as McCormick did other coaches, but he asks them questions and listens carefully as they share parenting insights.

Byrn has carved out a great approach to life-long learning. Granted, it’s one that requires humility because it rests on the admission that other people have greater experience and are more skilled and insightful about what excellence entails. Byrn has taken the same approach to learning more about how to be a better husband; how to manage money better; how in the end, to be a better human being.

Follow McCormick’s and Byrn’s lead. Seek out mentors willing to share the secrets of their “success” whether in your public or private lives.

     

Write Like Lincoln

Like all writers, my writing students struggle with vagueness and wordiness. Inevitably, wordiness is built into our initial drafts because they reflect our speech, and when we speak, we routinely spin our wheels.

As we eliminate written words that don’t contribute to phrases, phrases that don’t contribute to sentences, sentences that don’t contribute to paragraphs, and paragraphs that don’t contribute to the whole, our ideas get traction, and readers better understand what we’re communicating.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, in ways that people still marvel at, only needed 270 words and just over two minutes to reiterate the principles of human equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence, proclaim the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union, and espouse the principle of human equality for all citizens.

Wordiness is a by-product of laziness. Seven score and ten years ago, it would have been far easier and quicker for Lincoln to write a longer address.

If one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history is the length of this post*, why do I routinely take two or three times as many words to communicate much less lofty things? Because I don’t always make time to, as one Kalispell Montana high school English teacher puts it, “put every word on trial.”

Word limits, whether imposed by one’s self or others, are one of the best ways to learn to write more concisely. Once we learn to write more concisely, we can turn our attention to vagueness. I’d elaborate on that challenge, but I’m out of words.

* a tribute to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, this post is exactly 270 words

School Security That Works

Recently, a middle school teacher that I know returned from a faculty meeting about his Catholic school’s beefed up security. A police officer explained that when they respond to an incident they do so with “overwhelming force”. He assured the faculty that thanks to their proximity to downtown, they’d have “150 officers at the school within five minutes.” He also explained why visitors will have to pass through additional security checks and why they have to teach with their classroom doors closed.

Credit Columbine and Sandy Hook for the “schools as fortresses” movement. It parallels our post 9/11 airport experience. A rural Colorado school district is allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons. A USA Today reporter tells the story of Wisconsin teachers that were “being trained to urge kids to keep a can of soup in their desks to throw at a gunman who might enter their classroom.” I’m sure that won’t contribute to a further uptick in childhood anxiety disorders. Maybe we should start putting cans of soup in our carry-on baggage.

Few people are aware that despite the recent spate of tragic, high-profile shootings etched in the public’s mind, schools are safer than they’ve ever been. Some statistics:

• Since 1992, the rate of “victimization,” which includes violent crimes such as assault and rape as well as non-violent crimes such as robbery, purse snatching and pickpocketing, has plummeted, from 181.5 incidents per 1,000 students to 49.2 per 1,000 in 2011.

• Overall, the number of reported “non-fatal victimizations” has dropped by 71%, from 4.3 million in 1992 to 1.2 million in 2011.

• During the 2009-2010 school year, researchers found 1,396 homicides with victims ages 5 to 18. Of those, only 19 took place at school. During the 2010 calendar year, only three of the reported 1,456 youth suicides took place at school.

• Though rare, homicides, suicides and deaths involving intervention by police at school or on the way to or from school dropped 46%, from 57 in the 1992-1993 school year to 31 in the 2010-2011 school year. Over 19 years, researchers counted 863 deaths, or about 45 per year. (Federal data don’t yet include 2011-2012 or 2012-13, when 27 died in the Sandy Hook shooting, including gunman Adam Lanza.)

“Things are better,” a school safety experts concludes, “but they’re not fine.”

So what’s working? Researchers attribute the decline in school violence to a handful of measures:

•Heightened awareness of a school’s culture, including how safe students feel there and how well they get along with teachers and classmates.

•A renewed focus on bullying and mental health issues, with teachers trained to spot troubled kids and intervene before bullying incidents get out of hand.

•Simple security steps such as locking exterior school doors, requiring all visitors to check in at the front office and offering students easy, anonymous ways to report classmates’ threats.

After Sandy Hook, a national school safety leader said, “It’s a huge struggle trying to bring people’s focus back from emotion.” My friend’s faculty meeting is evidence of that. “The enduring lesson of Sandy Hook,” another school safety leader added, “may be the importance of having a well-conceived — and well-rehearsed — emergency response plan. Sandy Hook really reinforced that. By all accounts, the staff really responded well, and they really saved lives.”

Sandy Hook parents, like Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was among the 26 victims, are pushing to expand mental health and wellness services for troubled or isolated kids. Hockley says, “We’re much more focused on, ‘Let’s reach out to the kids who are inside the school and prevent the violence from ever happening in the first place.'”

Ten years ago, American film critic Roger Ebert offered another idea that would also help. Post Columbine, he was asked by a major news network if television and film violence were contributing factors to school violence. Ebert turned the tables on the unsuspecting reporter:

Events like this if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.

Here’s hoping Hockley and Ebert-like common sense prevails over concealed guns and soup cans.

What Dave Ramsey Gets Wrong

Whenever personal debt counselor/media giant Dave Ramsey is criticized, he says something to the effect of “I help more people in an hour than they’ll help in their lifetime.” Ego aside, he’s right. When he sticks to what he does best, inspire people to reign in their spending and eliminate their personal debt, he’s golden. But when he uses his media pulpit to preach his conservative politics and personal theology, he’s completely full of shit.

Last Thursday night, on the commute home, I caught the second half of a call from a wealthy person who wanted Dave to tell him it was alright to buy a $65,000 sport car. Dave said of course it was because $65,000 was a small proportion of his total net worth. Then he launched into a ten minute long harangue about the one problem that may “very likely be the downfall of the United States.” Not health care inflation, not a disappearing middle class or reduced food stamps for those living in poverty, not the achievement gap in public schooling, and not global warming. Our greatest threat is too many people are envious of the rich.

“What’s too wealthy?” he kept asking, only to add, “YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE! YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE! YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE!” Obviously, Dave needs his own counselor. I’ve listened to him long enough to know his schtick. He reads the Old Testament book of Proverbs selectively, always highlighting the specific ones that seemingly endorse wealth. Meanwhile, I’ve never heard him mention Matthew 19:24, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

As a multimillionaire Christian, Dave appears utterly unwilling to grapple with Jesus’s words or example in the New Testament. I’m certain he could explain Matthew 19:24 in ways you and I don’t understand. The same with Luke 6:20, “Looking at his disciples, Jesus said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Dave would probably tell me I’m taking those verses far too literally.

Here’s a Proverb I haven’t heard Dave cite, Chapter 14, verse 31, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” In his diatribe, Dave discounted the entire Operation Wall Street movement as just another example of class envy run amok.

Hey Dave, don’t take democratic critiques of free market capitalism so personally. What the Operation Wall Streeters wanted is what most Americans want, for us to keep closing the gap between the stated egalitarian ideals in our founding documents and our day-to-day economics and politics. Simply put, people want a more level playing field. Right now Dave, whether you’re willing to acknowledge it or not, the field tilts towards Wall Street bankers, you, me, and other people driving $65,000 sports cars.

It’s not that Dave thinks differently than me, extreme wealth and Christian faith is a topic that reasonable people can and do disagree about, it’s that he doesn’t think at all. He refuses to consider whether great wealth complicates faith. He is utterly unwilling to consider questions that might lead to insights into the relationship between faith and wealth. Questions like, how much is too much? Why is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God? Or why is there a tendency to oppress the poor? Or why did Jesus identify with the poor?

I suspect he’s unwilling to ask those types of questions because he doesn’t want to consider lifestyle changes. Dave digs his luxury cars, his boats, his lake home, all the trappings of his considerable success. 

While unlikely, imagine Dave were to read this. “If Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t get to decide what’s too wealthy,” he’d roar, “Ron of Olympia definitely doesn’t!”

On The Challenges of Groupwork

I doubt anyone is terribly interested in what goes on behind the scenes at my workplace. I share this abbreviated story in the hope that you’ll apply it to your own life. The basic question is this: how does a medium or large sized group of people—a school faculty, a church council, a local government, a non-profit organization, any work team really—reinvent their work?

My colleagues and I are redesigning our university’s undergraduate teacher education program again. Instead of annual incremental tweaks to individual courses, we wait until dissatisfaction builds to a breaking point. Then, instead of identifying and building upon existing strengths, we commit to a complete overhaul. We repeat the process every five to seven years.

The problem is whole scale curriculum redesign is very difficult to pull off. I’ve lived through multiple attempts at two institutions. This time, despite different people in leadership, we’re following a nearly identical path as all our previous efforts. In our last meeting I felt like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

We never improve the process because no one makes the time to carefully consider alternatives. That’s the point of this exercise in self-efficacy.

The basic challenge is to improve the preparation of our teacher candidates by: 1) eliminating curricular redundancies; 2) filling in curricular gaps; 3) reversing “credit creep” by reducing the total number of semester hours needed to complete the program; and 4) updating the curriculum to address changes in K-12 education, changes like the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Things always start positively with creative and invigorating whole group discussion about “essential elements” or “themes” that everyone wants included in the new and improved program. Then we add in additional content determined by professional standards and (jargon alert) a new high stakes performance based student teacher assessment (otherwise known as a student teaching test). Next, advocates for specific curricular interests—technology integration, special education, reading instruction, etc.—remind everyone of just how important all of that content is. Then we try to pinpoint what will be taught when. That’s when enthusiasm wanes and things inevitably bog down.

We struggle at this work for many reasons. Two in particular. First, we’re much, much better at adding content than we are removing it. And second, it’s nearly impossible to do the careful type of deep thinking, tentative and creative sketching, and initial draft writing that program redesign requires in large group meetings.

We would make more progress in less time if we did three things:

• First, take whatever time is necessary to reach a consensus that it’s impossible to include everything our candidates might need to succeed in their first few years of teaching. Come up with a written statement to that effect and communicate it to the students at different points throughout the program. Our inability to embrace our limits is like a misaligned brake rubbing against a bicycle rim, no matter how hard we pedal, we tire before making ample forward progress.

• Second, delegate the drafting of a new program outline to one or a few people. This means trusting they have the students’ and all of the faculty’s best interests at heart. Ask that person or those people to talk with individual faculty members about what they like most about the existing program and what they’re most intent on changing. Count their curriculum redesign work both as service to the department and as scholarship of teaching.

• Third, use large group meetings primarily to receive suggestions on how to improve the most recent program outline draft, and in the end, to reach consensus on a final draft.

How to Find Your Soulmate

Apparently, the first all important step is to figure out the single most consequential thing you want in a partner. For example, maybe they HAVE to be devotees of Ayn Rand, or farm for a living, or be gluten-free. As detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal article, there are dating websites for each of those interests. Soon there’s bound to be meta-websites where someone could zero in on their dream gluten-free, Ayn Rand loving farmer within 100 miles of Cedar Rapids.

The Journal article was nice because it featured people who weren’t terribly optimistic about finding love, but were finding it thanks to these “niche” websites. They were getting along with their newly found partners, marrying, and starting families. Tough read for a tech skeptic like me.

A noteworthy paragraph:

Relationships often work best when people share similar core values and lifestyle goals. The online dating site eHarmony, for example, matches users by personality traits. Yet if two people are too similar, doesn’t the day-to-day relationship suffer from a lack of fun tension and fresh ideas?

I bet that’s a likely unintended negative consequence of delegating dating to computer algorithms.

Besides the fact that she was fine, a large part of my falling in love with Betrothed was the realization that she brought out the best parts of me. Put differently, I was a better person as a result of our friendship. Specifically, her kindness, her compassion, her social conscience, her generosity, her human decency, superseded my selfish, apathetic self. No computer could quantify that instinct.

I think she’d say I’ve enriched her life too. As a team, our sum is definitely more than our individual parts. But it hasn’t been a walk in the park, in part because we’re so different. Now, twenty-six years in, we’re starting to realize maybe our differences are strengths. Instead of failing miserably at changing one another, we’re learning to appreciate what each person contributes to the relationship, the family, the world.

To find your soulmate chuck the lengthy, hopelessly unrealistic check-list and replace it with one two-part question. Will this person bring out the best of me, and together, will we make a more positive impact on the world than we would apart?

Choosing Debt

Something’s wrong.

I just finished reading a batch of student essays about whether money is important or not and what recent social scientific research suggests about money and happiness.

Some of my students’ families struggle financially. Those students touched upon their parents’ debt and the negative consequences that have resulted from it, strained relationships marked by stress and unrelenting tension. Being well-to-do is more important to them than to my students who take their family’s financial stability for granted.

Many of these students describe the loans they decided to take out. “You have to spend money,” one explained, “to make money.” They are desperately in need of adults who model financial self discipline.

At age eighteen, they are eerily comfortable with five figure debt. And if statistics are any guide, their precarious family foundations make graduating less likely. Even if they graduate, there’s no guarantee they’ll find work that pays enough for them to dig out of their debt.

It’s great they want to continue their education, and I like having them in class, but someone has to wake them from their slumber and tell them there are much less expensive paths to getting a good education. In particular, community colleges and public universities.

Their fallacies overlap and multiply. The first is that loans are a logical solution to financial problems. The second is that attending an expensive university leads to higher paying jobs.

Universities absolve themselves of this problem, saying it’s up to the lenders themselves to assess peoples’ ability to repay loans.

I don’t know what to do. If I tell the “loaners” that there are much less expensive paths, they’ll probably conclude that I don’t think they can cut it at our pricey, private university. And if I follow my university’s lead and simply close my eyes when I know the train is about to jump the track, the students will continue down a very treacherous path.