Why Teach?

When asked why teaching, one recent applicant to the teaching certificate program I coordinate said, “Because I have to REALLY get out of retail.” I wanted to stand up and yell, “STOP dammit! Stop! Thanks for coming and good luck making retail less stultifying.”

Most applicants are pulled, rather than pushed into the profession, but their reasons still routinely speak to ulterior motives.

• “I’m a good story teller and students’ find me engaging.”

• “I love when the light bulb goes off when a student learns something new.”

• “It will be nice to have the same schedule as my children.”

That’s understandable. I recently wrote that everyone cares about compensation, benefits, work-life balance, but I’m waiting longingly for a prospective teacher to say something like this:

“I want to become an educator because I have a hunch that teaching is a continuous exercise in selflessness and I want to learn to lose myself in service of others. I’m an impatient listener and prone to self-centeredness. I want to learn to listen to young people in ways that help them fulfill their potential. I suspect teaching will provide me the opportunity to become not just a positive influence in young people’s lives, but also a better person, friend, partner, and citizen.”

I suppose, if that more Eastern starting point leads one to ask, “Relative to others, how well are you serving others and modeling selflessness?” practicing selfless service to others could turn into a tail chasing, self-regarding exercise. “Too bad others aren’t as selfless as me.” Ego is a perpetual trap.

Despite that conundrum, I’m wondering if I should add this tagline to our Teaching Credential Program’s promotional materials, “People with Buddhist sensibilities are strongly encouraged to apply.”

 

 

L’eggo My Ego!

That pun will be lost on the youth.

Recently, while training indoors for next summer’s Tour de France, the DVR offered slim pickings, so I ended up watching an ESPN documentary about the mid-90s Orlando Magic. As the story goes, one year the Magic got to the NBA finals thanks to the play of two young superstars, Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. Then they got swept by the Houston Rockets in the Finals. The next year they got swept by the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Then Shaq left for Los Angeles largely because he couldn’t stand sharing the spotlight with his increasingly popular running mate. Twenty years older Shaq admits “it was ego” that got in the way of him staying, and realizing, the Magic’s obvious potential for championships.

Then after a couple of championships in LA, he left largely because he couldn’t stand sharing the spotlight with his equally, if not more popular, superstar teammate. Recently, he’s expressed regret that his “ego” got in the way then too. At the end of the film he says if he could do it all over again, he never would’ve left Orlando. He’s also expressed regret for leaving the Lakers when a few more rings were clearly within reach.

In the end, Shaq won half as many championships as he could’ve because he chose to be “the undisputed man” on lesser teams.

Daily it seems, I see examples of the downside of ego, both the more common male version, and the less familiar, female. Granted, more subtle and nuanced examples than the Big Aristotle’s, but still consequential. The challenge is for leaders to combine self confidence with a Buddhist-like selflessness. Whether star athletes, coaches, teachers, principals, pastors, politicians, or businesspeople. Leaders who don’t need credit for what their team’s accomplish. Leaders who let their legacies take care of itself.

Why did Shaq Daddy so desperately need the brightest spotlight? Why couldn’t he share the credit for his team’s success?

Why do we? Why can’t we?

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Postscript. This just in. Adrian Wojnarowski on George Karl’s new book, Furious George. “Truth be told, Karl was everything he said he disdained about all his players, he was all about the next contract, all about the attention, and always about himself over the team.”

 

But How Will It Look On My Resume?

Statistics show people don’t tend to read any particular blog for very long. I’m not jumping from blog to blog, I’m reading fewer, which begs the question, why read this or any other blog? One common thread in the few blogs I read regularly is the authors link to interesting and insightful writing that I wouldn’t otherwise come across.

The best bloggers are connoisseurs of some specialized content and curators who provide an invaluable service in the Age of Information Overload—they help focus people’s attention.I try to do that, but my statistics reveal that few readers follow my links meaning posts like this probably don’t work that well. If I knew how to change that I would.

Starting for real now. An email arrives from an ace college roommate, a successful psychotherapist specializing in adolescent development. His 12th grade daughter has been admitted to two highly selective colleges and is conflicted about which will look better on her resume. Dad’s equally torn about where she should go. What does the college professor think?

The college professor can’t get past the fact that the daughter is worried about her resume. I wrote back that the schools’ respective prestige was within the margin of error and that the only thing that matters is whether she builds lasting relationships and develops interpersonal and intellectual skills that cannot be easily automated.

Her family enjoys far greater economic security than 90-95% of people. I don’t understand her thinking, but I know that if she is pre-occupied with her economic future, it’s no surprise that anxiety disorders among adolescents are at an all-time high.

I suspect something deeper is at work in this college decision-making case study. Something spiritual. Cue David Brooks, who wrote this essay in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s Brooks at his best. Lots of self-righteous readers savage him, for in essence, not being a Democrat. How dare a Republican reflect on what’s most meaningful in life. I wonder what it’s like to have one’s politics and daily life in permanent, perfect alignment.

Brooks is scheduled to discuss his new book, The Road to Character, on the Diane Rehm show Thursday, April 16th at 11et.

The Musician’s Soul

I’m participating in a faculty seminar with eight other professors, each from different disciplines. We get together every other week and take turns discussing books everyone has selected from their respective disciplines. This Wednesday a music prof is leading the discussion of The Musician’s Soul by James Jordan.

Like a student, I have been procrastinating. That means I just started reading it today, Sunday*. Three days and counting. Even though I’m in the early stages, and I don’t have a musical bone in my body, I’m digging it. Double J is wonderfully out of touch with the times. Instead of privileging standardization, data, and efficiency, he writes of self understanding, spirituality, and soulfulness. He’s more Buddhist than business school.

For a little flavor flav, here he is on self-expression:

“If one believes that music is self-expression, then it should follow that one must have a self to express. Before one is able to conduct and evoke artistry from singers, one must spend a considerable amount of time on oneself, on one’s inside stuff. One must take time to understand and accept who one is. One must learn how to trust oneself at all times. Most musicians, however, involve themselves in a process of self-mutilation. They focus on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of music instead of the ‘who’. Frustration and anger with self occur, almost unknowingly. The conductor, music educator, or performer must spend a considerable amount of time with him- or herself to make the journey that will deepen understanding of self and of his or her own human spirit. That journey must be non-self-mutilating. At the risk of oversimplifying, one must be able to love oneself first before that love can be shared with an ensemble or an audience through the music. Knowledge and trust of self is necessary for music making to take place. An ability to ‘just be’ is paramount.”

These insights are wonderfully applicable. Substitute any art, like writing, for the making of music. Or almost any vocation imaginable.

My subconscious is just starting to work on a new course I’m teaching next spring for teachers training to be school principals. While I’m reading Jordan I’m substituting school leaders for musicians. “The school leader must spend a considerable amount of time with him- or herself to make the journey that will deepen understanding of self and his or her own human spirit. . . . one must be able to love oneself first before that love can be shared with a faculty, or families, or students through schooling.”

This portion of the larger excerpt deserves further reflection, “One must take time to understand and accept who one is. One must learn how to trust oneself at all times.” Sounds more simple than it is. Most everyone has long-standing negative tapes looping in their heads thanks to mean-spirited teachers, parents, or coaches.

Do you know, accept, and trust yourself? How might your vocation and life change as a result of greater knowledge, acceptance, and trust?

* Had to finish The Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh first.

Salinger Documentary (2013)

A bevy of blockbuster movies are premiering, but I recommend an under the radar mindbuster. Salinger is an intriguing meditation on literary genius, fame, privacy, and mental illness.

About midway through the lengthy documentary, I became convinced that Salinger was mentally ill. The filmmakers convincingly argue that his WWII military service had an indelible impact on his psyche and his writing. If he knew what the first 48 hours on the ground would have been like, June 6-7, 1944, I wonder if he would have volunteered. He was fortunate to survive the first two days. 

Salinger’s was not a dangerous or violent mental illness. The truth be told, no one is “normal”, most of us suffer from mental abnormalities or quirks of some sort. Salinger’s imaginary characters and families took precedence over his living, breathing family and friends. He only harmed people who competed with his imaginary characters for his attention. When they interfered too much, he banished them from his life.

One form our mental illness takes is thinking accomplished artists or athletes owe us more than their art or public performances. Oddly, more and more people are following public figures on Twitter. Receiving tweets directly from celebrities seemingly deludes people into thinking they’re in some sort of relationship with them. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, many people so identified with Holden Caulfied they felt entitled to know everything possible about his creator. Sometimes to the point where they’d drive to rural New Hampshire and knock on Salinger’s door.

Maybe because people are so desperate for notoriety, they’re offended when someone like Salinger consciously rejects fame. Salinger practiced Zen Buddhism for many years and became an adherent of religious teacher Sri Ramakrishna and Vedanta Hinduism. Fame was another intolerable distraction from the imaginary, literary world he greatly preferred.

How should we live with present and future Salingers, single-minded geniuses whose work isn’t just the most important thing in their life, but the only thing? By leaving them mostly alone to write, to compose music, to draw, to sculpt, to fulfill their specific life purpose.

One additional thought. It was fortunate that Salinger never needed to teach writing at a University because he never could have controlled his affinity for women decades younger than him. He would have kept a few university attorneys employed all by himself.

A More Gentle Pace

I recommend Roman Krznaric’s “The Wonderbox“. From the book flap:

There are many ways to improve our lives: we can turn to the wisdom of philosophers, the teachings of religion, or the latest experiments of psychologists. But we rarely look to history for inspiration—and when we do it can be surprisingly powerful. Uncovering the lessons that can be learned from the past, cultural historian Roman Krznaric explores twelve universal topics from work and love to money and creativity, and reveals the wisdom we’ve been missing. There is much to be learned from Ancient Greece on the different varieties of love; from the industrialising British on job satisfaction; and ancient Japanese pilgrims on the art of travel.

I just finished Chapter Five titled “Time”. I appreciate your making the time to “read me,” but my guess is you won’t follow the book link, let alone read the book because you don’t have the time. Here’s one pgraph from Chapter Five to give you the flavor flav of the book:

My adventures with time are not simply a rejection of the clock, but an embrace of absorbing the world at a more gentle pace. When I got to an art gallery, I try to visit only two or three paintings. Each morning I walk in the garden and search for something that has changed—perhaps a bud that has opened or a new spiderweb—which helps bring a stillness to the beginning of the day. I attempt to eat slowly, savouring the flavours. Almost everybody laughs at my tiny diary, which give each day a space half the length of my little finger. As it is so easily filled, it helps keep down my number of appointments. Artificial? Absolutely. But it works for me. The best way I know to have more time, to feel less rushed, and appreciate life to the fullest, is to plan fewer activities.

Krznaric doesn’t wear a watch, programs his phone and other gadgets so the time doesn’t show, and covers the built-in clocks on his kitchen appliances in an effort to resist modern society’s all encompassing artificial demarcations of time.

You may do the same a few days or weeks a year when on vacation. There’s nothing much more liberating than, temporarily at least, disconnecting from time.

Most people equate minimalism with decluttering and that’s an integral part, but planning fewer activities may be even more essential to living more slowly and simply. My North American, upper middle-class suburban peers are particularly susceptible to over planning because they fear their children will be disadvantaged if they don’t participate in nearly every extracurricular activity including sports, music, theater, religious youth or service groups, and family travel.

Chock-full family calendars, found in most suburban kitchens, are testaments to hyper-activity. Consequently, most children really don’t know what to do with “free time”. Especially, screen-free free time.

An insight worth repeating. “The best way I know to have more time, to feel less rushed, and appreciate life to the fullest, is to plan fewer activities.”

The audacity. Slate’s Rachel Larimore disagrees with Krznaric and myself. In Defense of Busyness.

How ’bout you?

Slowing to a complete stop recently on the Deschutes River in Sunriver, Oregon

The GalPal’s morning “to do”—sit by the river.

Doesn’t Compute

In an email I recently received, my father-in-law asked me what I thought of Tiger’s performance. I’m guessing his use of the word “performance” as opposed to “statement” means he wasn’t buying what Tiger was selling.

I thought Tiger was sincere, but who knows, talk is cheap, and as he acknowledged, only time will tell. The question of whether he was sincere is not the most interesting one, nor is the question of what he does or doesn’t owe the public, nor the related one of why didn’t he allow questions.

For me there’s one interesting, actually troubling aspect of the whole Tiger melodrama, and one interesting aspect of his performance or statement.

The disconcerting aspect is the opportunity costs of our fascination with celebrities. In your circle of friends, what’s the ratio of “Tiger talk” to “education, foreign policy, health care, or economic talk”? We are a People magazine people and the quality of our democracy suffers as a result.

The interesting aspect of his statement was how pained he appeared to be, how unhappy I’m guessing he is, and his paragraph on Buddhism. We are a materialistic people. Here’s a guy that’s close to being the first billionaire athlete living a complete life of luxury and he’s unhappy. How can someone who’s the best in their field, on the way to being the best ever, with hundreds of millions of dollars, private jets, yachts, houses, Escalades, be unhappy?

Doesn’t compute.

Lots of people think if they had El Tigre money and fame they’d be much more happy than they are. To me, the Tiger story, like a lot of Old Testament ones, is a powerful reminder that money and fame are no substitute for a sense of self; a selfless spirituality; honoring your ancestors; a sense that your wife, children, and close friends respect you; a sense that you’re at least as good a person as athlete.