Last summer, my friend and I built a wooden play house for my kids. Somewhat surprisingly, seven months later, it’s still standing and getting lots of use.
I noticed today that a couple of the nails fixing the weatherboards (clapboards) to the frame are bent over 90 degrees near the head – they weren’t hammered in straight. They look a little bit shabby compared to the other nails and I was tempted to pull them out and replace them with straight nails.
But I checked, and they’re holding firm. In fact, they’re just as effective as the straight nails. They’re not perfect, but they’re doing their job perfectly well.
When we hold ourselves to high standards in our work or home life, sometimes it can be difficult to remain focussed on the bigger picture – on what really matters. Our lives can easily become full of little tasks and errands and seemingly-important repairs while the most important things become neglected. We can end up fixing nails that don’t need fixing, and miss out on playing a game with our kids.
It certainly feels good to hit the nail on the head doesn’t it! Bang. Straight in. We can stand back and admire the beauty and bask in the sense of achievement. But sometimes, it’s enough to hit the nail near the head. Whoops. A little bit wonky. But fine. Effective. Enough. Go play.
Sasha and Jamie are both 15 years old and are in the same class at the same school. They are both aspiring to make a positive difference in their world.
Sasha has never missed a deadline for an assignment. He is the often the first kid to raise his hand to answer a question. He is a straight ‘A’ student. He is highly intelligent and equally compliant – sitting quietly in the front of the class, keeping to himself, and doing exactly what he is asked to do.
Jamie is less obedient and less intelligent. But Jamie is more: incisive, inclusive, innovative, inquisitive, independent, intuitive, and inquiring.
Sasha will go on to win the school’s highest honour – ‘The Academic Prize’ – and maybe that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong intelligence is there?
But I’m more interested to see the impact Jamie will have. Intelligence is nice, but other intangibles are not always inferior.
There’s a reason why we tend to be resistant to change. Change requires time, energy, and often, struggle. We have to be prepared to leave behind an old, comfortable version of ourselves – and to travel to a different place.
We have to acknowledge that there might be a better way. And we have to be prepared to try something new – and to accept the risks that come with that choice. What if the change doesn’t make things better? What if we invest in change and it’s not worth it? What if we waste our time and energy? What if we can’t go back to the old way?
All fair questions. Change isn’t always good. There are risks and costs. But there are also risks and costs of standing still.
So, to embrace a change or not? Is there a right choice?
Yeah, there is. It’s the choice informed by our values and fuelled by courage.
There’s a slightly quaint quote that appeared on a banner at the World Anti-Bullying Forum in Dublin last week:
“Keep your face always toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.”
The quote is often attributed to the poet Walt Whitman, sometimes to the social activist Helen Keller, and occasionally to English poet Charles Swain. No one is really sure who first said it or wrote it.
But it has endured because it’s profound. It’s a reminder that in amongst the buzz of our lives, we continue to make fundamental choices that shape our experience.
Even when we are at our best and going well, we can’t escape the shadows. But when we immerse ourselves in what really matters to us, our lives feel brighter, and the shadows fade.
“When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.”
Old African proverb
By the time your children or your students are in high school, they will have clocked up nearly 100,000 waking hours of experience. And by the time we’re 40, we have about a quarter of a million waking hours under our belt.
Somehow our incredible brain has the capability to synthesise thousands and thousands of hours of experience containing millions of unique events and piece it all together into a coherent narrative.
We don’t think about ‘our life’ as a list of sequential events. But rather, we synonymise our life with our story.
So what a shame it is, that in the rush of our modern, campfireless life, we give ourselves such limited opportunity to make sense of and to share our stories.
And I wonder how many of our students feel like they are a secondary character in someone else’s story?
As filmmaker Rick Stevenson, a man who has interviewed over 5,500 kids, says: “There is no higher calling than to help our kids fully understand their stories and to learn how to use them…There is an empowerment that comes when kids realise that they are writing their own biography – in real time.”
With this realisation comes a shift in perspective. When we realise that life is about writing our own story, we are compelled to ask: “What story do I want to write?”
It’s hard to think of two more profound, powerful questions to explore with a child than: “What is your story?” and “What story do you want to write?“
There is one question, more than any other, that should be held close by every educator. It belongs on a Post-It note on your desk and in the forefront of your mind as you enter a classroom:
“For whom do I teach?”