Minimum Viable Products in Schools

This article, about the origin of Unsplash (click that link and you may never return to this post!)  and the importance of Minimum Viable Products served two purposes last week.

On Friday morning, I shared it with a group of students who have been hanging around my office and talking with me about starting their own business.  They’re getting stuck because they can think of all the reasons why their ideas won’t work, or all the ways in which their ideas could possibly be worth a billion dollars, but they are having a lot of trouble actually starting.

On Friday afternoon, I used it to frame a discussion with a committee tasked with developing our school’s academic partnerships and forging new avenues for student engagement.

Here’s a key quote from the article, which goes on to document MVPs associated with eBay, Apple, and Kickstarter.

The first version of a product is often referred to as a Minimum Viable Product, or in other words, a product that has just the core features that make the product work. It can be a website or an app, but whatever you do, keep it simple.

When I asked my work group why MVPs might be useful in schools, they said:

  • An MVP will allow us to see if students are actually interested in what we are building.
  • An MVP will save us from investing a ton of time — our most precious resource — up front.
  • An MVP will force us to simplify where we sometimes have a tendency to complicate.  We have to figure out what’s most important to the project and focus relentlessly on presenting that part.
  • An MVP will help us to learn.

The verdict from the student group is less tangible.  They just emailed me and said: “Cool article.”

Sounds like we’re launched.


On the Benefits of Exquisite Calendaring

My son was looking over my shoulder yesterday and he commented on the fact that my calendar was ridiculously full.  He told me that he could never live like that — with almost every block of time scheduled.

But then I explained to him that I’m not any busier than anybody else — what I am more than anybody else is careful about my calendar.  I like to be as deliberate as I can be about how I spend my time.  So I schedule almost every part of my day.

In part, I build this habit because few things are more fulfilling to me than being able to give my complete and total attention to the person / place / task in front of me.  And I can only dial in that kind of presence when I look at my calendar and know that I’m in the precise place I’m supposed to be, and at the precise time.  I work hard at calendaring because I want to be able to work with complete reckless abandon (i.e., total concentration) throughout my day.

Equity Maps

One of my favorite reoccurring Twitter stories goes like this:

  • An educator tweets out something he/she is working on and excited about.
  • Another educator responds and says, “if you’re doing _______ / if you like_______, then you should check out _______.”

This is the story of how Twitter ties together educators and helps them to iterate and evolve their practice inch by inch, which in my opinion, is the best way.

More specifically, here’s what happened today:

So now I’ve blocked some time in my calendar to learn about Equity Maps, which looks like a very interesting way to approach conversations of all kinds in schools. I also shared Colley’s post with the teacher whose class I observed, hoping we’ll have a conversation about it.

This story, like so many, is now to be continued . . .

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The Opportunity Mindset of Kyrie Irving

Several years ago, I had a powerful experience in the woods.  I was chaperoning a group of sophomore boys on a retreat-style field trip to help them form a bond before the start of the school year.  As we proceeded throughout the day, I became increasingly anxious — I knew that our culminating experience would involve a high ropes course . . . and that I would be asked to participate . . . and that my fear of heights could cause me to freeze up, embarrassingly, at some point on the course.  I imagined myself, these boys’ role model, huddled up and shaking on a tiny platform nailed to a tall tree.

Our guide that day was an easygoing, athletic man who was completely at home in the woods.  As he loped along, flowing through the trails like water, he told stories about his former life on Wall Street.  I enjoyed listening to him because each story presented him in a humble light and had some kind of deeper point.  He was good at his new job and clearly knew it was a blessing afforded by his old job.

At one point, I finally confessed.  My students were increasingly laughing and joking about the upcoming ropes course, and their boldness somehow only amplified my anxiousness.  I told our guide, out of earshot of the young bucks, that I had to find a way to avoid the ropes course.  And could he help me.

He paused the long pause of the wise.  He may have even stroked his salt and pepper beard.  (Yes, this was one of those archetypal moments!)  And then he told me something that I have never forgotten.  After affirming that I was, in fact, very nervous, he said, “Good.  If you’re nervous then that means your body is primed for action.  All you have to do is rename the nervousness.”

“Okay, I’m panicked,” I said, “not quite understanding.”

“Wrong name,” he countered.  “You’re not nervous or panicked . . . you’re excited.  Try that instead.  Try thinking that.  Try saying it.”

As we talked some more, he explained that excellent performers in all walks of life are often nervous before their big performances.  But, through long training, they find a way to repeatedly convert nervousness into fuel.  They find a way to feed off of nervous energy by using it for excitement, pep, a burst of power.

Long blog post short, his advice worked.  It wasn’t perfect — my legs still shook and my breath still raced as I worked through the ropes course — but I didn’t embarrass myself.  What’s more, I actually performed quite well during the challenge.  Since then, I’ve used the renaming technique dozens of times, most directly before I speak in public.  I now look forward to the surge of energy that comes with difficult professional challenges — and I only really worry when I’m not a little worried before something big.

I wasn’t surprised, then, when I heard about a concept called “anxious reappraisal.”  Writing for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan explains:

[Anxiety] and excitement are both aroused emotions.  In both, the heart beats faster, cortisol surges, and the body prepares for action. . . .  The only difference is that excitement is a positive emotion, focused on all the ways something could go well.

According to Khazan, anxiety “reframed as excitement” can lead to better performance by helping you, the performer, “focus on all the good things that can happen if you do well” as opposed to dwelling “on all the consequences of performing poorly.”

I had both of these stories on my mind when I did a quick Google search of Kyrie Irving, something I’ve been doing every few days since his move to the Boston Celtics.  I’ve had a hunch that his success this season is at least in part a result of a deep commitment to the mental side of the game.

In an article for ESPN, Chris Forsburg pointed to a “gushing monologue” from Irving about “his love of the fourth quarter,” or what Forsburg calls “the final frame.”  It’s a pitch perfect example of what Khazan describes in her article.  It’s the essence of “the opportunity mindset” made visible.

It’s go-time . . . Especially when the game’s in the balance, it’s the best time to play. Just ultimate freedom, just to really showcase what you’ve been working on because you know that you’re going to get the team’s best shot on the other end . . . Some guys think a lot quicker than others. I was just fortunate enough that my mind works a lot quicker than other people in the fourth quarter . . . So it just gets me going a little bit. Especially when it’s a close game, there’s just nothing like it. NBA, every crowd’s going, whether home or away — there’s just nothing better. I love playing in those type of situations.

It’s instructive to read Irving’s statement with Khazan (and my long, lost tour guide) in the back of your mind.  He’s in phenomenal physical shape, for sure, but his mind is sharp, too, helping him to see a highly stressful situation as “go-time” and “the best time to play.”  Going a step further, he sees it as “ultimate freedom,” which is at or near humankind’s highest aspiration.  It allows him to “showcase” all the practice he has done and makes him feel “fortunate,” and like the most special version of himself (“my mind works a lot quicker than other people”).  It’s possible to say that he’s one of the most clutch players in the NBA right now because he thinks about, and loves, the clutch moment in the most optimal way possible.

Special thanks to Jon Seipp, who runs a book club for Boston College alumni and shared the Khazan article, and Tony Jones, for nurturing my slow hunches about the mental side of Irving’s game. For more on this topic, here’s a related post about the work of Dr. Stan Beecham.

Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Parker, and the Uses of Practice

In the car this morning, I was listening to Phil Schaap, one of the world’s leading jazz historians. At one point, he made a comparison between Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Parker.

Around the same time in history, they both decided to use recording equipment, which was very expensive at the time, to record their practice sessions.  Nothing about this process was easy, but both men felt that recording their practice would help them to improve.  (Who can argue with the results?)

Schaap said that DiMaggio used his recordings to try to build his swing; recording his batting practice allowed him to watch himself during those times when he couldn’t be in an actual batting cage. So it allowed him to continue to work on his swing even when he didn’t have a bat in his hands.

For Charlie Parker, the purpose of recording himself practicing was slightly different. Like DiMaggio, he certainly wanted to be able to hear himself playing so as to be able to make adjustments. But he also wanted to capture, for his listeners, the evolution of his sound. DiMaggio wasn’t interested in sharing with his fans every single time he whiffed during batting practice, which is understandable. There’s nothing to see in those reps, especially since DiMaggio was aiming for a consistency that would lead to greatness.

But for an artist like Charlie Parker — who was constantly seeking to break new ground, to evolve, and to find a new sound — his practice sessions were windows into a vision. Seeing through those windows would help his fans to better understand him, deepening a relationship that, for Parker, was essential.

At any rate, I’m often fascinated by those moments when a young person decides that he/she wants to be better than all the rest and then figures out a way to practice that actually delivers the results he/she seeks.  There’s hard work and then there’s smart work.  And then there’s hard, smart work.