New Post-Meeting Behavior

Assuming we’re talking about a meeting you attended and did not run, consider trying this:

After the meeting, allow some time to pass.

Then, flip through your notes and compose a quick email to the convener/facilitator of the meeting.  In that email, tell him/her what resonated with you, what challenged you in a good way, what you learned, or how your behavior will shift as a result of the meeting.

Bcc yourself on the email.

This practice will help you to reflect (a good thing), offer some feedback to the leader of the meeting (a great thing), and allow you to keep a running record, via the Bcc, of what you’re learning in all those meetings (the best thing).

It won’t cost you much.

Introducing Drew Jennings

On Saturday, I introduced Drew Jennings to the newest chapter of the Cum Laude society at Montclair Kimberley Academy.  By definition, the Cum Laude society is small.  I’m including my remarks below so that students and families who were not present can see them.  Many people in our community knew Drew . . . and his life is a wonderful example of how to live bravely and wisely.

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I met Drew Jennings on the first day of the first English class I ever taught at MKA.  He walked in with as raucous and loud and large – and hairy – a group of boys as I have ever seen in a high school.  Though clearly friendly with the bunch, Drew sat apart from them, and they gave him a hard time about that.  He had an easy way of swatting off their teasing and breaking their code.

It was clear to me from the start that Drew’s friends were very excited that they had a new teacher to break in.  And they made it known that they were going to have a lot of fun – at my expense.  I did what any reasonable new teacher, looking to win the respect and admiration of his new students, would do . . . I told them that I would kick them out of class, each and every class, if they didn’t shape up.

That afternoon, the entire group, Drew’s gang, dropped the class immediately.  But Drew stayed.  He actually came up to me soon after and said, I can’t wait to read the books on the syllabus.  I’ve been waiting for a class like this.

Honestly, I was confused.  I was confused that he hadn’t gone off with his friends.  And I was confused that he liked the books on the syllabus.  The books were way off the beaten path, off what was revered as “The Canon” back then.  The fact that Drew had heard of some of them, chose them, chose not to follow along with his friends, was counterintuitive for a young man.

This observation meant, of course, that I was starting to get to know the real Drew Jennings.

Even then, he had a willingness, perhaps even a driving impulse, to break from the pack, regardless of the size and strength of the pack.

And he had an openness to experience.  Having studied some of the psychology of learning both as an educator and a parent, I now know that openness to experience is a key feature of the creative life.   Back then, in Drew, it scanned as wanting to work with an untested, possibly erratic new teacher, and wanting to read books that went beyond literature, into philosophy and what might be called wisdom.

These themes – breaking with the pack, openness to experience – ripple through Drew’s still-ripening biography like some kind of “high lonesome” sound from the music that Drew, and his father, love so much.

Listen for that sound:

At MKA, during high school, Drew took many of our toughest classes: AP Bio, Honors Econ, AP French, AP English.  He had an A- average in those courses, but his teachers – many of whom are here today – celebrated him most for his willingness to take risks or to pick difficult topics for his research papers and projects.

He was an outstanding athlete, but played a sport each season regardless of whether or not he could be the star.  So, on the soccer field, he walked among the stars.  You have never seen a throw-in like Drew’s – he turned the ball into a javelin.  On the basketball court, he also turned the ball into a javelin, which is decidedly not the point of the sport.  But he played anyway.  He competed.  He dove for loose balls.  He threw the necessary elbows.  Whatever coach, and the team, needed.

VP of the student body he was also the MKA ping-pong champion – that used to be a big thing.

A peer leader, he also played the harmonica.

A popular, sought after student – among his peers and his teachers – he often disappeared into the woods as an amateur bird watcher.

You can hear that breaking from the pack, that openness to experience, running parallel to all the trappings of his conventional success.  Each time he got an A in school, it seems, he tuned into a frequency that was beyond grades, beyond the kinds of success that would be defined for him, conventionally or institutionally.

Which is not to say that conventional or institutional success eluded him.  After graduating from MKA in 2004, he studied History at Dartmouth, where he also interned at the History Chanel.  Next, he joined Citibank, then Oliver Wyman Consulting in the Hedge Fund Advisory Group.  The story, from here, would be pretty obvious if it weren’t for that high lonesome sound chirping in the background.

In 2013, Drew dramatically cut off the corporate path to through-hike the Appalachian Trail.  That’s 130 days up the Eastern Seaboard, alone except for the fleeting connections he might make with other mustachioed and nickname addled hikers on the trail.  It’s worth reading his reflections from around that time.  I found them on a blog he kept back then:

I left for the trail on a whim. My life immediately prior to leaving for the trail had become unfulfilling and had me hurtling down a path of . . . general unhappiness, which scared me given I was only in my mid-20s.

On the first night I knew [the aloneness] was something I needed to embrace – something that would help change me. I could feel something warm developing inside me, snaking its way through my body, probing the depths. It felt good and old – primitive and unfamiliar; it left my smiling for no reason during the day and it sharpened my senses at night. My connection to woods through which I wandered got stronger, and embracing this feeling, I carried it with me throughout my journey.

Drew’s story doesn’t end there, of course.  He lives in Denver now, with his wife, Casey, and he works for Google.

But the lesson here isn’t one about a young man who went into the wild and then rushed back to stability.  He went into the wild – continues to do so, in fact – so that he would never become too comfortable with stability or success.  So that his balanced life would, in itself, become an act of continuous balancing, which means a life of continuous challenge, continuous tightropes, continuous homage to the rocky trail and its distant frequency.

Seeds of Future Work, Part 1

I’m doing a few keynotes this summer and starting a big writing project.  But my inclination, these days, is to share good things when I find them, rather than waiting for a big “reveal” in the form of a speech or formal publication.  So…

Here’s a quote from Charles H. Vogl’s The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging.  It’s helping me in my thinking about authenticity and delight (key nodes for Reshan Richards and me) and also in my planning for some impending family time.

The psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted a four-hundred-person survey to distinguish happiness and meaningfulness.  His research indicates that “meaningfulness” involves understanding our own lives beyond the present time and place.  It comes when we reflect on what came before and how we’re connected to the future.  Meaningfulness comes when we integrate now with the future and past.  Our health, wealth, and relationships change.  Meaning creates a feeling of stability in the midst of change. (49)

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Writing Marathons

One of the great writing teachers at my school (Cindy Darling) takes her students on an annual “writing marathon.”  She has done this for the past few years, and each year the experience gets a little bit bigger and the group travels a little bit further.  But a few things always stay the same, according to Cindy’s guidelines.

  • Writers begin a marathon by turning to each other and saying, “I’m a writer.”
  • We split into our class groups to go to restaurants, coffeehouses, parks, etc., where we eat, write, and share our way across the city.
  • Our writing starts on the train on the way into the city.
  • We follow basic rules: allow about ten-twenty minutes of uninterrupted free-writing time. Each group member then shares. We limit responses to a simple “Thank you” after each student’s share.
  • A connection and synergy develops in each group as participants see that the writing they generate throughout the marathon springs organically from the place around them. Some writing also contains the seeds for future revision.
  • Groups find their own path. Students will visit 3-4 different locations in NYC over the course of the morning.

Boiled down, this experience offers students choice, autonomy, the opportunity to share, the opportunity to learn from their peers, self-directed learning, community, a chance to slow down, a chance to appreciate a local environment, generative practice, and maybe best of all, a model for the creative life.  It’s the kind of event that reminds me about the transformative power of school, properly administered.

Getting a Gig at CBGB

In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Kim Gordon, from the band Sonic Youth, talked about what her life was like before her band became famous and wildly influential.

Our first goal [as Sonic Youth] was getting a gig at CBGB. Then it was getting a good time slot at CBGB, so you weren’t on last and weren’t on first. CB’s wasn’t the best sound; it was such a long and narrow space that if it was crowded you couldn’t really see anything, unless you were standing on the side of the stage, and then you just heard the stage sound. Sometimes it could just be too blasting. It wasn’t actually the best place to hear or see bands, but it was always exciting. Then later, it became about getting a gig at Danceteria, Mudd Club — they were all little milestone achievements.

What I think is worth noting about this quote is the way it concretizes, rather than romanticizes, the path to progress and ultimately success.  Sonic Youth has had a deep and lasting impact on modern music, and Kim Gordon has become a cultural icon.  These are outstanding achievements, for sure, and the band and Ms. Gordon may have been dreaming about them all along.

But first they dreamed concretely and stepwise, which, in music, according to my Google dictionary, means “moving by adjacent scale steps rather than leaps.”

They had a concrete wish, a concrete plan, and once they achieved that step, they tried to take the next step after that.

Too often, we romanticize our objectives, blowing them up into identity boosters (I’m a writer, I’m a musician, I’m a teacher) instead of reducing them down to simple, effective behaviors  (I write 250 words each day, rain or shine, I practice my scales each day, rain or shine, etc.).

So, because I care about your work (or what’s a blog like this one for?) I’ll give you these simple, Kim Gordon inspired questions: What’s your version of getting a gig at CBGB?  What’s the next concrete step you need to take to get there?

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