The Routine Non-Routine

Each year, on or around the first day of summer, I read the first chapter of John R. Stilgoe’s necessary text, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places.  Here’s the first paragraph.  It gets me, as the saying goes, every time:

Get out now.  Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century.  Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around.  Do not jog.  Do not run  Forget about blood pressure and arthritis, cardiovascular rejuvenation and weight reduction.  Instead pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard.  Walk.  Stroll.  Saunter  Ride a bike, and coast along a lot.  Explore.

It doesn’t hurt, for this teacher-writer, that the form of the above paragraph perfectly matches its function.

Here’s one more Stilgoe sentence to help launch your summer:  “Ordinary exploration begins in casual indirection, in the juiciest sort of indecision, in deliberate, then routine fits of absence of mind.”

What more is there to say on June 25?

outside lies magic

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.


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)