The Greatest Lesson in Life from the Commencement Address Never Given

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I remember starting my first job as a systems engineer on an aerospace project. My new boss gave me an unusual assignment on my start day. He wanted me to tell him what “E = mC(squared)” and “You can’t push on a rope” meant.

As part of figuring out the answer he said to first ask anyone you want in the department for advice or insight. Of course, I thought he just wanted me to meet everyone on my own since I already knew the answer to both questions.

It turned out I was wrong on all parts.

Here’s what I told him when we met for lunch in the cafeteria on the third day of my first job.

“E = mC(squared)” While I got the scientific principle right the bigger purpose was to understand how this relates to the real world of product design given competing constraints on functionality, time, cost and manufacturability. The lesson: It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you lose sight of the big picture.

“You can’t push on a rope.” I thought this one had to do with strength of materials, some kind of force diagram and one of Newton’s laws. But it turned out to be about human nature. The lesson: The most important part is that you can’t push the people involved to do what you want them to do despite overwhelming analysis or engineering evidence. You have to understand their needs first.

I learned later that Zig Zigler said it more eloquently, “You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

That’s a principle everyone needs to apply to get ahead regardless of their age or their job.

Here are a few other useful life principles I learned early on in my career.

In my first engineering design class the professor showed a picture of a bridge across some river that didn’t meet perfectly in the middle. There was a six-inch offset. The professor started by saying that in this course you’ll learn how to ensure this will never happen to you. Planning ahead was the big lesson. Thinking of the consequences of your actions was the more subtle point. Stephen Covey’s “Begin With the End in Mind” pretty much sums it up. While this stuff is easy to say, it’s hard to do whether you’re building a bridge or figuring out how to just get through the day.

Persistence overrides intellect. In most of my engineering classes the answers to the problems were given. My non-engineering friends thought this was too easy. I thought so too until I was given one very complex problem to figure out. It took me all night and a lot of trial and error to get the right answer.

There were a lot of lessons learned that night. The obvious one: Getting the answer right was secondary. Figuring out how to find the right solution was the purpose of having the answer given. A lot of smart people gave up too soon. That’s when I realized that persistence is far more important than intellect.

Some similar things happened a short time later as an intern and during my first full-time engineering job. I was assigned two very complex technical projects. In each case there was an initial 2-3 weeks of total confusion. It was clear I was going around in circles, over my head and an abject failure. After stumbling about, talking with people and thinking about the problem from a totally different perspective, the fog starting lifting. Soon a solution emerged. In both cases it took a few very uncomfortable weeks to go from nothing to a potential solution. Of course, getting the actual solution took a lot longer but that was the easy part. The lesson learned again: It’s okay to be confused but it you keep at you’ll figure out what to do.

I learned later that Winston Churchill said it much better, “Never ever give up. Never!”

But that wasn’t the big lesson in all this. By not giving up too soon you build confidence in yourself to take on any project as long as you can figure out a solution and create a vision of where you’re going. As a result I then started volunteering for projects and positions over my head and even asking for promotions in different departments. And I got them by selling the vision to others and getting them to see how this would personally benefit them. This got them to be allies not foes and they became proactively involved in ensuring we were all successful.

The real lesson is that true confidence is contagious. But you need to struggle a lot before you develop it in yourself. So look for some struggles to tackle. A lot of them. And never give up despite how easy it might be to do. I’m not sure, but maybe this is how leaders are developed, too.


Thought for Today

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Little Hinges Swing Big Doors

Many of Life’s Failures

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“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they give up.”

Thomas Edison, American Inventor

The Nature of Collaborative Work

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The Nature of Collaborative Work

In his unpublished paper, Learning is the Work (May 2011), Michael Fullan cites several elements that he believes inform each other as basic to building effective instructional practice in the classroom linked to student achievement.  He calls this cross fertilization of elements of collaborative work the instruction-achievement nexus.  The elements include:

  1. Focus: i.e., personalization related to the individual needs of students.
  2. Teachers learn best from other teachers provided they are also working on improvement and their exchanges are purposeful and based on evidence.
  3. Supportive leaders are essential and most effective when administrators i.e., the principal, participates as a learning in working with teachers to make improvements.
  4. Cross school learning from each other is a 4th element. Fullan suggests small clusters of schools (3-8 schools for example) working together to learn and solve problems and share solutions together.
  5. Finally, there needs to be vertical support across levels throughout all stakeholder groups i.e., schools, communities, districts, etc.

For the entire article, access it at

Letting Go

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Letting go does not mean to stop caring, it means I can’t do it for someone else.

Letting go is not to cut myself off, it is the realization that I can’t control another.

Letting go is not to enable, but to allow learning from natural consequences.

Letting go is to admit powerlessness, which means the outcome is not in my hands.

Letting go is not to try to change or blame another, it is to make the most of myself.

Letting go is to not care for, but to care about.

Letting go is not to fix, but to be supportive.

Letting go is not to judge, but to allow another to be a human being.

Letting go is not to be in the middle arranging the outcome, but to allow others to affect their own destinies.

Letting go is not to be protective, it is to permit another to face reality.

Letting go is not to deny, but to accept.

Letting go is not to nag, scold, or argue, but instead to search out my own shortcomings and correct them.

Letting go is not to adjust everything to my own desires, but to take each day as it comes and cherish myself in it.

Letting go is not to criticize and regulate anybody, but to become what I dream I can be.

Letting go is not to regret the past, but to grow and live for the future.

Letting go is to fear less and live more!

Author unknown

5 Ways Principals Can Keep More Irreplaceable Teachers

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Irreplaceables ….. Teachers who are so successful they are nearly impossible to replace, but who too often vanish from schools as the result of neglect and inattention.

Irreplaceables influence students for life, and their talents make them invaluable assets to their schools.  The problem is, their schools don’t seem to know it.

1.  Start the school year with great expectations

The best teachers want clarity. Use meeting or orientation time at the start of the year to rally teachers around a clear and specific definition of excellent teaching and a set of goals for making the school a better place for learning. Then set individual goals aligned to that vision. Tell teachers that you will observe them frequently and that you will be honest when they are falling short. Be clear that ineffective teaching is not an option.

2.  Recognize excellence publicly and frequently

Don’t let success be a secret. Set aside 5 to 10 minutes in regular meetings to publicly celebrate teachers who have done exceptional work in the classroom or achieved a notable milestone with their students. Congratulate them and tie what they’re doing to the school’s goals and vision of great teaching. Don’t praise everyone every time; nothing demoralizes Irreplaceables more than false praise for mediocre or poor performance.

 3.  Treat your Irreplaceables like they are irreplaceable

Make it hard to leave your school. List the teachers who are most critical to your school’s academic success and spend time with them. Observe them at work and offer regular feedback. Get to know their interests and development needs, help them access resources, and give them opportunities to grow their careers and increase their impact. Invest them in the school by involving them in decision-making, and make sure other school leaders treat them well, too.

 4. Start having “stay conversations ” by Thanksgiving

Many teachers use the winter holidays to think about what’s next. Block off time after Thanksgiving to talk to your Irreplaceables and rising-star teachers about continuing to teach at the school next year. Tell them how important they are and how much you want them to return. Ask them about their own interests and concerns, and if they are considering other options, ask what you can do to convince them to stay.

 5. Hold the line on good teaching

Schools that refuse to tolerate poor teaching keep more of their top teachers. Inevitably, some teachers will struggle, despite good intentions and hard work. Be honest with them about their weaknesses, give them regular feedback and support, and set reasonable limits on how long they have to show significant improvement (months, not years). Make sure they don’t get mixed messages from other school administrators or coaches. However difficult it may be, do not allow unsuccessful teachers to linger.

from Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools

How to bring out the Olympic athlete in employees

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The Olympics demonstrate that talent won’t lead to greatness without practice, coaching and a dedication to improvement, Aubrey Daniels writes. Companies that foster training and coaching “open up an unlimited pool of potentially outstanding performers,” Daniels writes.

In his article, The Potential for Greatness is Everywhere, Daniels cites three tips to improve individual and organizational performance:

  1. Aggressively train and promote people
  2. Spend the time and money to train people to fluency
  3. Have a way of positively reinforcing and rewarding employees who put in extra time and effort

Aubrey C. Daniels is a thought leader and an internationally recognized expert on management, leadership and workplace issues. He is considered an authority on human behavior in the workplace.  .Exerpt retrieved from SmartBriet in the Workplace and (7/31)


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