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Ditch the Floaties, Get to Work

Five steps to build everyday sustainable energy

To start, here are five big questions:

  • What is your __________ philosophy? I’m an educator, so my fill-in-the-blank word is “educational.”

  • What is your purpose?

  • How focused are you?

  • What unnecessary obstacles prevent you from enjoying what you do?

  • What meaningful connections are you making with people?

Most humans will need a few minutes to answer these. I asked Chat GPT to “write an educational philosophy,” and it gave me this in 2 seconds:

My educational philosophy is centered around the belief that every individual has the potential to learn and grow, and that education should be a process of discovery, exploration, and inquiry. I believe that education is not just about acquiring knowledge, but also about developing critical thinking skills, creativity, and a sense of responsibility towards oneself and others.

Not bad (I assume the commas separating dependent clauses aren’t a dealbreaker for most readers). In a pinch, you could probably have AI knock out the first question. But having answers to the questions is not enough. If you’re too exhausted or busy to answer them yourself, that’s a problem. On the other hand, if you can answer with relative fluidity, clarity, and positivity, then you are functioning on what I call everyday sustainable energy. That’s the goal of today’s exercise: to begin moving from a state of frantic thrashing in open water to one of composed endurance. More simply put, the goal is to love what you do.

What is your (fill in the blank) philosophy?

What is your philosophy? This is a big question for an educator––and any worker––but always a good one to be prepared to answer. The response, which should be supported with concrete examples and evidence, reveals a lot. In a nutshell, my recipe for a great school is this: Do what is best for the students, then develop great educators, then grow community feeling. If you are itching to read the rest of the details, let me know. What’s important to me is having a target to stay on track (literally, see below). With that, I’m less likely to get lost in the weeds of fads and detours and distractions, which I am prone to do if left to my own devices.

Of course, philosophy can evolve. It should. Before starting as a teacher, the first educational philosophy I wrote was fine, but it was also meandering and timid. It was full of hope and enthusiasm and lacked concise confidence.

People who don’t know what they’re talking about often talk too much. They are like timid writers. Because they fear being misunderstood, they overthink and overtell. You know, when people reach a suitable conclusion and then after a breath start back at the top to review their most salient points while adding any additional thoughts that appear in the imaginary word cloud they are looking at––and around and around we go. The result: a lot of wasted time and energy.

I’m a big believer in the single page. There’s something beautiful (and sustainable) about its simplicity. A great philosophy can fit on one page. It doesn’t need to be in the shape of a target, yet not shapeless. The function is to provide clear direction without superfluous window dressing, like a child’s treasure map. In the backyard, next to the sandbox, X marks the spot.

What is your purpose?

Countless books are offering a deep dive on purpose, so I’ll keep this concise and confident. Brainstorm whatever matters most in your life, whatever purpose drives you, and articulate it in a single sentence––avoiding semicolons. The sentence should be short enough to put on a rustic wooden sign that hangs above a door or sink, sans banal phrases. Zach Mercurio suggests the following template for a purpose statement in The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work, and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose:

I/We exist to __________(action verb)__________ (humans, who?) to __________ (think/feel/do/believe).

Example: I exist to help people and organizations awaken and deliver their authentic purpose to the world. (2017, p. 122)

Mercurio explains that while motivation pushes us, purpose pulls. In both physics and psychology, it is more energy-efficient to pull. A candidate I was interviewing recently asked me what gets me out of bed in the morning, which I realized was a smart way to get some insight into whether or not our organization had an inspiring sense of purpose. Like it or not, between pushing and pulling, it is far easier to get pulled out of bed.

How focused are you?

I struggle here and frequently end up with too many irons in the fire. I become obsessed with productivity, which––between counterproductive multitasking and irrelevant rabbit holes––leads me to be less productive. The ability to direct focus––or even to notice when it wanders––is the key to everyday sustainable energy, and it is a skill that fewer and fewer people have. The average American spends $39 a month on TV streaming services each year, and that doesn’t count the uncalculated cost of the hours spent watching. I can only imagine how lives, organizations, and the world would change if the average investment to improve focus came anywhere close.

Composed endurance is all about getting dialed in. The open-water thrashers––everyone has their moments––are often operating on autopilot, compulsively checking email and social media and responding to dings and buzzes like they are wearing a training collar. After I finished that sentence, I almost opened my email just because my eyes drifted to the dock at the bottom of my laptop screen (I’ve hidden it since). When it comes to the war for our attention, most of us can do better.

Let’s be real though, it takes more effort than optimizing our environment and downloading a meditation app. It takes deliberate practice and an understanding of––and appreciation for––what it means to be aware and present. Dr. Sam Harris has compelling arguments for honing a meditation practice. And if you do want to download his app, there’s a 30-day free trial to Waking Up. It offers guided meditations as well as insights into the effects of developing mindfulness and the theory behind it. I’m receiving no incentives for sharing this information, though I am excited to see how “life-changing” it might be.

What unnecessary obstacles prevent you from enjoying what you do?

In 2010, Eean Crawford, Jeffery Lepine, and Bruce Rich linked job demands and resources to employee engagement and burnout. The two ideas that strike me are the concepts of challenge demands and hindrance demands. Challenges are stressful demands that promote mastery, personal growth, and future gains. People perceive these as opportunities to learn, achieve, and demonstrate competence. Hindrances are stressful demands that thwart personal growth, learning, and goal attainment. People view these as constraints, barriers, or roadblocks that unnecessarily impede their progress––such as organizational politics, red tape, hassles, and role ambiguity.

We can’t remove every hindrance. The dreaded email is here to stay, and there will always be surprise wastebasket fires to extinguish. I’ve gotten into the strange habit of psyching myself up to clear my work email to zero unread messages. Like, I’ll sit down and say, “Let’s ride.” Super weird. Do I love it? Nope. But at least it’s a challenge that I can feel a little elite about accomplishing (as long as I close that Gmail tab before the 0 turns to a 1 within seconds).

Identifying and removing true hindrance demands is more difficult than it sounds. Just take daylight savings time for example. It serves no functional purpose, infuriates the masses, negatively impacts health (giving us more sunlight when our bodies need less of it, forcing us to readjust our internal clocks, including innocent children!), and here we are still pointlessly meddling with time over 100 years since Germany wanted to save fuel during World War I. That’s right, farmers have nothing to do with it. Today, we need daylight savings like a vest needs sleeves. In March 2022, the Senate passed a bill to lock the clock, but the House never voted on it. Still, the effort will be worth the reward, one day.

Unnecessary barriers result in negative emotions, withdrawal, and an unwillingness to invest energy. To find motivation and overcome frustration, viewing the process of removing hindrance demands as a challenge can flip the script. We should also consider our blindspots. It could be that the drink you think is helping you fall asleep is disrupting your entire sleep cycle, depleting your energy day after day. Or maybe having a bajillion internet tabs open is causing you to spend more time transitioning from one task to another than focusing on the actual tasks. Or maybe the game-changing solution you are racking your brain for is at the top of someone else’s mind, if only you’d ask for a fresh perspective.

Is it so hard to believe that the way we’ve always done it could be done better? In school, kids learn that ancient religions were used to explain the unexplainable. Ancient Egyptian and Greek mythology––once informing societies how to behave––is now fodder for action films and video games. Do we think that thousands of years from now people won’t be using our dogma as the storyline of some step-into-the-past virtual reality? When it comes to dislodging impractical hindrance demands, we have far less to lose than we have to gain. It behooves us to grow. To offer a starting place, I like Ben White’s “suggested next steps” (geared for teachers but applicable to anyone) for shifting away from hindrance demands and toward challenge demands.

What meaningful connections are you making with people?

I am an introvert, which is problematic when it comes to connecting with people, yet I am reminded constantly of how important it is to “get your touches in,” as my dad would say. He’s much more diligent than I am at keeping in touch with people, and it’s one of his skills I admire. Another mentor texted me recently to say, “Stay in touch with your friends!” He shared how he reached out to a buddy who he hadn’t talked to for two years and learned he was now coaching in the MLB. He also suggested I write about this topic.

So why ask the question about making meaningful connections in a piece about everyday sustainable energy? For even the smallest efforts we make to build and nurture relationships––a random phone call, a text or email, maybe even a letter––the energy we receive back can be breathtaking and instrumental. It’s like playing the lottery for free and winning on every ticket. The more you play, the more you win, and the better your chances of winning big.

After my first two years of teaching, I was lost and searching for answers. I wrote a 3,945-word speech about it in 2015, but here’s the ten-word summary: felt like a loser and could not get a job. Stubbornly, I wanted to solve my problems alone, and my mom told me to watch out for my “I already know what to do” attitude. With her encouragement, I sent a 4-sentence email to a friend and asked him for advice, the same guy with the buddy coaching in the MLB. The job and, more importantly, the life I have now followed in large part because he helped bring me to the school he was at––where we just happened to teach his buddy’s son.

Indeed, you should stay in touch with your friends. And the best time to reach out is when you feel like an open-water thrasher. It will change your life––or even save it. You can’t throw a ring buoy to yourself, after all.

Still thrashing

If all this talk about philosophy and purpose and focus and obstacles and connections seems like more work, that’s because it is, sort of. I spent hours writing an updated educational philosophy––after a decade of teaching, and who knows how that will change in another decade. I’ll spend days settling on a clear purpose with my colleagues, and we’ll spend weeks re-evaluating how to best achieve it. Developing focus is a daily practice. There are always new obstacles. Relationships are lifelong projects. In the beginning, I said the goal is to love what you do. If you only love to do easy things, then you certainly won’t love this process.

However, you don’t need a Peloton instructor to tell you that doing hard things is what gets us out of bed in the morning. It’s the challenge demands that give us the sense of purpose and self-worth we all seek. Learning to swim takes courage, time, trust, competence, perseverance. We don’t just hop into deep water one day and pump out some butterfly. When we don’t learn to swim, we thrash, become exhausted, and drown. Yeah, that’s pretty dark, but it’s what the lifeguarding videos taught me and serves as a decent comparison. Of course, lots of readers can’t swim for legitimate reasons, though I’m sure there’s an alternative challenge to compare. To love what we do, we have to put in the work and learn to swim. With lots of practice, we ditch the floaties and get excited about the work ahead.


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