Defining Success

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”- Viktor E. Frankl, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’

How do you define success? When you die, what words will be spoken, what emotions will be felt, what actions will be taken, if you’ve been successful?

It’s a somewhat morbid thought. And a somewhat cliched one. But there it is. I went there.

We spend a lot of time in education talking about student learning. That’s a pretty good start, seeing as how that’s the whole business of education to begin with. We devote hours and meetings to defining learning; looking for learning; grappling with what learning looks like, sounds like, feels like and how we facilitate opportunities for learning. Those are sound endeavors, indeed. Oftentimes schools and educators are easily distracted by the endless stream of buzzwords and fads, jumping from one initiative to another with each new professional development experience or groundbreaking book — think Michael Fullan‘s metaphor of schools as Christmas trees with pointless ornaments or Simon Breakspear‘s idea of leaders taking schools through endless ‘pedagogical diets’ — so it’s important to maintain our focus on those we ultimately serve: our students.

However. To talk about student learning is necessary but not sufficient.

About eight years ago now, I saw this quote for the first time as an attendee at my first Compass workshop:

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And it stuck.

Yes, we need to talk about student learning. But student learning for what? What is the point of all this learning? Their personal success? Our personal success?

It’s terrifying to think that we continue define success in all the wrong ways. For our students: the highest test scores, the exclusivity and status of university acceptances, the best paying jobs.  For ourselves: the highest job title, the most numbers of hours worked, the greatest number of education thinkers and leaders we can quote.

It’s terrifying because it’s damaging. To all of us.

Turn on the news today, or any day, and we find headlines showing just how much damage we do to one another. So long as we define success as an individual achievement, a path of attaining our own fulfillment, a journey to show that we are better than the other, we are at risk of more work and more education for all the wrong things.

We don’t need more education. We need the right education.

For all of us educators – especially those working in the most fluid and privileged of schools, where our students by the virtue of their birth and family will be successful in terms of security and economics, we need to focus on one single, very simple concept:

Learning to create a better world.

And every single thing – every single thing – that we do individually and collectively must be able to answer to that calling. Whatever it is that we’re leading, that we’re reforming, that we’re embedding into the curriculum, that we’re attending workshops and conferences and endless meetings to figure out – we have to ask ourselves, “How does this help to create a better world?” Whatever it is that we’re individually doing for our own lives, our own personal and professional choices and actions, we have to ask ourselves, “How does this help to create a better world?”

And if the answer is, “It doesn’t” or “I’m not sure,” then we need to pause, take stock, reorient, and then begin again.

So take a moment. Look at your to-do list, that beautiful stream of tasks that feels so good to cross off one item at a time, and ask yourself that question. Evaluate your answer. Define success. And give yourself up, as Frankl says so wisely, to a cause greater than yourself.

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