5 Tips for Doing Stuff That Scares You

I love change. I like learning new things, challenging myself in new ways, meeting new people, and, to be honest, I like to be thrown far out of my comfort zone. When I was in college, I completed the second half of my student teaching requirements at a sports high school in Sydney, Australia. As I was finishing college, I applied to two overseas positions: teaching English in Japan with the JET program, and teaching social studies (my certified area of teaching) at the American School in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I didn’t know anyone who had done either of these things, but had met a bunch of international 20-somethings while working at a summer camp throughout college. These international youth seemed very glamorous and worldly, so I figured that if I could work and travel, I would also experience this fabulous lifestyle.

Fast forward twenty years, and I’ve lived in Australia, met my husband at that school in Honduras, added a library master’s degree, had two daughters while working as a school librarian at an international school in Jakarta, Indonesia, moved back to the U.S., moved overseas again to Manila, Philippines, then moved back once more to Chicago. I got my first administrator position, and then I got my next (current and wonderful) administrator position.

All that to say, I’m still looking for ways to keep myself off balance. Not in a self-punishing way, but I feel like I’m at my best when I’m a little uncomfortable. I think this is a good thing– reflecting on my life, I’ve been at my best when I’ve done something brand new, something I wasn’t sure was going to be 100% successful. I definitely had no road map for success in Honduras, or library school, in Indonesia, or in this brand new job, but what I know for sure is that as long as I’m not attached to achieving pre-identified results, and as long as I’m willing to be open to learning from others and making mistakes along the way, everything seems to work out okay.

Over the past three months, I’ve counted five separate circumstances into which I’ve placed myself VOLUNTARILY, and due to which I’ve experienced varying levels of discomfort– sometimes asking myself, “What are you doing??? Don’t you remember how this is hard and scary??”

First, I gave a presentation at a state conference this past February. I’ve presented at conferences before, but the topic of this one was especially personal and a little out of the ordinary. But I was driven to create and present it, in the hopes that sharing my experiences might help other people. I spent countless hours creating the best slideshow, talking points, and presentation that I possibly could, largely out of fear of failure (which was actually the topic of my presentation– I get the irony). I felt a great sense of accomplishment because I did it even though, and maybe because, I was really afraid.

The second voluntary situation is this blog itself! I want to write in it regularly as a way to develop my own thoughts on a variety of topics and to challenge myself to add to the work/life, education conversation, but the entire time I’m writing I’m trying to silence the voice in my head saying, “Does anyone really care about this?” It’s a small but powerful voice! From what I’ve read, and the advice I’ve gotten from others, is to just keep writing without attachment or expectation of outcome.

On a lighter note, the third voluntary circumstance I’ve thrown myself into is golf. My dad has been a huge golfer my whole life, but aside from a forgettable stint on the 9th grade girls’ golf team, I have not made an effort. After beginning my new job, however, something clicked– and I feel great motivation to at least be good enough to play at a very basic level in case of the occasional golf outing (even if it’s just a few holes before moving on to riding around in a golf cart, heckling the real golfers). It’s been fun taking lessons and assuming a beginner’s mindset, having no expectation of skill save that of what I may have remembered from the previous week’s lesson. It’s refreshing to look to someone else as the expert, and freeing to be able to ask any question that comes to mind without worry that maybe I should have known the answer. Not that in my current district leadership position I feel that I have to have all the answers– far from it– but there is an underlying sense (completely self-determined)  that I should have at least some idea or prior knowledge of everything I do.

The fourth situation evoking mild terror is the first annual district-wide technology conference that I’m planning. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to do something like this, and am extremely thrilled and grateful to my district leaders for supporting it. It’s scary though, because having never done it before, I have no idea how it’s going to turn out. I think it will be successful, as we’ve got 21 amazing staff members presenting on a variety of exciting topics, but still, I can’t control the number of staff signing up and it’s hard to predict what hiccups might occur that in hindsight should have been completely obvious. This one is especially looming large in my head right now, as it’s happening in less than a week! Stay tuned for a post-conference reflection :-).

Finally, I’m presenting at a big conference (ISTE– International Society for Technology in Education) at the end of the month. It’s in a format I’ve never tried before, and I could have said no, but it seemed like a new experience and, as I’ve established earlier in this post, there’s nothing I love more than being thrown in the deep end. So I said, “Sure, why not?”

TIPS TO REMEMBER WHEN YOU FIND YOURSELF DOING NEW AND SCARY STUFF:

  1. No ones cares. No ones cares like you do. This might seem really hard to believe, especially if you’re in a high-pressure environment like a conference presentation or some other circumstance where it feels like all eyes are on you, but it’s true. Your biggest nightmare (messing up your presentation, hosting a lame conference, whiffing your drive in front of colleagues) will very barely register in someone else’s mind. They might have a negative or critical thought skitter across their mind, but they will soon be back to focusing on their own worries.
  2. You’re growing your brain. Trying something new, practicing new skills, learning new concepts, all of these help stimulate the neuroplasticity of our brains. The very act of new physical or intellectual efforts helps our brains grow and form new pathways. You might never achieve greatness at these new skills, but your brain benefits all the same.
  3. Have no attachment to the outcome. This one is probably the thing that helps me the most. I won’t pretend that I don’t check the stats of this blog in the days after a new post is published, but I try to remember that I’m not writing to raise my stats or to receive some sort of outside acknowledgement– I am writing for myself. Once I hit that publish button and send it out into the universe, I’m done. I can release attachment from any further expectation. Same for the golf, or the presentations, or the conference– I want to do the very best that I can do, with the information that I have, and create circumstances with the greatest chance of success. But once you have done that and given it your best effort, you can release any further attachments to achieving specific outcomes.
  4. Examine your thoughts. Freaking out? Caught in a worry cycle? Wondering why you ever did this in the first place? Explore that. Follow your thoughts about the very worst outcome. What if it did happen? Would it really be all that bad? What might you learn if that did happen? Will people really judge you or laugh at you? This is highly doubtful. What I’ve found is that people tend to admire those who try stuff– even if they’re not successful. People regret what they don’t try– they don’t regret having tried something that failed.
  5. Have fun. Because new stuff is fun, and you often to get meet some pretty awesome people along the way! Take it from Ferris Bueller– life does move pretty fast and if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it!

What have you tried? Are you doing something new right now? Leave a message in the comments and let me know!

The Mentor

“What’s in it for the mentor?” George Costanza asks in a classic Seinfeld episode. “Is there money involved?” When Jerry lists the benefits of mentorship (“Respect, admiration, prestige”), George scoffs and asks if the protégé would “pick up stuff for the mentor… laundry, dry cleaning?”

I’ve never picked up anyone’s dry cleaning, but I have been lucky in my career to have had a number of mentors in both official and unofficial capacities. I can trace the lasting effect they’ve had on my career and how they shaped my understanding of what it means to be a professional. Additionally, because of their very different personal and professional styles, I learned something unique from each of them.

What follows is a list of people who both believed in and challenged me, and who consistently demonstrated the highest levels of professional ethics. I want them to know what their time and attention meant to me.

First there was was BF, my wonderful headmaster at a small international school in Indonesia. I was a newly-minted school librarian and eager to learn and grow in my position. BF was widely admired by the school community for his empathetic and supportive personal style and his unwavering commitment to doing whatever was best for kids. He also responded to every email in a timely fashion– regardless of how insignificant the question or request. Responding promptly to email is something that I have also tried to incorporate into my professional practice, because I remember how much I appreciated his quick responses. I thank BF for teaching me the importance of empathy and timely communication.

Next was DF, who was perhaps the most directly influential mentor that I had, as she and I worked together on a daily basis as we led a high school library. She and I are still close, which reflects the strong, positive nature of the relationship we built. DF has the most impressive work ethic of anyone I’ve ever met. She has boundless energy and the willingness to pitch in and do what needs to be done in order to accomplish a task, no matter how large or small, whether physical or mental in nature. Even though she was the head of our library, DF was willing to let me create programs and try new things– and would then jump in to support me every step of the way. She had no discernible ego about her position of leadership, and was also truly committed to supporting the goals of the school district through her work in the library. I thank DF for teaching me the value of encouraging others as well as the value of hard work and pitching to help until the job is done.

At the same school, I met TS, PB and KS, all of whom mentored me in important ways. TS was hands-down the most intensely passionate educator I have ever met. He was an administrator who was so supportive of teachers and students that he was willing to allow both to take risks and try new things if the purpose was to grow. When I came up with an idea for a new staff PD program, I pitched it to TS and received so much support and encouragement that there was no way I was going to fail. I thank TS for showing me that there is a place for intense passion and even argument in education as long as the goal is to help students succeed.

PB was also an administrator at the school and spent many hours of her time with me as I worked through my Master’s degree in educational leadership, for which she was my official mentor. PB and I had many long conversations, and I felt that she did take a special interest in supporting me and my career. Several years later, when I was contemplating a move back to the U.S. and looking for another job in education, she actually offered to talk to me on the phone about interviewing and job searching while I was still overseas. I of course took her up on it and received valuable insight. She was also one of the people who, when I expressed fear for my career when my family and I decided to leave our jobs and move overseas, consistently told me that “Good people land on their feet.” She never doubted me, and for that I thank PB.

KS was also an administrator at the school, and was a mentor who always challenged me to get better and do more. When he came to the school I was in a great position, but after we started working together he really leveled-up the content and quality of my work. I always enjoyed our conversations because he challenged me to deepen my understanding of school leadership and of my own capabilities. He believed in me to a degree that my own vision of what I could do in my career expanded exponentially, and for that I thank KS.

Finally, there was DH. DH was an official mentor, assigned to me in my new role as a district administrator. DH himself was a former longtime administrator, who possesses a wealth of experience in education and in educational coaching. Being a new district administrator comes with a learning curve, as it’s inherently different than working in a school building, and the ways in which communication needs to occur at this level are uniquely important. As an outsider to the organization, DH was able to help me understand how to work within the district office system and to become more effective in my approach. I experienced some significant challenges during the year we worked together, but was able to maintain both perspective (most days) and a commitment to my professional path largely due to his wise observations, recommendations, and unwavering professional support. I thank DH for teaching me how to design and maintain a successful career in educational administration, and for embodying the essence of a great mentor– even without the dry cleaning pickup.

My advice for prospective mentees: Don’t wait for an official mentor– look around you now and ask, “Who do I admire? Who is doing this right? Who has mastered skills that I’d like to have?” You can observe them in action, see how they handle various scenarios. You can also ask to meet with them occasionally. Come prepared with questions you’d like answered: “How do you manage x, y, z? What would you do if x, y, z happened?” Have no ego. You can learn from anyone, even someone in a lateral or lower position than you on the organizational chart.

My advice for prospective mentors: Be generous with your time, know that others may be watching and learning from you without your being aware, and have a firm understanding that a small gesture, word, or note from you may have unknown positive affects on someone still making their way. The benefits of being a mentor may not impress George Costanza, but mentoring’s value can yield truly immeasurable rewards for the rest of us.

mayaangelou

What Do They Say?

I haven’t written in this blog for almost three years, even though there has been plenty to write about (and then some)! I struggled to find a way to move it forward, but have recently been inspired by some great blogs and podcasts, by awesome people on Twitter, and by a respected colleague who is moving forward in her own blog journey.

I also recently made a public commitment to write two blog posts per month, so hopefully that will help. If you’re reading this blog and you notice that it’s been more than two weeks between posts, please feel free to leave me a comment and hold me to it!

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how people talk about one another and what it says about organizational culture. First, I count my lucky stars that I’m in an organization that immediately stood out as a place where respectful language is the norm. Regardless of to whom I’m talking, there is an underlying current of professional respect and regard, which influences all conversations.

sketch-3042584_1920But how do you know? If you are in a meeting with others, and the following people are mentioned, what is the tone? Positive, negative, or neutral? What if there is frustration about an action or direction that’s been taken by the person? Do staff engage in shared, public complaining or can they discuss the issue but maintain respectful language when discussing a situation– even though the person is not in the room?

  • Organization leaders
  • Lateral colleagues
  • Others in the organization

The healthiest organizations are those in which people speak respectfully of others even when it’s unlikely that the person would ever know what was said. This type of organizational culture fosters an atmosphere of trust because, as our mothers always said, “Anyone who talks behind someone’s back would do the same to you.”

Supposedly, negative gossip can serve as a form of social glue. We’ve all experienced that phenomenon, but I would argue that respectful language is even more bonding because you can feel confident that just as people are speaking respectfully about others, so they will likely speak about you. 

What can you do to foster this level of professional respect in your own organization? Choose to always speak about others in a respectful manner. You may be just one person, but you can help turn the tide and steer the ship towards the light.

 

 

Lean In Circles: Women Supporting Each Other at Work

LeanIn

This photograph is the product of nine intelligent, professional women trying to figure out how to operate a camera’s self-timer. This may have been the fourth try on the second (!) camera we attempted to use, so if we look a little wild-eyed, that’s why. Anyway…

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead explores issues of women in the workplace that she initially examined in her 2010 TED Talk “Why we have too few women leaders”. While reading this book I was challenged and disturbed by Sandberg’s analysis of what keeps women from rising to the tops of organizations, and invigorated by her thoughts about what women can do to break through the very real glass ceilings (of both our own and others’ creations) in order to attain career success and recognition.

When I was in college, I was fortunate enough to take several amazing, formative courses on women’s history and women’s roles in society from some very strong female professors. After beginning my actual career, however, and then gliding through my 20s and 30s without much professional angst, I stopped thinking so much about gender and career, as I didn’t see anything that I found particularly disturbing. I’ve started to sit up and pay more attention over the past two years, however, both in my own life and in the world in general. It’s clear that gender biases exist. I’ve been reading more on social media as well as in the traditional media and have been feeling increasingly that there is something I could do to help myself and to connect with other like-minded women.

After I read Lean In, I was hungry for more connection and ended up discovering that an entire foundation has been established to support the Lean In cause! On its website, LeanIn.Org states:

We are committed to offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals. If we talk openly about the challenges women face and work together, we can change the trajectory of women and create a better world for everyone.

One important element of LeanIn.Org is Lean In Circles, which are small groups of women committed to career growth, leadership, and maximizing their own potential. Another like-minded colleague and I decided, after a night of cocktails at a departmental party (always a good start to new collaborative efforts!), to create a Lean In Circle at our school. We debated about how best to go about creating a solid group– should we just ask people we already knew and with whom we felt comfortable, or should we open it up to the whole school and see how it shakes out? We ultimately decided on the latter, which ended up being a great decision. We were concerned at first because the Lean In organization advises circles not to have more than twelve people, mainly in order to ensure everyone’s personal investment and commitment to one another, but we trusted that it would ultimately work out. I think we started with almost twenty interested women, but after the first few meetings we ended up with a core group of eleven– the perfect size. We meet once a month for about 2 hours, rotating between members’ homes. We found that Sunday afternoons are best for most people, with a few weekday evenings thrown in every few months. Whoever hosts the meeting provides the food, often with help from one or two others, and then everyone is asked to bring wine. Yes, we do have wine (or sangria, thanks to a few talented mixologist members!). Obviously wine is not necessary, but it does help create a relaxed and social atmosphere, and it also helps differentiate these meetings from typical “work” meetings.

The Lean In website is amazing, because it provides downloadable guides for about twelve ready-made meetings, which have taken us a year to work through. It will also soon have a receptacle of “Create Your Own” meeting resources, which should be helpful as well. Additionally, there is a large library of videos that can be used to spark discussion on a variety of topics. A colleague and I meet a few days before each meeting to read through that week’s guide (meeting themes have included “Connecting”, “Energizing”, “Framing”, etc.) and decide who is going to lead which section. After trying a few different things, we found that printing packets for each group member worked best. That way members could read along with the instructions, write down their thoughts, and complete activities easier than if they did not have the text in front of them.

So those are the logistics of how we hold and plan our meetings, but what about the good stuff? What do we get out of it? SO MUCH. We have women from Elementary, Middle and High School, ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-40s. We have women who currently hold leadership positions (though no upper administrators) and women who have not yet held official leadership positions. We have women from North America, South America, Australia, the UK, and even one truly “TCK” (Third Culture Kid). We did not all know each other. We all have different career goals. We have different personalities. AND we all support one another 150%. Our meetings are completely safe spaces, with the explicit understanding that what is said in the meetings stays within the meetings. We share our frustrations at work as well as our successes. But even more than that, we help each other THINK and REFLECT on what these frustrations and successes mean. And while we all acknowledge that getting complaints and frustrations off our chest is important, we also all acknowledge that we don’t wish to rest in our dissatisfaction or frustration. Rather, we help each other to figure out how to navigate our situations, and how to understand that gender issues in the workplace are real and how to work with each other and with our colleagues to make our jobs and our organization a better, stronger, fairer place to work. The tone of all of our meetings is positive, with the ultimate goal being to strengthen our own capacities and to understand not only what we want out of our careers, but also how to form a roadmap to get there.

Also, as I’ve documented in this blog, I’ve just gone through a major, months-long job search. A HUGE, impossible to overestimate, boon to me during this time was the unwavering support I received from my Lean In group. These women regularly checked in, sent me emails of support, took time to listen to my hopes and fears during meetings, and just generally had my back. They’ll never know how much their care meant to me, and I can’t wait to do the same for them someday.

If you’ve got the drive, and are considering starting a Lean In Circle of your own, go for it! Find some women who are interested in leadership and career– even those with whom you have loose connections– and see what you can create. It’s been a transformative and inspiring journey for us. If you need something to get you started, read Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, or How Remarkable Women Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life by McKinsey consultants Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston.

Good luck, and Lean In!

Can You Make (Professional) Dreams Come True?

moon-478982_1920Two years ago I left a great job, a job that I enjoyed and that had the potential to progress my career in a new direction (educational technology). I left the job because my family had an opportunity to move overseas for a few years, where my husband and I would teach at an international school again and have the wonderful experience of traveling with our daughters, who would be attending the same school in which we would be teaching. I had to resign from this great job without knowing if I would ever have the chance to step back into the forward momentum I had been building toward a career in educational technology (I have been a school librarian for the past twelve years– I realize that there are overlaps between the two, but I have been looking forward to jumping with both feet into ed tech, with the hope of maybe someday being able to merge and lead in both areas).

During my two years at the international school I feared for the impact that my family’s move would have on my career. This in itself was guilt-inducing, as wasn’t it selfish of me to be so concerned about my own career, when my family was having an incredibly meaningful and enriching experience?  This was a struggle that I never really overcame, but did find peace with eventually. I had to accept that our decision could be both positive (overseas travel, family time, working in and having our children attend a great school, wonderful new friends) and negative (the potential impact on my career) at the same time. A little cognitive dissonance never hurt anyone, after all.

This past December, we had to officially declare whether or not we would be returning to the school next year. Partly due to my career goals, we decided to return to the U.S. This meant that my job search was on, and the pressure (much of it self-designed) began to mount. The five months between my first application and today have been a study in patience and in equanimity. During those five months and, really, in the two years since I decided to leave my previous job, I dedicated myself to intentional, continual, self-improvement in ways that would bring me closer to my goal of working in educational technology leadership. Even though it may have seemed strange considering my role as school librarian, I gained Google certifications, volunteered to create and manage the high school’s Twitter account, presented on technology at various conferences and workshops, designed and facilitated an online staff technology professional development program, and continued to read widely and participate frequently in the area of educational technology, particularly online via social media and blogs.

Fast-forward to today, and I’m thrilled to say that I recently got the Job of My Dreams. The one that seemed like an impossibility, especially due to those life and career decisions I made two years ago, which, while positive in may ways, seemed to derail the potential to achieve this dream. I am a testimonial to the fact that Dreams Come True and that it’s worth believing in this– and believing in yourself– even when it seems like you’ve taken a road the path for which is irreversible. I’m currently reading How Remarkable Women Lead by Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston, where I came across the following rather serendipitous passage*:

Many women set out, traveling down academic and career paths, only to discover meaningful work after more than a few turns in the road. The zigs and zags of their career may seem inefficient (surely a straight shot to your goal would seem a better choice). Things are not always what they seem. In most cases, women leaders recall that these zigs taught self-awareness and those zags led them down the path to skills and experiences that opened a door. It was not time wasted. It was their time for discovering what they loved and learning new capabilities (p.23).

I identify with this so strongly because I don’t for one second believe that these past two years, spent in a situation that I thought was actively moving me away from the career direction in which I wanted to go, were wasted time. They obviously were NOT wasted time when it came to family, travel, friends, and new experiences, but neither were they wasted time when it came to my career. This was a lightbulb moment for me. These past two years have confirmed for me the following: that I am ready for a change in career direction; that I do have leadership skills; and that educational technology leadership TRULY is my passion.

I felt a burning need to write this post because for so long people tried to reassure me by saying that it would all turn out alright, and that I could jump back into my career trajectory after this detour, but I DIDN’T BELIEVE THEM. Now I believe. I also wanted to write about this because I have several friends who have similar fears about their own careers, wondering if kids + family have set them back, or if they will ever have the opportunity to break through the ceilings of their own (or others’) creation.

If you’re feeling defeated and directionless, or just wondering how to increase your chances of finding your own Best Job, here’s what I’ve come up with– it’s not rocket science, but it is what ultimately worked for me:

CONTINUAL HARD WORK & GROWTH (Seek additional education and training; present workshops in your area of expertise; find small or large opportunities to get involved; create something new. Seek out anything that will grow your skills and experiences, and try to always have something going on the back burner.)  

MAINTAINING & FORMING NETWORKS (Maintain relationships with people whose careers you admire; who inspire you and from whom you can learn; who support you and your career aspirations; and who could help you with a reference, a phone call, a job posting heads-up, giving career advice, etc. Also seek to form new relationships with people who inspire you; who are leaders in your organization; and who might be able to strengthen and add to your professional networks.)

THE RIGHT FIT (Vital to remember. It’s not always about you. You could be working hard and growing, maintaining relationships and forming new ones, but if the job isn’t the right fit, it will never work. If an opportunity doesn’t work out for you, but you feel that you’ve done everything that you could, examine the reasons why it wasn’t the right fit. The jobs that didn’t work out for me during this time of interviewing and job hunting were for positions that didn’t fit my experiences and skill set, or for which there were already strong internal candidates in mind– aside: never underestimate the power of the internal candidate!! The job that ultimately worked out and was the Dream Job of the bunch? The job where the district’s needs aligned with my strengths and experiences. The same position in a different district may have had completely different needs and therefore would have led to the selection of a completely different candidate. It HAS to be the right fit for you and for them.)
=
SUCCESS. 

Don’t Give Up. Believe in yourself. It’s out there.

* More serendipitous quotes:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path. – Steve Jobs

The thing that I learned early on is you really need to set goals in your life, both short-term and long-term, just like you do in business. Having that long-term goal will enable you to have a plan on how to achieve it. We apply these skills in business, and yet when it comes to ourselves we rarely apply them. – Denise Morrison, CEO Campbell Soup Co.

The Future is Now. First Post.

mountains-549099_1280This is my inaugural blog post for my inaugural professional blog. I’ve got things to say, and ideas to share and reflect upon, much of which comes from what I read on other professional blogs in the fields of education, technology, school leadership, general leadership, librarianship, and miscellanea. Twitter also gets me thinking! I also think about what happens in daily professional life and how that reflects larger trends and societal phenomena. The title comes from my fascination with these types of trends as well as curiosity about the future of education, especially when it intersects with innovative school leadership and new technologies.

I’m at a crossroads in my life. I find myself at an intersection of leadership, technology, and librarianship, which is prompting much of this thinking and wondering. Writing and reflecting on this blog should be a good outlet for me to process the realities of moving back to the U.S. from overseas, securing (hopefully!) and beginning a new job, and finding a new home and town to resume our American Life.

Thanks for reading. Comments are always welcome!