posted on January 29, 2010 05:16
I recently faced a tough challenge while skiing in northern Vermont, and it got me thinking about the power of mindsets. Although I'm an experienced skier, I'm relatively new to skiing the trees. Also called "the glades" or "off-piste," skiing the trees means weaving in and out of pines, dodging birch and maple limbs, in order to make your way down the mountain—a much different and more difficult skill to master than skiing maintained, groomed trails. On this particular day a bad combination of rain and dropping temps had covered the trails in bulletproof ice. A foot of light, powdery snow followed, but heavy winds blew it from the slick trails into the shelter of the trees. As a result the trails were icy, but the trees were a paradise of fluffy white stuff.
Which meant there were two options: ski the trees or go home. I chose to ski, even though I was intimidated. But I couldn't find my rhythm; one turn at a time I was barely making my way down the mountain, foot by miserable foot. And because they were working so much harder than they needed to, constantly starting and stopping, my muscles were fast fatiguing. After a couple of challenging runs, I was psychologically shot—I hate this, I kept thinking. What's worse, I felt ashamed; fear was holding me back from doing something that, deep down, I knew I could do, or at least, I knew I could learn to do. So why wasn't I just doing it?
But then I remembered something: "It's not the obstacles that stop us; it's our psychological reactions to the obstacles that stop us." This Efficacy Insight is one of the most powerful concepts I know, and one I've called on time and time again. It caused me to recall a strategy I'd learned on my bike—that if you focus on an obstacle in your way (broken glass, a downed limb, or pothole) your body will naturally steer your bike directly to it. So you train yourself to look for an open path around the obstacle as soon as you recognize it.
On the mountain, I knew I needed to turn my focus away from the trees to the winding paths of open snow around them. By simply telling myself to shift my focus, stay confident, and take an appropriate risk, I was able to put all of my effort toward skiing the path. I began, almost instantly, to ski the trees better than I ever had before. Sometimes, in tight spots, I still only made one or two turns (I'm still improving after all), but other times I was gliding through whole sections, just following the open path in front of me. I forgot all about my aching muscles because I was having so much fun, and I was so high with the sense of accomplishment.
I share this story because I think education reform is a lot like "skiing the trees." A forest of imposing obstacles commands our attention: we lack money and other resources, crime is high, and media messages are powerfully negative; too many students come to us underprepared, many don’t seem to care about learning, there isn’t enough parent involvement, and the public isn't always behind us. Who could argue that reforming a system with so many issues is anything less than a truly daunting challenge?
There’s no doubt it will be tough. But concentrating on these obstacles only diverts our attention and divides our efforts; quite simply we won't clear the trees by thinking about them. To get the job done, we need to focus on the open paths. Kids have a natural desire to learn. Parents want their kids to be successful, in school and in life. Society needs the next generation of citizens to have 21st century knowledge and skills. There are educators in every school getting their kids to proficiency; they are excellent resources for others committed to improving their results. Schools in every district are making progress, demonstrating what is possible, and modeling solutions and strategies that can be implemented elsewhere.
We may not be able to control the obstacles that loom before us, but we can control the way we think about them, and what we do as a result. Given the imperative nature of the Mission, and the immense challenge of accomplishing it, it is essential that we take advantage of every resource we have – including our mindsets. However formidable, we simply cannot afford to freeze before the specter of the trees ahead. All of us must be leaders, seeking out paths, and showing others how to do the same.
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