Reflecting on priorities of family & work
What’s your Mt. Everest and does falling a little short of the top diminish the accomplishment?
I’m a bit of a junkie on mountaineering stories. In fact – I’m a bit of a junkie for any story about an individual or group of individuals that push themselves to their physical and/or mental limit. I recently watched, “Everest”. It’s the 3rd such iteration of the same story I’ve either read or watched based on the 1996 tragedy on Everest. I could not help but think about the personal sacrifices all of these people made in dogged pursuit of a single-minded goal – many sacrificing their lives.
Jon Krakauer was on that assent to document it for Outside Magazine, eventually turning into the book and movie, “Into Thin Air”. During a scene in the movie, he asked the others on his expedition, “Why do you do it?” Most offered a version of the famous Sir Edmund Hillary answer, “Because it’s there”. Interspliced into this scene were views of families left behind at home for months at a time, wondering if they would ever see their loved one again each time they go out. Talk about work, life, and family prioritization. I thought about my personal Everest – launching a school in South LA committed to getting every student to and through college.
In 2003, I was able to launch a school that got a lot of students to and through college – but not all. More than what other schools were doing, but nowhere close to all. Could I have? To what personal impact? Getting every student to college isn’t possible without incredible sacrifices – personal and real. Even then it might not be entirely possible. What was the toll it took on me? I was 35 lbs heavier. More importantly, I didn’t have the time to nurture relationship. Truth be told, my wife (girlfriend at the time) and I didn’t talk for 10 months because my myopia towards my work goals clouded everything else. Fortunately, I got perspective and we’ve been happily married for a dozen years now.
Severely clouded judgment impacted what happened on Everest in 1996. No one wanted to stop close from the top even though good judgment said they should turn around. Many of them died. Others lost limbs. The comparison might seem dramatic, but I saw a 34 year old teacher die in one of our classrooms from a heart attack. Numerous other staff members cracked from the pressure, breaking down in tears and some of them quitting.
Let me be clear – plenty of people run great schools, are in excellent shape, and have great relationships with their loved ones. I call them anomalies – but they do exist. I just wasn’t capable of sustaining it and few are – one of the limitations of the teaching and principal profession. Very few of the colleagues I started with are still doing it and it almost always coincides with when they get married and start a family.
I reflect back on those students who didn’t make it to college and ask myself what more could I have done or even if I could have done more at all. What I really ask myself most is,
“How much is good enough?”
I watch a lot of Ironman races on YouTube – I have a personal goal to do a half-Ironman this year (fundraising for the Lazarex Cancer foundation for it here) and a full Ironman when my kids go to college. I would considering doing a full Ironman this year or next, but not at the cost of losing more time with my family. But I digress – one of the rules of Ironman is that you have to finish in 17 hours. Evey race, many finish just long of that goal. According to Ironman, Inc., they cannot call themselves an “Ironman”. I’m not sure how much that should diminish their accomplishment. Those individuals just did something that almost only a few thousand athletes in the world could do, even if it took them 17 hours and 1 minute.
The individuals who fall short of summiting Everest, may have climbed to 28,000 feet and fallen a little over a 1,000 feet short, but still are somewhere only a few hundred in the world could reach.
Schools in underserved communities who get most of their kids to college are still doing something that only tens of schools across the country are able to do. When we are blinded by the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) we make poor choices that often do not lead to greater success, long-term sustainability and impact, let alone personal happiness and balance. I think about “Dangerous Minds” and “Freedom Writers” – both celebrated stories of teachers doing amazing things with students in the inner city. But did you know that between them, Louanne Johnson and Erin Gruwell taught for only 6 years? It doesn’t diminish what they accomplished during their time in the classroom, but does call into question whether or not they could have dialed it back a little in order to impact more kids in the long-term; or perhaps they’ve been able to leverage their intense, short-term success into a different kind of impact in the long-run by inspiring others and through other work.
It’s easy to be a prisoner of the moment and go all in every time. But life is a marathon and not a sprint. I think about how Greg Popovich rested Tim Duncan against the Warriors earlier this week in easily the biggest regular season game this year. His point – I know you all want to see this matchup, but we’re after the NBA Championship and not this random game in the middle of the season and Tim Duncan is old.
I’m going to keep running my 9 and a half minute miles (hopefully getting it under 9 this year) for as far and long as I can. I’ll sprint in some sections when it’s required and then recover in others when I can. My daughter is a pretty fast swimmer and could beat me in a 25 yard race, probably even a 50 yard race; but give me a mile and slowly, I’ll pass her and start to lap her. In youth, we go balls out; with age we recognize that slow and steady might be a better strategy.
I’m still in the race (education reform) for work, but it’s a different race for me than it used to be. I still have my Everest – it aligns with Teach for America where I got my start in education that “One Day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education”. Instead of blindly charging headlong, I’m meticulously plotting my moves.
This world needs the sprinters, the marathoners, and the Ironmen; the day-hikers, those who climb Mt. Whitney, and Everest attempters; it’s the Everest summiters and Ironmen who show us what’s possible when we sacrifice it all. It’s the others who benefit from that bar and get the bulk of the work done.
I mean how many people were inspired by Julie Moss in 1982 to do their own personal or a real Ironman.