The Ten Year Challenge – Reinventing Yourself

Where were you ten years ago?

Although the premise of the #TenYearChallenge is more about looks than anything else, it opens up a whole bunch of possibilities if you consider the changes in your values or your passions. Ten years ago I was still living in Montreal, skiing on the weekends, kayaking in the summers and playing frisbee as much as I could; I had also only been teaching for a couple of years. A veritable NEWB of sorts.

But if you went back and told 2008 me where he would be in just under a decade… I probably wouldn’t have believed you. And yet, here I am: recently married, living in Bali, the owner of several pets/motorbikes, and I just finished my M.Ed in Administration and Leadership. These were all things that were NOT on my radar back in 2008 – not by a long shot. In fact, I specifically remember having a very long-winded conversation about how much I didn’t want to do my Masters… ever. Times change. You will change. It’s inevitable.

We could go back even further if you wanted – let’s try a twenty year challenge, shall we? Back then I only had a high school diploma, I had officially dropped out of school I was skiing professionally in the winters, while trying to make enough money as a carpenter throughout the summers. 1998 Mr. Wilson had a totally different set of priorities and I was not particularly interested in what school had to offer at the time. Some of my friends on the other hand had no problems motivating themselves and they breezed through college and university. As if they knew exactly what they wanted and what programs to take to get there (not true, that’s just how they made it look from the outside!) It was only many years later that I noticed that most of us ended up in similar places later on – we just took a variety of different paths to get there.

The long and the short of it is that you need to learn to trust yourself and what you are feeling at any given moment – and don’t get me wrong, this type of introspection ain’t easy. Tumbled up in there are a whole bunch of emotions and expectations – could be your own, could be from someone else. These feelings tend to rise to the surface when people ask you about your plans for the future: What are your plans for the future? Where do you see yourself going next year? Where do you see yourself in five years? Many ask these kinds of questions inadvertently; I call it “medium-talk.” Small talk is usually about the weather, but medium-talk is still just a knee-jerk reaction when people don’t know what to say and the conversation has stalled. Even so, what you need to do is pay attention to your own feelings and your own passions – “I don’t know” is definitely an answer, but it doesn’t hold up for very long.

Sometimes I feel like this kind of thinking feels strange to us because it’s like day dreaming; we fear if we picture it too much or if it starts to feel too real, the image might crumble just because we’re too focused or we are trying too hard. This is not the case. Don’t just picture yourself in a variety of situations, actually go out and involve yourself in as many different situations as possible. In most cases you will crash and burn (ask me about kitesurfing someday) – but in others you may find a sort of revelation or an “aha” moment. And keep in mind that your “likes” and “dislikes” are going to change. I used to hate mushrooms and tomatoes. Now, I can’t get enough of them. What changed? Very little.

So where will Mr Wilson be in ten years?

I don’t honestly know – but I do know I’ll be laughing at how silly I was ten years ago, and how much I’ve learned since then.

On Being a Newb

To do list: (1) Do something that makes you feel like a NEWB, (2) look up the definition of “noob” and get your spelling right.

From the aforementioned Urban Dictionary: “Contrary to the belief of many, a noob/n00b and a newbie/newb are not the same thing. Newbs are those who are new to some task and are very beginner at it, possibly a little overconfident about it, but they are willing to learn and fix their errors to move out of that stage. n00bs, on the other hand, know little and have no will to learn any more. [Noobs] make up a unique species of their own.”

As I’m discovering and as I get older, I’m starting to recognize that “newb” feeling all too readily – and let’s be real – it ain’t pleasant.

Last year I made a promise to myself that I would try my hand at playing the drums – I’d never really played before, but it always looked like a lot of fun. I mean, how hard could it be? Sit there and whack away – right? No. Totally wrong. For my 40th birthday a few months ago my wife surprised me with some drumming lessons at a local music shop – awesome, super stoked. But now we are three weeks in and I actually feel like I am getting worse. I’m practicing three times a week and every time I think I’m getting better, I regress. This week I learned that my left hand doesn’t like taking the lead, oh and I have a really hard time disassociating my right leg from whatever my right hand in trying to do.

Hello NEWB feelings. Welcome back. I’ve missed you. 

But these feelings of frustration and anger are so normal, it’s hard to get my head around them. Have I simply forgotten what it’s like to be new at something? The short answer is YES. We all have a tendency to lean towards that which is comfortable or routine – basically, we avoid most newbish situations the majority of the time. Why? Because they make us feel like crap, our confidence levels plummet and our belief in our own abilities is a big reason we get anywhere half of the time. 

There’s more to it than just feeling uncomfortable, there’s also all those feelings of rejection and struggle. The little voice in your head that says “stop, just stop. You look like a fool.” And I have to constantly remind myself that the only person who is really worried about all this stuff, is me. Because there is a bunch of stuff I can do with a modicum of decency: like scuba diving, skiing, cooking, and (hopefully) writing. How did I get so good at all that stuff? Mostly through years and years of just blatant repetition regardless of the quality I thought I was producing. Did I ever stop and ask myself: “hey, you suck this newbie, why don’t you stop?” No. Instead, I just hummed a tune and kept on going – until years and years down the road – it looks to an outsider like a natural talent.

I have a very clear memory from when I turned 30 and I was learning how to whitewater kayak. I hadn’t been in a boat in a long time and the process was not exactly “smooth.” And I remember paddling with my friend Gareth one day and he said: “here, do it like this.” Gareth proceeded to execute a flawless entry onto the wave, surfed around beautifully and effortlessly, and then exited gracefully. I thought to myself, “oh, that looks pretty easy.” So I tried to do what he did… and spectacularly failed. But I’ll never forget how I felt immediately afterwards when I realized that’s exactly how we look and sound as teacher: we make it look easy when it is clearly not that simple. Telling people “do as I do” after year and years of practice is terrible advice. Instead we should say, “maybe if you practice everyday for 10 years you’ll look like me, for now just try to survive with your dignity intact.”

Learning to to play the drums at age 40 is not only a humbling experience (in my head I just sat down at the set and immediately sounded like John Bonham) but it has also been rather entertaining. Every time I try to play, I find myself hyperaware of what I’m doing and how my muscles seem to be actively working against my explicit instructions. As a result, I am find I have more patience with my students and their own learning processes. I find that I am more likely to lend them some space to try and fail, and then to laugh so we can try again. The end result(s) is always great, but I had clearly forgotten the uphill battle(s) that come with learning any new skill.

So be proud of being a newb. 

Wear your trials on your sleeve and don’t back down just because the going gets tough. Being a newb is not only the path to life-long learning, it’s an everyday part of living.

The Martyr

I am an English teacher.

I would surmise that most, if not all, English teachers all suffer from a debilitating disease known as the “martyr” syndrome. At any point throughout the year, housed within our fashionable Oxford leather tote bags, we lug around stacks and stacks of essays or papers or writing tasks that absolutely must be marked. We mark in the evenings. We mark on the weekends. I even used to bring my marking to the mechanic, and I would mark while waiting for my car.

And we all get it. We all get that marking is “part of the job” and we can clearly see the tangible results when we design a good assessment with timely feedback. But what are we really creating in the long run? We are creating a population of students that buy into the idea of societal meritocracy: we tell you what to do and how to do it, and then we somehow measure how well you did it. Strangely, though, we are also continually surprised when they are disengaged or simply waiting for their teacher to tell them what they “should” be thinking. We’re not creating free-thinkers who question and explore; we’re creating minions who have learned to comply, because that’s how the system works.

Better yet – we boil a student’s entire year of progress and learning own into a single number or a letter grade. Perfect. Education in a nutshell.

Today, however, we sit precariously on the cusp of greatness. What I can only describe as a technological revolution is putting an immense amount of pressure on the age-old traditions of the educational landscape. Industry norms are changing at lightning fast speed, to the point where even the concept of “work,” “job” and “career” are totally different than they were five years ago. Don’t get me wrong, technology has its limits and this new reality we are creating is relatively unknown – but that doesn’t change the nature of our function as educators: which is to get students from point A to point B.

A wiser man than me once said: “if you don’t look back at yourself a year or two ago and think ‘jeez, I can’t believe I used to think that way,’ then you’re not learning or improving.” And this holds true to our teaching practices as well. What our students need and how they interact with the readings we assign, the project based assignments we give them, or even how they interpret their reports is not longer the same as it was a year ago. Too often we get stuck in what George Couros calls That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It [or TTWWADI for short] because that’s how we are wired – it’s the simplicity of the routine that calls to us on a primal level. Even I’ve said similar words to myself, late at night like a silent prayer to great Gods of the almighty curriculum. Marking papers and writing reports is no different – they give us the comfort of measurement – because if it can measured and counted, then clearly we have control over the situation.

So what happens when we question the establishment? What happens when we step out of our comfort zone(s) and into the harsh light of something new and unforeseen? That which is uncertain scares us the most, not so much because