[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). All feedback is welcome!]
When I tell people I’m not very passionate, it’s often met with derision. “Passion,” they say, “is the most important trait you can possess when working with kids.” I have to respectfully disagree, and I think Eleanor Roosevelt can back me up:
“Early on in her ascendant political career, a visitor once spoke of Eleanor Roosevelt’s ‘passionate interest’ in a piece of social legislation. The person had meant it as a compliment. But Eleanor’s response is illustrative. ‘Yes,’ she did support the cause, she said. ‘But I hardly think the word passionate applies to me.’ As a genteel, accomplished, and patient woman born while the embers of the quiet Victorian virtues were still warm, Roosevelt was above passion. She had purpose. She had direction. She wasn’t driven by passion, but by reason.”–Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy
As Ryan Holiday writes, Roosevelt was above passion–she had purpose. Purpose is what sustained the Britons through the Blitz. It’s what propels all people through trials and tribulations that besiege us.
Passion doesn’t cut it when everything is on the line. Passion usually doesn’t even suffice when it’s 5:30 A.M., and you have to get up for work. What gets you out of bed? It may be a sense of responsibility, but I’m certain for most people within the field of education, there’s a large sense of purpose (not passion) willing your body from under the warm covers.
Purpose is also what gets a teacher through a minimum day before a holiday. Purpose is what strengthens a teacher’s resolve when the test scores come back low even though he or she has worked extremely hard. Purpose is what keeps a PLC team together when egos are clashing. Purpose is what motivates a principal who feels alone and isolated.
“Great passions are maladies without hope.”–Goethe
Oftentimes we speak of passion and purpose synonymously, but they’re not the same. Passion is fleeting. Passion can get the job done, but it can’t get all the jobs done. Purpose is the trait that pushes through the frustrating, impossible, or plain mundane and follows through with initiatives. It’s easy to implement a program, but you’ll need more than passion in order to make sure the program functions properly for years to come. Everyone wants to start new cool things at schools and within districts because the beginning of all implementations are fun. A leader has to have sustainable purpose in order to support effective initiatives that get the job done.
So what are some ways to help strengthen a culture centered on purpose?
- Avoid using the word “passion.”
- Continually reflect upon the most important things that must be accomplished for students to learn.
- Have staff members and students post their purposes on the walls of every classroom.
- Systems over goals. (More on this later.)
- Read books.
- Avoid “shiny objects.” (More in just a bit.)
So what should your purpose be? That’s the million dollar question, and everyone is going to have a different answer. Some people say, “Well, it’s surely not to test kids to death,” while others will say, “Assessing students and knowing what they know is the most important part of my job as an educator.”
In my opinion, most people aren’t born with an articulated vision of their life’s purpose. It requires experience, relationships, reading, and possibly even the beginning of one’s career in order to figure out why we do what we do. I wasn’t able to articulate my purpose until I had already worked approximately eight years as a teacher. I remember sitting in the waiting room of a car dealership as my Honda Accord was being serviced. While I waited for my sensible and economical car to be ready, I read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning in which he writes, “The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs.”
I won’t say at that moment a light shone down from heaven and angels started singing, but I do remember feeling a sense of relief as I thought to myself, “OK, so that’s what I need to do.” There was nothing passionate about this realization–passion wasn’t necessary. All I needed was my personal and professional experiences up to that point, coupled with the wise words of Frankl. Soon after I was able to articulate my sustaining purpose:
Even though every situation supplies non-stop conflict, I will strive to help others find meaning in their lives.
This purpose dovetailed nicely with my professional life, and it’s what drives me to do my best–even when I feel zero passion.
I’ve also come to realize that clearly defining both your own personal purpose and the organization’s purpose is an excellent way to narrow your focus. Too often teachers and administrators make grandiose and passionate goals, only to fail miserably as the school year slogs on. Honestly, failure could be attributed to too much passion and not enough purpose, but it also could be a result of doing too much in general. An interesting corollary to finding purpose is the importance of striving for simplicity.
(The next section in the book is entitled “Simplicity.”)