[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

What are some personal things you’d like to accomplish? Learn another language? Master an instrument? Go to the gym? Eat healthier? Save more money? Whatever it is, you may think the best way to attain what you want is by setting goals, and you might frame it like this:

  • I’ll conjugate X number of verbs by Friday.
  • I’ll learn X number of chords on the guitar by Friday.
  • I’ll go to the gym every weekday.
  • I’ll eat X number of vegetables a day.
  • I’ll not spend X amount of money each month so I can save it instead.

You probably read the above statements and found them to be reasonable–perhaps even noble. There are some people who can set goals and then power through until they’re accomplished. If that’s you, and you’re successful, then that’s great. Unfortunately, for many of us, goals set us up for failure. That foreign language never gets learned. The guitar remains on the stand that was purchased from the local instrument store. The gym never becomes more welcoming than a warm bed on a cold morning. Vegetables never become tastier than pizza, and saving money in one’s Roth IRA isn’t as fun as attending a Bruno Mars concert.

Setting a goal doesn’t mean a thing. Unfortunately, the simple act of creating a goal makes people feel they’ve accomplished something when they haven’t–at least not yet. This occurs on an individual level, and it happens within schools and districts as well. Administrators and teachers set professional development goals all the time.

  • We’ll learn to deploy blended learning strategies by the end of the year.
  • We’ll send everyone to a direct instruction training.
  • All teachers will use the adopted curriculum by the end of the quarter.
  • Program X will be implemented by the second semester.

We’re quick to make checklists, and then we’ll go to town checking items off in the mad rush to 100 percent implementation. While checklists are extremely powerful on many occasions, learning within an organization is not one of them.

Goals can lead us astray. Instead, what we need are systems. For example, when I set out to write this book, I didn’t say, “I’m going to have the first ten pages done by Friday… I’ll have the rough draft finished in nine months… I’ll proofread it by the end of the summer.” Instead, I set aside a period of time each day where I did nothing but work on this book. Oftentimes, I woke up at 4:45 A.M. and wrote until 6:00 A.M. This wasn’t a goal–I simply set my alarm for 4:45 A.M., woke up, walked to my laptop, and began typing. During each morning session, the words poured out. Some days I was lucky if I could muster 300 words that made sense. On other days, 1,000 or more words leapt onto the screen effortlessly.

If I would have set goals for myself, I don’t think you would be reading what’s in front of your eyes right now. The creation of this book was the product of setting up a system within my day when the work would get done, and that made all the difference. Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, wrote a book entitled How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. In it, he states, “Success isn’t magic; it’s generally the product of picking a good system and following it until luck finds you.” Adams is a huge proponent of the systems-over-goals mentality. Harkening back to the first section of this book regarding purpose and passion, Adams writes, “How much passion does this fellow have for his chosen field? Answer: zero. What he has is a spectacular system, and that beats passion every time.” Even without passion, there’s always a purpose, and systems assist the purpose-driven person in attaining heights that goals and passion can’t reach.

Likewise, I believe schools would benefit from creating systems where adults can’t help but learn how to become better teachers and administrators. Goals aren’t cutting it when it comes to professional development–what we need are systems set up throughout every week, possibly each day, where administrators and teachers can learn (whether they feel like it or not). Whenever this time takes place (staff meetings, PLC meetings, prep periods, lunch), the learning opportunity isn’t about checking off that learning has occurred. Rather, it’s about deep learning. This means what’s being learned is part of a coherent framework that’s more concerned with mastery over compliance. In this scenario, ad hoc strategies are banished so everything being learned is connected. This allows administrators and teachers to make clear connections among district-wide implementations, adopted curriculum, technology, ELD strategies, formative assessments, data protocols, and so on.

To be honest, it all comes down to a campus full of lead learners.

Beauty in limitations

I’ll never dunk on LeBron James. I’ll never be a programmer at Google. I’ll never be an astronaut.

The reason I won’t accomplish these three scenarios has nothing to do with not being interested. I like basketball–I especially loved it when I was younger. I would’ve loved to play in the N.B.A. The problem is that my own physical limitations make it impossible to dunk on LeBron. (Unless he lets me jump off his back.)

I’m fascinated by programming. Coding is really, really fun–but I’ll never have the expertise nor the mathematical prowess to be a programmer at the same level as a Google employee.

The same goes for being an astronaut. Walking on the moon would be great, but having the ability to become an astronaut? Forget it.

There’s no shame in not being able to do everything. There’s actually beauty that can be found in limitations. Limitations constrain, but they also funnel. Think of a garden hose. The water flowing through it is not going to be spraying all over the yard, but it will have a direct effect on the portion of the lawn on which it lands.

Same with limitations. I won’t be able to dunk on King James. I won’t work at Google as a programmer. I won’t walk on the moon. Check. Check. Check. And a check for all the other things I won’t be able to accomplish in this lifetime. OK, good, now I’ll focus on the things I can do well. I’ll look for the one-foot bars.

There are times when we should let go of some goals in order to apply more force toward things at which we’re really good. Let the limitations guide us so we’re funneled toward what we’re meant to do. Embrace the constraints.