I know many people who think that you have to be excellent at something to be successful. I know some people that are successful simply because they are excellent at talking about themselves. Unfortunately, being good at something doesn’t make you successful, and being successful doesn’t make you good at something (although it can often give you a false sense of confidence).
I learned this when I became a teacher. After graduating high school, I went straight to work, at the very school I graduated from. I was a summer school teaching assistant. I had this job all four years I was in college and then spent the two years after college working there as a full time teacher.
During this time, I was not a very good teacher. I was probably somewhere between decent and mediocre. But I thought I was amazing. How did this get so out of sync? Well, I only reached about 25% of my students. I taught directly to them, the ones that were like me, the ones that would “get it.” And boy, did they love me. For the 1 in 4 that I was reaching out to with my sage on the stage routines and my old-wisdom-meets-new-hipness dance, I entranced and enthralled. It was heavenly. I was on top of the world. Meanwhile 75% of the room was either confused or annoyed or just plain checked out.
I had fallen into two traps. The first was listening to a small minority for the strongest signal of satisfaction. The second was believing I had mastered the craft when I had only developed skills in one small part of the overall practice of teaching. I had neither the insight, nor the humility to see what was going on. So I was, in a word, insufferable. I made all my old teachers angry with me. I maintained an attitude as if I was smarter and better than they were and I’d learned all their tricks and put them all together and now I was the best “magician” in the school! But the trick I played was on myself.
I had spent 10 years of my life in this community of lifelong learners and lovers of education. And now, despite being both these things, I didn’t fit in. I didn’t belong. I had pushed people away with my hubris and mediocrity. To mitigate the increasing isolation, I focused on the small group of students that kept sending me letters of thanks, gushing their joy and learnings. I said, “See! this is why I’m better than all of you! You taught me, and now I’m teaching you.”
Now I know a little better. After excommunicating myself from my old high school (and first employer), I spent the next ten years reliving some of those lessons, pushing people away with a cocktail of superiority and self-doubt. But each time, it left me more empty. When you connect with 25% of the room, you feel like a rebel or an outsider or a menace, and people start treating you like one. You start believing them, and eventually, there’s only one outcome available to you: departure.
A few years ago, I was finally ready to learn from 20 years of experience in this pattern of behavior. I was ready to try connecting with 100% of people. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life learning how. But at least I have a path forward: demand mastery, reject hubris.
Starting with myself, I must demand mastery. It’s not ok to work well with half my colleagues and ignore or complain about the others. It’s not ok to wield power to drive “my” idea forward when there are certainly better ones out there that haven’t been heard. It’s certainly not ok to build things that are subpar or create things that I’m not proud of, and it’s definitely not ok to accept other people’s work if I believe it to be these things. I must demand the best work from them and from myself.
I must also reject the notion that I’m brilliant, or that I’ve earned my place in life, or that I’m going to be the one to change the world. These are fantasies from my childhood, and they are simply that, childish. I am not brilliant, but when I connect with people, together we can create brilliance. I haven’t earned my place in life, I got here by the luck of birth, and the fortune of loving friends and parents. Did I play a part in my journey? Yes, and I can’t say that I did it alone or that I worked hard and “made it” because that would mean dismissing all the people and experiences that prompted my actions and thoughts. Finally, I have to admit, to myself and others, I’m not going to be the one to change the world. I can be someone who who speaks truth to the powerful and empathy to the disempowered. I have a knack with language, and I can use it. If I demand mastery, reject hubris, and bring this message to a great many people, they will change the world, and I will be a part of that change.
If I don’t, I run the risk of watching the world change around me and the percentage of people with whom I can connect and create will shrink until I’m dead. I agree to take a different approach to life, and for those of you who have already started working with me on this approach, you know it well. Together we create, we build, we challenge each other, and we walk forward, together, as friends. This is how the world changes, not with the shouts of hubris or the acceptance of mediocrity, but with the collective grasping at mastery and the humility to wield it together.