This past weekend I was participating in my morning ritual of waking up by slowly drinking a cup of coffee while watching CBS Sunday Morning. This habit is relatively new, developed during the pandemic. Last summer, when the pandemic was moving from a temporary phase into a way of life, I realized I needed to change my nearly constant consumption of news and decided to be more selective about what I feed my brain. CBS Sunday Morning does that for me — it provides both insight and uplifting stories of humanity, which I’ve needed, like many of you, over the past many months.
This week’s program featured a commentary by David Byrne, Talking Heads founder and frontman, who spoke of “collective effervescence.” This phrase, coined by sociologist Emile Durkheim more than 100 years ago but recently back in vogue, describes a state of being when humans gather in religious or other group settings and feel joy and connection. It is a reminder that humans are innately social animals, with the need to conduct our lives as more than individuals and create something that is larger than ourselves when we are together.
Although Zoom was essential to our existence for months — it allowed us to continue our work and maintain important connections — it was no substitute for the true person-to-person connection that I observed taking place.
Byrne’s commentary spoke to what I experienced just days earlier, in Seattle, during the 2021 Enrollment Management Association Annual Conference. As a member of the EMA Board of Trustees, I participated in several smaller meetings prior to the conference. But it was the opening reception that showed me — as I entered a ballroom filled with 500 attendees — that we have entered a new normal. Receptions of this kind used to be second nature for me; I typically attended more than two dozen in any given year. This gathering was both jarring and exciting.
I’ll be honest: it is strange walking into a room of colleagues, who, all fully vaccinated, are wearing masks between sips of an adult beverage and bites of a light snack, all in the name of networking in person with peers from across the country. But there we were, enjoying the much-needed human connection with others who share our passion for independent schools and seeking to gain additional skills so we can serve our schools even better in the future. Although Zoom was essential to our existence for months — it allowed us to continue our work and maintain important connections — it was no substitute for the true person-to-person connection that I observed taking place.
The next morning was equally inspiring, with the opening keynote address delivered by Ozan Varol, author of “Think Like a Rocket Scientist.” I was gifted this book a few months ago, but for no particular reason, it did not make it to the top of my reading list — until the EMA meeting. Having experienced the author’s talk, hearing him share personal insights from his work, made it more compelling for me to pursue the work more deeply. Again, the human factor had undeniable impact.
While the meeting and its collective effervescence are behind us for now, I’ll share a few key takeaways that may whet your appetite for Varol’s engaging work.
In short, failure is necessary because it helps us build investments toward eventual success. As leaders within learning communities, it is important to consider what some of our most unsuccessful efforts teach us.
Approach problem-solving broadly and don’t get distracted. Varol shared a story about a professor at Stanford, who challenged his entrepreneurship class to make as much money as possible from $5 in two-hours. Every team was then to give a three-minute presentation about what was achieved. Some of the teams used the $5 to buy materials for a car wash or lemonade stand. Others purchased a lottery ticket. The team that made the most money didn’t use the $5 or feel limited by the two-hour timeframe. They understood these were distractions that limited their thinking. They sold the three-minute presentation to a company interested in recruiting Stanford students and walked away with $650.
Failure is an investment in the future. Varol understands that no one likes failure. He points to the example of Thomas Edison, who once said, “I haven’t failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Once again, Varol turned my thinking on its head by sharing that the most valuable aspect of failure is what we can learn from it. In short, failure is necessary because it helps us build investments toward eventual success. As leaders within learning communities, it is important to consider what some of our most unsuccessful efforts teach us.
Although large gatherings don’t yet look or feel the same, my re-entry into in-person professional development provided me with the same optimism and sense of opportunity as it did before the world changed forever. And when you are ready, I’m confident it will do the same for you as well. After all, we are truly better together.
Follow President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.
From Net Assets NOW, September 28, 2021. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.