A Recap of My Goals, Accomplishments, and Failures in 2017

I love reading biographies and autobiographies. While some of my favorite such books retell the lives, lessons, challenges, and achievements of the most notable people in history; I also enjoy learning about lesser known people. They might not be in the spotlight, but their impact can be noteworthy as well. In fact, when I read books by authors or come across educators and entrepreneurs whom I respect, I often wish that I could get more of the candid and uncensored view of their lives and journeys. What were their challenges? What demons did they battle? What failures did they face on their way to accomplishments? Did they struggle with self-doubt and character flaws? If so, how did they work through such things? Were they sometimes disorganized and unfocused? Did they change their minds often? Or, did they sometimes take on more than they could reasonably accomplish? What were their grandest embarrassments and how did they turn them into opportunities or life lessons? What habits and rituals both helped and hindered their progress? In other words, I want to see if there is anything that I can glean from their lives that might help me as I go about my life journey.

As such, and in the spirit of “do unto others…” I started sharing more of those more candid parts of my life and work on this blog. Part of that over the last few years includes both goals and priorities for each new year, along with some mid-year and end of year updates (of course, a more select group of subscribers get more frequent updates in the form of my newsletter). This email is one of those end-of-year updates, a look at my goals or priorities from 2017, my accomplishments, failures, and a few lessons along the way. As you read, I hope that you find something that encourages or helps you on your own journey. Or if there is ever any other candid insight that you think might help you out, you are more than welcome to contact me privately as well.

Sabbatical

From January through June of 2017, my family and I moved from Mequon, Wisconsin to Middletown, Connecticut, where I served as the Jonathan D. Harber Fellow in Education and Entrepreneurship at Wesleyan University. I wrote some of my reflections after being back from sabbatical for about six months, and I thought that I had published those. Looking back, it appears that I never shared them, so I’ve included that reflection below as a quote.

I’ve been back from my sabbatical for a little over two months now. Since that time, I have not posted any new podcast episodes, nor have I written much on this blog. A number of people have reached out to me about this, wondering if I intend to write about my sabbatical and if I planned to resume the podcast and blogging anytime in the near future. This brief post is my reply to those questions. While far from exhaustive, here are a few thoughts about what I am learning from a semester sabbatical.

Over a year ago, I wrote an article where I announced my plans for a sabbatical, explaining that I would serve as the Jonathan D. Harber Fellow in Education and Entrepreneurship at Wesleyan University for the spring semester of the 2016-2017 school year. As such, my family and I moved from Wisconsin to Middletown, Connecticut, renting a small condominium in Middletown, and using that as our home base for the semester. While there, here are some of things I did and a few reflections on the experience.

Teaching

Each Tuesday and Thursday morning, I taught a dozen wonderfully thoughtful Wesleyan students who were keenly interested in both education and social good. The course that I designed and taught, Social Entrepreneurship in Education, included a survey of critical issues in education along with a culminating project. Each student crafted a business model canvas and proposal for an education startup or initiative that resonated with their own passions and convictions. On the final day of class, students pitched their proposals to a wonderful panel of staff from Wesleyan, an expert in business development from the State of Connecticut, a representative from the Yale Center for Entrepreneurship, and a Wesleyan alumnus and founder of a wonderful children’s museum. I listened with pride to the students pitching their ideas and fielding questions.

I’ve had many rewarding teaching experiences over the years, and this certainly ranked among them. More than just the class sessions, it was a joy to have the time to truly invest in getting to know and work with each student. I had countless one-on-one and small group meetings with students over breakfast, lunch, or just during my office hours. We talked about their educational and professional goals. I provided guidance as they selected a project and worked on it. We also expanded on topics of interest from our readings in these out-of-class chats. As the semester continued, some of the students must have told their friends about the class and experience, as I ended up meeting with quite a few students who were not even enrolled in the class, but who has interests in education reform or educational innovation.

Not every day went well. There were a few classes where the tension and struggle over different viewpoints was difficult and uncomfortable. As an educator, I’ve always taken some of that personally, even though I know that these are the very experiences from which we often grow the most. These are important conversations for a rich and robust liberal arts education.

Also consistent with life in University, students had more than classes to concern them. Countless challenges in life also cried out for the attention of students, and I sought to be as understanding and supportive as I could be in those moments. As much as I wish that students did not have to go through such things, I also consider it an incredible honor to know them and be with them amid some of those times.

I’ve never considered myself an incredible teacher. I have a recurring struggle with procrastination when it comes to grading and feedback, even though I write about the importance of formative feedback and cherish chances to help students deign useful feedback systems for themselves. I sometimes get lost in the ideas when teaching. I can become self-conscious and struggle with self-doubt, getting too focused on myself and not enough on the students. Those are things that I learn to manage, but they are still there, limitations that I must note and manage. At the same time, I love being amid students as they learn and struggle, watching them grow, engaging in Socratic dialogue, participating in more open-ended or directed discourse around a great text or source of content, examining different models and examples with students, guiding students as they learn to set their own goals and devise plans to achieve them. When I think of that semester, watching the students think, discuss, and create; the best word that comes to mind is “wonder.” I wonder at this sort of authentic student learning, and I look forward to seeing how students will use such experiences as they create personal paths and seek to be agents of positive change in the world.

Writing

I am not the most disciplined writer, but I love to write. As such, I set aside several hours most days of my sabbatical to read, research, and write. Living in our small apartment with hardly any furniture, my wife came up with the idea of creating a makeshift desk out of cardboard boxes. It was at that rudimentary desk beside a second-floor window that I did almost all of my sabbatical writing.

I began my sabbatical with grand goals for writing. In fact, they were too grand for me. I hoped to complete three to four texts in six months, and I only completed two. God willing, I will continue with and finish the others at some point, but not now. For the books that I finished, I published the first partway through my sabbatical, Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. It is a short text that offers practical insights for educators on how to nurture learner agency and ownership. I started on this text well before sabbatical and even thought that I had a near finished draft before sabbatical. However, I ended up abandoning two-thirds of the original manuscript, taking the book a different direction, but thanks to a quick turnaround from the publisher, I was still able to release the text in early June of 2017, a couple weeks before the end of my sabbatical.

The other book that occupied much of my time is tentatively called Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. In the text, I make an argument that there are indeed social, psychological, moral, and spiritual implications of technology in our lives and in society at large. I argue that every technology has affordances and limitations that amplify or muzzle values. My convictions drawn from my Lutheran faith tradition shape what I write, but I like to think that there are plenty of ideas in the text, especially the first half, that would be of interest to a broader audience. Granted that all goes well, I am hopeful that it will released on January 9 of 2018 with pre-ordering available on Amazon now.

I also worked on the research for a book that I originally wanted to finish during sabbatical, a text tentatively called Social Entrepreneurship in Education that will hopefully be a useful guide for people in education who aspire to create entrepreneurial and intra-preneurial endeavors. Because I had publishers secured for the first two books, those became my priority. I do not have a publishing partner finalized for this book, but one wonderful editor of a very well-respected University press has been a useful guide. That guidance led to my re-framing the text quite a bit, something that will likely take me a year to rework. However, much of the research for this book is complete.

I also developed a draft of a book about educators as game designers, a project that I’m interested in eventually prioritizing and finishing, but I do not have a timeline for that one. I expect to devote more time to it in 2018.

I wrote for hours on most days of my sabbatical. It was a joy, an incredibly rewarding part of the semester. I have to admit that I would probably be completely content as a full-time writer. Yet, writing during sabbatical was far healthier than what I was doing before that semester, which leads to an important discovery.

Burnout and Capacity

It took me two to three months of my sabbatical to unwind and decompress. Sabbatical started in January of 2017, and it was not until March that I realized how burned out of was before taking this time. Prior to sabbatical, I had 8-12 hour days at the University, followed by evenings working on projects as well. Because writing and research are a big part of what fuels me, and they are not a major part of my work as a University administrator, I used evenings and weekends to write and research, and to engage in creative projects like my podcast. For the six months leading up to my sabbatical, it was common for me to write from 10 PM to 2 AM each night, then get another 10-15 hours of writing and research in on the weekends. I became increasingly absent from family life. The more tense things became at work, the more I craved the rewarding work of writing in the evenings. My evening work was what allowed me to endure the stresses of leadership that seemed to become increasingly difficult for me to manage amid my unsustainable workload. I loved and continue to love my work at the University, but I did not realize how I was overloading myself mentally and physically. Getting 2-4 migraines a week, experiencing odd infections, and feeling near constant fatigue should have probably been a hint, but somehow I failed to even see what is now an obvious connection. My intellectual appetite exceeded my physical and mental ability to do it all. The more burned out I felt, the more I loaded on new projects and ideas, setting increasingly grand goals that both inspired me and undermined my general health and well-being.

Before sabbatical, sleep became a problem. Lying in bed at night, ideas and questions swarmed my mind. I couldn’t turn it off. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, compelled to work or write another two or three hours. Then I’d head into the next day of work with less than three or four hours of sleep. The ideas kept coming, creating a viscous and unhealthy cycle.

Family Time

On sabbatical, I could teach, write, read, and research each day while also having ample time to talk with my wife and children, enjoy great food on the East Coast, and go on countless trips. I think we exceeded 30 day and overnight trips during those 6 months. We ventured all the way down to Williamsburg, Virginia and all the way up to Acadia National Park in Maine. We went to Cape Cod, D.C., Boston, New York City, Concord, and many other places. We watched sunsets on the beaches, hiked area trails, enjoyed the museums at Harvard and Yale, committed ourselves to finding the best Lobster Rolls in the region, and made sure to visit every state in New England and the Mid Atlantic. On the way home, we drove by the Green Mountains, the White Mountains, stopped in Niagara Falls, and drove through Canada and down into the Upper Peninsula.

As one who grew up in the Midwest, I didn’t enjoy East Coast driving, and my family suffered as a result on occasion. Let’s just say that I was not always the most pleasant person while driving through D.C. traffic, making my way through downtown Boston, or navigating packed, snowy, and winding highways in Massachusetts. I just hope that my kids remember the many great times and not those moments where my stress poured out onto everyone in the car.

What I loved most though, was the many hours of being with my family, having conversations with my wife, walking to and from Kung Fu classes for my son, enjoying great food together, learning about our rich national history together, and just being together in the same room without this constant sense of stress and urgency about work that needs to get done.

I don’t want to idealize the time as it if were somehow perfect. I still got stressed at times. We had typical family crises. Family disagreements occurred, and even conflicts between work and family still came about (like when I was recording interviews and my wife had to keep the kids quiet in the other room so that their playing didn’t show up on the recording…remember that we were staying in a small apartment for the semester). Yet, I thoroughly enjoyed the quality time with my family. I have many great memories and I hope that the rest of the family will have those well into the future.

Learning from Others

I committed to using this more flexible time during my sabbatical to learn from other people and organizations as well. As such, I managed to engage in formal and informal, recorded and unrecorded interviews with over seventy people. I interviewed founders of education startups, researchers and teachers, authors and inventors, and more. I interviewed people about design thinking, serious game design, educational game design, starting new and innovative schools, current and emerging educational research, virtual and augmented reality, and a dozen other topics. Some of these turned into podcast episodes on the MoonshotEdu Show. Others were just for my personal growth. At this point, I might not have much that is tangible to show for these interviews, but they were a wonderfully rewarding part of my sabbatical learning journey, and much of what came from those interviews will like fuel future writing and other projects.

No Documentary and Other Incomplete Projects

One goal that I brought into sabbatical remained largely untouched. I originally set the goal of capturing most of the interviews for a potential documentary on the letter grade system in education. As I got into the flow of my sabbatical and established what I consider a healthy balance between work and rest, writing time and family time, I set some projects aside, and this was one of them. Perhaps I will get back to it in the future, but for now, that one did not get much traction. The same is true for additional writing goals and other projects. I am still re-evaluating if and how to go about some of them.

Lessons Learned

Amid all of this, I learned some important lessons about myself. I am also still drawing out new lessons, even as I write this. This concluding list sums up some of the more significant ones for me.

  1. Even if I think that I have unlimited capacity, it comes at a cost. Time to rest and rejuvenate is important. The unrealistic hours and non-stop focus prior to sabbatical was unsustainable and unhealthy.

  2. It is okay to take a break from things. I’ve not written much or done nearly as much with my podcast since my returning to work. That is partly because I’m trying to be more thoughtful and intentional about not getting stuck in that “always on” mentality. I’m not working every waking hour. I’m taking time to relax, and to be with others. That is my goal. There will be crunch times, but they should not be the norm for me.

  3. Take a break from the speaking and consulting circuit. I didn’t’ mention this before, but I had an intense travel and speaking schedule at times in the past as well. Already before sabbatical, I decided to take a break, limiting my speaking commitments that require travel to four or five a year, and I’ve done that. This will allow me to have more time for work, writing, family, personal renewal, and delving into new writing and other passion projects. Perhaps I will revisit this number in the future, but given the demands of work, this is best for now. I’m going to be much more careful before saying “yes” to something.

  4. Writing, applied research, and applied projects like my podcast constitute some of my greatest professional passions. However, these are really avocations and extras at the moment. As much as I enjoy them, I cannot just add them to the end of a long work day and on weekends, at least not in the volume that I’ve done in the past. As such, I will continue to invest in them, but likely not resulting in the volume of work that I’ve accomplished in the past. I’m convinced that, in the long run, this will result in greater well-being and better work as well.

  5. Novelty and new experiences remain important to me. All the new ideas, sights, and experiences over sabbatical were inspiring and rejuvenating. I’ve always sought out such experiences, but having them as well as more time to reflect, enjoy, and ponder them has been a much-needed restart.

  6. Much of my travel in the past has been alone, but it was wonderful to enjoy travel with my family. As I mentioned, I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. It was not all pleasant, but it added texture to life, it was intellectually stimulating, and it was a great way to invest in and enjoy family life.

  7. Slow down on the goals. I still have a long list of books that I hope to write and projects that I want to complete, but I’m planning to slow down on the incredibly long lists, spreading them out over the next several years. My sabbatical experience taught me something about putting more time into a smaller number of projects, and I’m at least going to give that a try.

  8. If I don’t change something, I will be back where I was a year ago. Returning back to work and diving into things, it was tempting to just return to how I thought and functioned before. I’ll admit that I’ve done some of that. In fact, after only having a few migraines throughout my sabbatical, I had three within the first ten days of returning to work. Since then, however, I’ve learned from that and backed off a bit. I might not be tackling the same volume of work that I did before, but I’m convinced that I can do better work and be healthier this way. Note that I’m still writing, reading, researching and doing all sorts of things. Some people might look at my work and suggest that I still need to back off further. They might be right, but I’m still learning that for myself. As I do, I expect that I’ll need to make some tough but important decisions.

I learned much during my sabbatical. It was indeed a highlight for 2017, but that was really only the first half of the year. Here are a few updates from the last six months.

Writing Projects

I explained the status of some projects, but here are updates on a few others.

Learning Beyond Letter Grades – I still have this draft on my computer. It is not where I want it to be and I’m struggling to find a publisher who will work with me on it. Each of them tell me the same thing. We don’t need another book on assessment. As much as I’ve tried to explain that this is about so much more than assessment, I’ve not found the writing publishing fit yet. I will persist in the search for that partner and plan to have a published version by the end of 2018.

Digitized – As I mentioned in the sabbatical update, this one is finished, available for pre-order (or regular order after January 9). This represents a different part of me than what some know. It draws from my Lutheran Christian faith background, which will resonate with some and be a turn off to others.

Self Education and the American Dream – I’ve not progressed on this one, but I hope to get back to it in 2018 or 2019.

Imagine the Possibilities – I’m co-authoring this book with a colleague through Concordia Publishing House. The full manuscript is due February 1 and will hopefully release about 5-6 months after that. In January, I am scheduled for travel to the six schools that I will write about. This book is a collection of ten to twelve short case studies of innovative models of Lutheran education around the world. I will be writing about a classical school, a small and well-funded rural school, a charter school (so not really a Lutheran school), an international school in Shanghai (I am scheduled to spend a week in January in China for interviews and observations), and a wonderfully innovative project-based and STEM school in Washington.

Once Upon a Time – I officially start writing this contracted and edited work in February of 2018, which will include a collection of fictional case studies that highlight common challenges in Christian classrooms. I’m also working on a comparable self-authored text that will do the same for public and other private schools.

Then I have a long list of other potential book projects that I’m trying to prioritize. I have one wonderful publishing partner who seems very open to working with me in an ongoing way, and my dream would be to find another publisher or two whom I can depend on in an ongoing manner. Here are the titles of other potential books that I intend to prioritize over the upcoming year. I will share more about these in an upcoming article about my 2018 goals.

  • Self Education and the American Dream
  • The Lincoln Test: Credentialed
  • Founding Edu: Startup Lessons for the Entrepreneurial Educator
  • Robots, Work, and the Future of Education
  • The Lincoln Test: How Credentials are Hurting Education and Society and What we Can Do About It
  • A Guide for a Rich and Unconventional College Experience
  • If I Die Before You Wake: Lessons for My Children
  • 12 Months to Becoming a Digital Age Educator
  • Educators as Game Designers
  • Worth It: An Examination of Human Worth and How It Changes Everything
  • The EduChallenge Book / Game / Adventure
  • Different Together: Facing the Challenge and Opportunity of Diversity and Civility
  • So What? An Exploration of What Matters in Life and Education
  • Self Education and the American Dream
  • Hyperreality
  • The Brain Drain Challenge
  • 40 Recipes for Life
  • Human Agency in the Contemporary World
  • Quests and Missions Over Titles and Positions: A Guide for the Modern Hero’s Journey

The Think Tank

In my 2017 priorities, I mentioned wanting to start a new think tank. That didn’t happen. I committed to more than was reasonable in 2017. However, I am looking at consolidating some ideas, and this one will show up in a new way in 2018, as part of Birdhouse Learning Labs.

The Learning Beyond Letter Grades Documentary

As I mentioned in my sabbatical reflections, this project got sidelined. I am still committed to pursuing it in the future, but I need to find the right partner for this project, a group or individual with the resources and documentary film making experience needed to make this a truly valuable resource.

Birdhouse Learning Labs

I started this LLC in 2016 as a “placeholder” for future projects. It is still in that placeholder stage. I didn’t do much of anything with it in 2017, but I have some announcements about it for 2018, so stay tuned for an upcoming article about my 2018 goals and priorities.

Health and Wellness

I didn’t actually set specific health goals in 2017, but mid year I decided to recommit myself to some fitness routines. I’ve been an avid runner off and on, never fast but thoroughly enjoying the occasional half or full marathon. I’ve also experimented with different eating lifestyles over the years. However, eating well and staying fit have always been something that I’ve enjoyed, so I committed to making them a focus in 2017. Along the way, I came across a “diet” that solved what I previously thought was a permanent thorn in my side. For over two decades, I’ve suffered from frequent, humbling, and sometimes debilitating migraines. Yet, with a little guidance, I cut out gluten and refined sugars from my diet only to find myself going on almost five months with no migraine, the longest streak in over twenty years. This has been a game changer for me. I added some mild running of twenty-five to thirty miles a week along with weight training four times a week, and I’ve not felt this good for a very long time. These are activities that are fun and rejuvenating. The “diet” is not really a diet. I just eat and enjoy good and wholesome food, and happen to get some amazing health benefits along the way. These changes have also given me more energy for family, work at the University, play, and my other projects. My sabbatical lessons about balance and moderation remain important ones, but there is definitely something to be said for investing time and energy in a food and fitness plan that I enjoy and yields such benefits.

Other Stuff

Many other incredible things happened in 2017. I had some wonderfully engaging speaking opportunities. Upon return to Concordia after sabbatical, I’ve started some exciting new projects (and have a new role starting in January of 2018, and I continue to be grateful for invitations to fascinating conversations about the future of work, life, and education. While I declined some of those invitations, I accepted a few and all of them turned out to be rewarding and enlightening. However, this is already a 5000-word article, testing the attention spans of even the most devoted readers in this digital age in which we find ourselves. So, I’ll save all those other stories for another time, perhaps over a cup of coffee or a meal when we find ourselves in the same town, or interspersed in articles throughout 2018.

Conclusion

2017 has been a wonderfully enlightening year. I select three words each year to focus my thinking and work, and the words for 2017 were curiosity, creation, and compassion. My sabbatical was essentially a six-month journey into curiosity, with countless interviews, explorations, and literal journeys. My creative energies focused on the writing and teaching that I already described. Then, for compassion, I faced some incredible experiences on that front, ones that I can’t share publicly despite how I started this article. Suffice it to say that I’m grateful for the many lessons that I learned about compassion in 2017, lessons that will influence me for years to come.

So what does this mean for 2018? I’ll be sharing all about that in an upcoming article.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation; as well as Founder and CEO of Birdhouse Learning Labs. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

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