Since 2013, I’ve set aside New Year’s resolutions. Instead, I’ve gone with something that I found in a Chris Brogan blog post, where he suggested choosing 3 words for the year. The idea is to pick words that represent what you want to consistently work on over the next 365 days. The words do not align with specific goals, but instead embody the mindset that I want to cultivate. It leaves room for pivots and surprises, but still helps me focus.
For example, in 2015, I chose the word “author” as one of my three. As the year progressed, that word took over my thinking so much that it led to writing and publishing 7 books in less than 4 years (the 7th is with the publisher and ready to release soon). Choosing that word helped me shift from the mindset of an aspiring author to someone who finds it hard to imagine a day without writing and making some sort of progress toward the next book.
Even in years when I don’t remind myself of the three words often, they pester, prod, and prompt until they begin to show up in my life and work.
Here are the words that I’ve used in the past:
2013 – flourish, bless, befriend
2014 – fearless, awaken, Rogers (as in Mr. Rogers), and Epic Win (Yes, I broke the three word rule that year.)
2015 – author, impact, family
2016 – write, design, launch
2017 – curiosity, creation, compassion
2018 – experiments, prototypes, quests
What about 2019? I’m going with wonder, gratitude, and results.
Wonder – This is a word that intrigued me in 2018 as I studied the psychology and philosophy of wonder and awe. I also experimented with the role of wonder in my life, as will show up in my forthcoming book, 12 Quests. Now I’m ready to lean into this theme for 2019.
Amid my reading, I became intrigued by the two sides of this word. There is wonder in the sense of experiencing a moment of awe. Then there is wonder, often prompted by the former, of questioning, inquiring…thinking deeply about something. In that sense, this is also about being curious, exploring beneath the surface.
Gratitude – This is also a theme that will show up in my 12 Quests project. I’m fascinated by the science of the word and I already experience immense gratitude in my own life. What happens when I take that to the next level?
Results – I chose this word for many reasons. My current role demands that I be focused on specific results. The job is not about me. It is about the mission. At the same time, I’m clearly in the middle of Erik Erikson’s developmental stage of stagnation versus generativity. It is not enough to say that I have a particular position, that I’ve published a certain number of books, or obtained some measure of recognition. As cliche as it might sound, I want to make a real and measurable difference in the areas where I’m called to invest my time, thought, and effort this year. I have plans to finish up a couple more books in 2019, but publishing isn’t the goal. I want to write and publish books that people seek, value, and that benefits them in significant ways. My goal isn’t to be a leader of an organization. I want to be part of a mission and movement that is having an important and measurable impact in people’s lives, and in the world. If being a leader is part of doing that, then I embrace it, as I did recently with the career shift.
I’m looking forward to 2019. I see so many promising possibilities, meaning-rich challenges, and emerging opportunities. I look forward embracing them with a focus on wonder, gratitude, and mission-minded results.
Being a new college president is time-consuming, challenging, and wonderful. Yet, right after graduating from college and starting as a middle school teacher in the early 1990s, I discovered an important lesson that has served me well ever since that time. No matter how much I love and feel called to a position; time for self, family and valued relationships, even an avocation or two; gives me balance. It provides me with a depth of energy that I can pour back into that job. I’m not sure if it is necessary for others, but it serves me well. I’ve been able to develop a capacity for work that I never imagined in my college years. I find that serendipity shows itself more often. My stress remains relatively low and I tend to sleep well, on the good and bad days.
It seems counterintuitive that adding work to my work gives me rest and energy, but it does just that for me. I don’t know why or how this happens, but the decision to live this way has led me on a fascinating life journey so far. All of this is a preface to my main reason for writing this article, to announce my latest avocational project, a new book that is almost finished.
This book is unlike anything that I’ve written before. First, it will certainly be shorter than my last seven books, likely ending up under a hundred pages. Second, it is not a book about education or digital culture, although it is all about learning. In addition, this book is not even about sharing new knowledge or content. Almost everything that you will read in the new book is something that you could find elsewhere, often in far more eloquent prose. That is because the book is not about passing on knowledge, but inviting you on a journey.
I love Greek mythology, and I was re-reading Hercules’ 12 Labors (also known as the dodekathlon) two or three years ago. As I read it, I reflected on the role of these twelve labors or quests on the life and formation of the persistent legend and demi-god known as Hercules.
I don’t have the blood of Zeus running though my veins, so taking on the Hound of Hades, capturing the Cretan Bull, or slaying the Nine-headed Hydra is not quite on my skill level. As ?Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains in his classic book Flow, optimal performance and that delightful experience of getting lost in the moment comes when you face a challenge, but one that is within your reach. So if stealing the Hound of Hell isn’t going to work for me, what would it look like for me to go on a modern and personal dodekathlon? The end of Hercules’ labors promised the gift of immortality. Dropping the bar a bit, how about if I just aim for a rich and meaningful temporal life as the reward for my dodekathlon?
I began a short list of possible “labors” or quests for my personal dodekathlon that quickly turned into 52 labors, one for each week of the year. I started experimenting with the different quests in my own life, and it was an incredible journey.
While I included some physical feats in the list (quite a few that I’ve not successfully completed), the truly rewarding labors were the ones that worked on my heart and mind. I started to see people differently. I experienced more joy and contentment, even in tense times. I found curiosity growing and judgment starting to diminish (I still have plenty of both). I’ve always been blessed with a rich and rewarding life, but as I went through these labors, I gained a new appreciation for Thoreau’s words about living deep and sucking “the marrow out of life.”
It was amid this personal questing that followers of my writing also started to notice a change in what and how I wrote about education. If you go back through my work, you will find a gradual change where I become more intrigued by words like wonder, awe, experimentation, exploration, adventure, epiphany, mystery, curiosity and gratitude. It became even more apparent to me that these essential ingredients to a rich human experience did not make up the core vocabulary of the modern education ecosystem. Yet, they are far more essential to transformational learning than words like tests, standards, outcomes, metrics, retention, and the bevy of other industrial terms.
So, my personal labors not only enriched my life. They also shifted the focus of my work, setting me on a renewed and even more focused mission when it comes to learning and education. That is what prompted me to launch Birdhouse Learning Labs, even if it has been dormant and set aside for the time-being. That is part of what fueled my imagination and led me to embrace the adventure of leaving a beloved learning community and home in Wisconsin to go a thousand miles east, joining the Goddard College community in a difficult time.
Reflecting on my personal dodekathlon, I decided to turn the lessons learned into something that I can share with others, and that is what inspired my decision to write this guidebook (or what I’m calling a treasure map of sorts) called 12 Quests: Life Experiments to Expand Your Heart and Mind. Below is how I described it in a recent blurb to help get the word out about the project.
Twelve Quests: Life Experiments to Expand Your Heart & Mindis a short guidebook, a modern version of Hercules’ Twelve Labors (also known as the dodekathlon). Each chapter is a 1-4 week quest (or I suppose you could stretch it out over 12 years like Hercules if you like). Instead of physical feats, these are mental, emotional, and experiential challenges focused upon what both scientific research and ancient wisdom describe as promising pathways to a rich and meaningful life, to well-being.
This is not a religious text. It is not about health and wealth. This is not a book about new information as much as it is a guidebook, a treasure map that only has value if you accept each new quest and take action. While a different path than Thoreau, this is an invitation to, “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” It is also a chance to play, explore, experiment, connect, grow, gain new perspective, wonder, and add a little more adventure to life. It is an invitation to embrace your personal dodekathlon.
If you want a copy of this treasure map once it is released, signing up here is a great start.
Also, if you want to help spread the word about this book, please share this form on social media. Consider using and following the hash tag “#12quests” as well.
I am excited about this project for two reasons. One, it is an opportunity to invite people like you to join me in a series of quests that were transformational in my own life. Second, it is a chance to model a method of learning and personal development that has immense promise for both formal and informal learning throughout life. Perhaps the example of this treasure map / guidebook could inspire more quest-based learning in our schools as well. These quests are simple challenges, but the field of quest-based learning in education can (and already does) take it to another level.
If you are interested in staying updated about this project, I’ve included a form below (which is different from the regular Etale mailing list). This will keep you informed about the book and, if you choose, let you know when it is ready for pre-order. I’m hoping to have the book out and available by March 1 at the latest. So, while not ready for the launch of the New Year, perhaps this is a good time to sign up as a way to embrace the 12 Quests in 2019.
Over the last few months, I’ve written a series of short articles highlighting what I deem to be important considerations for higher education institutions as we lean into the emerging and future role of big data, analytics, and AI.
In the first article, I introduced the topic, giving a preview of the what to expect in articles 2 through 6.
In the second article, I focused my reflections and comments on the role of big dat and AI in the pre-enrollment phase, considering the present and future of how learners and colleges will connect. One of the more attention-grabbing contributions in that article was the proposal that we are moving from the metaphor of shopping to the metaphor of dating when it comes to students and colleges finding a mutually beneficial connection.
In article 3, I moved from pre-enrollment to what many would argue is the core of the college experience, learning. What current and emerging technologies will enhance the rate of learning while also creating more personalized and adaptive pathways?
For article 4, I gave attention to student success. If a student gets into college, how can we create the conditions where the student is likely to persist and graduate? Are there early alert systems that might allow us to help students before it is too late? At the same time, what are the dangers with the use of AI in this area, and how we can avoid some of those dangers?
Article 5 broadened the conversation from student to organization. With the number of colleges struggling to remain open and viable, there is growing interest in indicators of overall organizational health. However, as I explain in this article, there are plenty of risks when it comes to building and using organizational health dashboards too.
Having covered the student from pre-enrollment to graduation, while also looking at overall organizational health, I finished the series with an offer for us to think about an emerging and future aspect of big data and AI where forward-thinking higher education institutions might want to experiment. It is one thing to be competent, competent, and a graduate. It is another to build meaningful connections with people and organizations. I have no doubt that big data and AI will be a dominant force in such future connections, but there are ways that we can help students already begin to explore the nature of life, work, learning, and community in a connected age.
As I try to highlight in my articles, there is much already underway when it comes to big data and AI in higher education, but there is so much more to be done. Whether big data and AI will empower learners is partly up to the decisions that we collectively and individually make in the next five to ten years. As such, now is the time for us to advocate for approaches that will lead toward a more hopeful, humane, and self-empowering higher education ecosystem.
In this seven-part series, I’ve explored possibilities of AI and big data for pre-enrollment, student learning, student retention and success, and overall organizational help. What else is left? How about life and learning beyond college?
If we live in a connected age, then building meaningful connections is an important life skill, and AI is already playing a larger role in facilitating such connections. We see this on job boards, dating web sites, how we shop, and the search engines that we use.
As I mentioned in an earlier part of this series, the current means by which students search for and select a school is flawed. We use false and misleading data, even if from trusted sources. Our decision-making heuristics are limited at best, and the number of college dropouts alone seems to point to potential mismatches (even after accounting for the many other reasons for leaving college).
This isn’t the only place where our approach to making connections is poor. The means by which people and employers find each other is also archaic and ineffective. A few organizations might have mastered the art and science of finding and keeping the right people, but for so many others, it is hit and miss, and most of the time the best fit for the job never even knows that the job is an option or a good potential match.
The same problems exist in how we find and connect with people, organizations, and even products. This is one area where big data and AI will continue to play a growing role in our lives. As with any technology, there will be benefits and losses involved, but this is the time to start thinking about how learning communities can help students begin to build meaningful connections.
You can graduate with all the competence and confidence in the world. Now how do you connect with people and organizations? Many people do fine in this area, but there are even more promising possibilities.
In Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon makes the claim that, “if you are not online, you don’t exist.” The point is that you are not easily discoverable unless you have an online presence. Yet, there are so many people who are online and they are still not easily discoverable.
I’m convinced that this will be one of the next great iterations of the web, the current and emerging technologies that allow people to discover and be discovered. The more rich data available for the systems to mine, the more effective they will be at helping to match and connect.
As a starting point, higher education communities are wise to begin thinking through how to equip learners to build their online identities, seek out and make connections, as well as review and select from the many and emerging options. How do we help people tell and share their ongoing story in a way that allows them to achieve their goals and build the connections that are most meaningful to them?
I’ve built an online identity that has led me around the world, allowed me to meet fascinating friends and colleagues, provided me with more job offers and possibilities than I could have ever imagined, and that offers me lessons from an incredible and diverse array of people. Not everyone wants or needs the particular set of connections that I’ve cultivated, but the idea of learning about the nature, affordances, and limitations of online identity and connectivity is increasingly useful for many life journeys.
Learning to tell your story and connect with people on the basis of that story is a valuable career skill in the 21st century, and devising ways to discover and connect through these stories is a collection of billion-dollar businesses of the future. Perhaps forward-thinking higher education communities can help shape some of that future while also helping out their students in the present.