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.