A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to travel to Iceland with my family. It was a great vacation, and it also provided me with a chance to consider the importance of opening myself up to new perspectives. After all, the country looks and feels vastly different from what I’m used to experiencing in and around the eastern coast of the United States, and the visit left me with a deeper understanding of why we need to constantly force ourselves to look through extremely different lenses. Below I’ll share four lessons that I learned during four days in the land where “everything will work out okay.”
Challenge grows the mind and soul
From the first few minutes in the country, it was clear that Iceland was not a hospitable place. I don’t mean that the people living there were challenging; in fact, far from it (more on this later). Rather, the country’s climate and geology make it a challenge for anything to live there. The rock is volcanic and young, reducing the amount of soil for plants to grow. And with moss, scrub grasses, and low trees as the primary vegetation, only certain plants and animals can survive there easily. Add to that a sizable portion of the island being covered in snow and ice for a good portion of the year, and you have a landscape and climate that would make calling the country home difficult at best. Yet, 300,000 people do, and Iceland has become one of the most prosperous countries emotionally, socially, and financially (for its size, anyway). One of the people we met while there shared that the inherent difficulty of success in the country, simply because of the natural elements, leads those that call Iceland home to welcome and value challenge. Nothing there is truly easy, and perhaps for that reason, the Icelanders we met were some of the calmest and most amenable people we have ever run across. Challenge provides perspective, and when welcomed, helps us grow into better leaders and learners.
Relationships mean everything
With less than five percent of the population of New York City across the entire country (and roughly two-thirds of the country’s population in the capital district), the emphasis on cultivating lasting relationships was clear. It was rare for us to see an Icelander alone, and the sheer number of coffee shops, pubs, and food halls showed the importance the country places on collecting people together. Shopkeepers and strangers were open to conversation, and the country’s desire to keep Icelandic as a usable language means that Icelanders learn to communicate in other languages as well; everyone we met spoke English and was happy to engage in conversation in our language of choice. I found it really interesting that in a country where the number of people is so small, that the focus on connecting people is so large. Relationships really are everything.
Every weakness is a strength
A great mentor of mine taught me that every strength is also a weakness, and every weakness is also a strength. Due to Iceland’s latitude, winter days are considerably short. During December and January, in particular, a few hours of daylight is all that exists. This can’t be easy, to be sure. In fact, it was even strange for us, traveling in mid-February, with daylight starting at around 9 a.m. and nighttime beginning around 6 p.m. Yet, as difficult as all that darkness might be, during the late spring and early summer months, there are close to 20 hours of full daylight (with at least some daylight for the remaining hours). During these months, the added daylight makes even more activity possible and can add to everyone’s productivity. The potential time lost during the winter is more than made up for in the spring and summer. What might be seen as a challenge later becomes a benefit and serves as yet another reminder that our struggles and successes are two sides of the same coin.
Everything will work out okay
Iceland’s motto, “Þetta reddast” basically means that everything will work out okay. While this isn’t true in every case, it is true in most. And, while I’m not an Icelander, it is a motto that I’ve found myself subscribing to, especially over the last few years. My experience as a leader and learner has helped me to realize that even when I face a difficult string of scenarios, the structures in place around me, and the people who buoy me up, have helped me to weather those stressful times and end up in a positive place. In general, even if it’s not apparent at first, everything will work out okay.
Iceland is a place of great contrasts, and within those contrasts is an opportunity to see things a bit differently than we might have seen them before. As a learner and leader, this trip has helped me further realize that perspective is the difference between recognizing when we’re on the right track and missing the fact that we aren’t. If we only ever lead and learn through one frame of experience, then all we’re ever leading and learning is precisely what we already know. Different perspectives and new frames of reference are necessary if we ever truly hope to grow as people and help others do the same.
Fred Ende is the director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam|Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks, and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Visit his website www.fredende.com. Find him on Twitter @fredende.
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