This following post is an adapted version of Tim Kanold’s 2013 commencement address at Loyola University Chicago.
It’s May. You are wrapping up one season of your professional life. And, to paraphrase Robert Quinn, you are “building your legacy bridge as you walk on it.” Before you know it, you are six, 11 or 18 seasons into establishing the foundation and impact of your life’s work.
And then there comes this strange day when you do not get to open up your boxes for another season. The cycle of seasons for you will be over. The boxes will stay closed. There will be no going back. No rewind button. You reflect and ask, “How did I do? What have I given those who are staying to remember me by? Does my work, my career even matter?”
I suggest four high-impact pursuits — every season, every day, for the rest of your career.
First, did you pay attention to others deeply? Is it possible there are individuals you could have loved more deeply or encouraged more often? “Someday I’ll get around to noticing and paying attention to others better,” you say. But someday never comes.
During my early years at Stevenson, I encountered a burned out cynical faculty member. He was 47 years old and hanging on until he could retire. I did not pay much attention to him initially. Eventually, several difficult discussions ensued about what it meant to finish well.
To his credit, this teacher spent the next four years of his professional life choosing no-regret decisions — laughing more, learning more, listening to his colleagues, appreciating his students more and re-engaging with his family. And then one September evening, at age 51, he did not wake up from his sleep.
His chance to choose a no-regrets life was over. No more seasons for him. He left behind a more recent institutional memory of loving others deeply. He made the decision to finish well — before it was too late. How courageous.
Second, did you develop your relational intelligence? Daniel Goleman describes social intelligence as much more than being about our relationships; it is also about being in them. He writes:
The social responsiveness of the brain demands that we be wise, that we realize how not just our own moods but our very biology is being driven and molded by the other people in our lives — and in turn, it demands that we take stock of how we affect other people’s emotions and biology. Indeed, we can take the measure of a relationship in terms of a person’s impact on us, and on ours on them.
Long after you have left the building, will there be a positive communication culture and residue of service that permeated from the impact of your work?
Third, did you forgive others gracefully? The very nature of communication among educators during a school year guarantees feelings will be hurt, someone will be wounded, and grace will be needed. James Kouzes and Barry Posner wrote:
The people we work with and count on are also human. We need to give them the chance to be the best they can be, even to be better than they thought they could be. … Let’s all have the humility to remember where we started and the humanity to offer others the same opportunities.
Grace wins when we set down the grudges we are carrying around. Grace wins when we use forgiveness to help others become better people. Grace and gratitude are critical elements of joy.
Will there be grace and joy given to others, in your journey? You must decide.
Fourth, did you live a reflective, balanced, high-energy life? The biggest fear of most seasoned school educators is endurance. How do you endure and sustain a high level of inspiration year in and year out? You have a right to an inspirational presence in your life and you have a responsibility to become one for others.
Yet, the pace of your teaching, leading and serving days will leave you emotionally and physically exhausted. How do you avoid high negative energy? You strategically disengage from the high positive energy of your work life.
When you become a more reflective practitioner, you avoid the malady of job fatigue: low energy, disengagement from work, superficial effort, and poor judgment.
The stakes are high. Never give up on hope. Never give up on grace. Never give in to the drift toward negative energy and mediocrity. You will choose and build the story of how you will be remembered every day, every season, one brick at a time. Your teaching. Your leading. Your serving. Your life.
As this season ends, take the time to know your story. Yes, your seasons will end some day; and may those of us who will be blessed enough to have known you, may we never forget them.
Tim Kanold (@tkanold) is a former superintendent and director of mathematics with three decades of experience. His most recent publications include “The Five Disciplines of PLC Leaders” (2011) and the “Common Core Mathematics in a PLC at Work” series (2012). He is a full-time author and presenter on issues of effective school leadership and mathematics education reform. Kanold can be reached at TKanold.blogspot.com.