Learn something every day

Published on May 25, 2018

Almost every month, the 16 presidents of colleges in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, of which BCTC is a part, meet to discuss the weighty issues that college presidents deal with day-to-day, and the thousand or so decisions that must be made each month.  Then once a year, we meet to think more carefully and strategically about what we do and why and how.  It has always been fun for me to learn in a group with others who challenge you to listen carefully and see differently.

The “why” part of our work is actually the easiest:  To create the kind of place where every student can succeed if they mean to.  A very few don’t mean to, but with the effort necessary, pretty much everyone can succeed.  Most fulfill their dreams for a sustaining career and/or a foundation for transfer to further education.  “Don’t be the campus where dreams go to die,” admonished one of our meeting’s speakers, A. Hasan Davis, an incredible role model for perseverance to find success.

Craig Bouchard, the CEO of Braidy Industries, the company that is about to transform Ashland, KY, said we have to, “Wake up every day ready for change!”  That is part of the “how” we work.  Every type of enterprise whether public or private, business or non-profit, is seeing dramatic shifts in technology, communications, regulations and policies, safety and security, the diversity of the workplace, and everything else.  Keeping up is the job of leaders—and helping everyone deal with rapid change.  We have to make the most of these new opportunities while honoring traditions and history.  Mr. Bouchard is very clear on the values Braidy embodies and is creating an intentional climate of commitment and success.

We had several other dynamic and interesting speakers, but I’ll end this piece with some thoughts shared by philosopher and author Ryan Holiday.  These also are part of the “how” we can all do our work in positive and helpful ways.  Holiday found, at age 19, the writings of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161-180 AD) and never looked back.  His very popular book is, The Obstacle is the Way.  He challenged us to look at set-backs and problems as opportunities to learn.  Maybe the lesson is:  Never take that same action again!  People like Thomas Edison are great examples of learning from mistakes. Two famous Edison quotes are: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work,” and “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Holiday’s basic message, and that of Aurelius’s tome, Meditations, has also been shared by many others over the years.  It is:  Life happens; what makes us different is what we do in response. He says we can always choose to do the next thing and the right thing.  Now, clearly, this relates to day-to-day concerns and frustrations.  I am not making light of terrible trauma or loss or illness.  But generally, if traffic is getting to you, or the teacher has unrealistic expectations, or you have to make a hard decision that may hurt someone else, or the boss treats you unfairly, how you react is critical to what happens next.  Do you blow the horn and drive recklessly? Do you spend time complaining instead of doing the extra work required? Put off the decision? Seek revenge on the boss? 

Stoicism, the philosophical base for Aurelius and Holiday, would suggest the right thing may be to use the obstacle to learn, or use the frustration to see things from a different perspective.  Every moment can be a lesson. To take advantage of the opportunity to learn, it requires you to see clearly in the moment, to take action, and to use your will to make sure it is the right action.  Holiday quoted guitar playing, Canadian astronaut, and International Space Station Commander, Chris Hadfield, “There’s no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse.”  A knee-jerk reaction often does just that, makes the problem worse. And if you are a space station commander, that problem can get a whole lot worse.  (A side note:  See the YouTube video of him singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Wonderful!)

I had a friend once who said his teenage children always compared themselves to the wrong people:  Not the children whose family could not afford to give them a car for their sixteenth birthday, but the friend whose family bought him a Porsche.  If one can see that their situation is not a life-ending disaster, if one can shift to see the lesson in the defeat, and one can right their world by responding in a kind and useful way, that is a good day’s lesson.