This, my last year at Spence, invites a special framing for Vantage Points: Lessons Learning. I take this title from the inspirational and my go-to book by former Princeton President, William Bowen, “Lessons Learned”…only this time with a twist. Morphing the past tense into the present participle honors the ongoingness of these lessons, the forever in-progress quality of lived experience and personal growth. None of these lessons, in whatever arena, come with an “I’ve got this” note attached.
Lesson Learning number one is something I’ve written about before, but I think it may remain as singularly the most lasting and significant “how-to” advice I’ve ever been given and have tried my best to follow. Rob Evans, consultant, psychologist and educator, wrote that before all meetings, big or small, it behooves us to think about two things: purpose and conduct. When I first started to think about all my meetings in this way, things just went better. Like some sort of magical hinge, both of these targets, purpose and conduct, work together, inviting both clarity and respect in equal measure. And it always makes a difference…a big one. Earlier in my headship, I laminated these words and left them on my desk. Now, they are my familiars in just about everything I do.
Whenever I forget to remind myself of purpose before a meeting, there’s usually a confusion of the message, and always a sense of wasted time and rudderless wandering. Naming purpose sets the stage, saves us from thinking that everything is an existential moment, scales relevancy, invites agency. Beyond artifice, stating purpose is like setting up your desk before you start writing, like laying out an overtime play, like a Shakespearean prologue. I love the story I recently heard from Brandon Kraft, our Director of the Eco Center, who shared with me the comment from a middle schooler at last summer’s camp. Her hand raised high, interested eyes behind her mask, she named her purpose as soon as she was called on: “I have a question, and then I have a comment.” No laminated card needed here.
Whenever I forget to remind myself of conduct before a meeting, the costs have always been higher, always. Meetings can be profoundly personal, and should be, as poet Mary Oliver writes, “a petition to be welcomed and useful.” Yes, there are meetings that are conclusions rather than anything else, but all meetings need to be framed with respect and as much grace as possible no matter the context. Without such framing, there’s a large wake behind the meeting, a sometimes wide gulf not easily bridged later and a big hangover of regret. Every single time I have forgotten about my conduct, and moved into anger, frustration or aggression, I have regretted it, every single time. It may have felt good at the moment, it may have felt justified, but those feelings are always fleeting and have never gotten me to where I wanted ultimately to be.
And, as with most things in life, when things are going smoothly, advice such as “conduct and purpose” is easier to follow. But in times of tension and even discontent, I find that I need to dig out that laminated card yet again and remind myself of conduct and purpose. And wrinkled, yellowed as that card may be, it still leads me to the right way, even if it is the harder way. So yes, lessons learning: conduct and purpose.
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