Just because you can doesn’t mean you should!

One of the most important lessons I learnt as an aspiring school leader was “just because you can doesn’t mean you should!”

Like a lot of teachers, I found my first few years of teaching very challenging. The “bar” seemed to be set incredibly high, and I had to work hard to learn my craft. But I eventually increased my abilities, raised my standards and got things under control in my classroom.

I then spent several years honing my skills even further. I raised the bar and stretched myself to take on some small leadership roles within the school. I reflected on my performance regularly and attended professional learning workshops to further my skills.

After a few more years, I’d increased my abilities and reached a point where I could perform most roles I was asked to take on and could do them reasonably well. I had raised the bar even higher!

So, when I was asked to lead the roll-out of the school’s notebook program, I said yes. And I did it well.

When I was asked if I could implement a new reporting system, I said, “Sure, I can work out how to do that.” And again, I did it well.

When I was asked to lead a team to set up a new “Thinking Skills Program”, I said, “Yep, I can do that.” And I did that well, too.

And then there were various committees, school councils, policies to be written … the list went on. I was extremely busy, spending long hours at school. I did lots of good work. I was valued and valuable within my school. I was building a great CV.

But I was doing myself a huge disservice.

The problem was, I’d become comfortable and confident in my roles. I was performing at a high level. Almost all my time was spent exercising and consolidating my existing skills, but very little time was spent building on and increasing those skills.

I had fallen out of the habit of stretching myself!

That’s when, fortunately, I learnt one of the most important lessons of my career: just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

The thing is, in the early part of my career, I was focused on growth. I consciously stretched myself to raise the bar. I was focused on what I couldn’t do and what I needed to do to develop my Habits of Mind.

Then, once I’d raised the bar just high enough, the world opened to me. Suddenly, there were lots of roles I could fulfil using my recently developed Habits of Mind.

The trouble was, all these new roles were below the bar. In terms of my newly developed skills, these roles were just “easy things I hadn’t done yet”.

Although I was still putting in long hours, almost all those hours were spent being good at my job. Few were spent becoming better!

I had forgotten that you don’t get better by exercising your current abilities. The pathway to getting better is to stretch yourself just beyond your current best, to develop your Habits of Mind to meet the demands of these more challenging tasks.

There are certainly times, when we need to exercise our existing skills, that we must be at our best and do the job well. But if this is how we spend all our time, we will cease to get better.

The secret is to recognise that once you reach a certain level of competence, it’s easy to do more. But we need to resist filling our time with all the things we can do and remember to spend a bit of our time stretching, challenging ourselves, and growing in response to those challenges.

I learnt that just because I could do something, it didn’t mean I should. Sometimes, it’s better to give that job to someone who will be stretched by it and learn from it. Then I can use that time to find a job that’s going to stretch me and help me grow.

Never live your entire life below the bar. Never get out of the habit of stretching yourself!

3 Comments

  • Rachel S. Heslin March 20, 2019 at 2:30 am

    This was something I needed to hear right now. I’ve got my own challenges working my way up the growth spectrum, so shifting from simply doing to deliberately stretching helps move me out of trying to keep up appearances and into being more immersed in the experience of my life. Thank you.

  • Karen March 19, 2019 at 6:45 pm

    Hi James,
    I share your thinking here. Too often it’s easy to keep doing things “well” rather than taking on the challenge in all areas of life, not just the workplace, but sport, music, and spiritual.
    Definitely an article I will be sharing.

    • James March 20, 2019 at 7:21 am

      Thanks for sharing Karen. It’s so easy to spend your life in the comfort zone. The trouble with that, of course, is that some challenges stay forever out of your reach. Best wishe

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