Thursday, December 19, 2013

In the movie, City Slickers, the rugged, no-nonsense character of Curly (Jack Palance) asks Mitch (Billy Crystal) if he knows the “secret to life.” Mitch quickly admits that he doesn’t and asks Curly to tell him the secret. Curly, holds up one of his index fingers and tells him, “It’s one thing.” Still confused, Mitch asks Curly “What’s the one thing?”

Curly, looks intently at Mitch and says, “That’s what you got to figure out.”

When I was a senior in high school, our basketball team won sectional for the first time. This was before class basketball in Indiana. Accomplishing this milestone turned the small town of Ferdinand into New Orleans during Mardi Gras. The entire town erupted with people dancing and celebrating in the streets into the early morning. Local restaurants and bars rolled food and drinks literally onto the center line of the main street next to the only stoplight in the town. The players stood perched high up on fire trunks like celebrities at the Macy’s parade. The entire scene was rather shocking, a little insane, but loads of fun. All of this because we won a few basketball games.

This was 23 years ago and I’ve not seen anything quite like it since. Sure, I’ve seen larger parades and bigger parties and I’ve certainly had more personally rewarding moments in my life than that night. (Tonya, if you’re reading, don’t worry our wedding night and the birth of the girls still nudges out the sectional win.) But there was something truly remarkable about such a relatively trivial event that unleashed spontaneous celebrations and joy that was collectively felt that night. It’s tempting to dissect the team and examine the winning qualities, but I think that actually completely misses the point.

The secret to the success was that there was no secret of what was successful. The secret to success was one thing. Everyone wanted to win sectional. The team always strived to play their best and took pride in displaying good sportsmanship. But we all knew that we wouldn’t really be satisfied, until the team was cutting down the nets after a sectional win. And the goal of winning sectional wasn’t just in the hearts and minds of the players and coaches. Every parent and just about every community member was equally hungry for a sectional win. So, once the final horn blew, with our team up by a few points, the entire crowd raced to the floor. After the players received their piece of the net, fans followed taking their turn on the ladder to also get a piece.

My role on the team was playing the character Macho Man Randy Savage (actually, I wanted to include the mascot name, so I called myself the “Ranger Savage.”) You see, I was cut from the basketball team my junior year. But, I still wanted to win sectional my senior year. So, during my senior year, with the help of some friends, I organized and led some WWE-style Championship Wrestling skit that included breakable boards, a chainsaw, Hulk Hogan (an English teacher willing to get out of the box), and one of our seniors, who was a state-champion wrestler who entered the ring on a cable and pulley that went from the top bleachers to the center of the ring. Our little WWE event that started out as a skit during a pep session became “The Main Event” that was opened for public the night before sectional to build enthusiasm for the entire community.

Yes, it was ridiculous. But, man… I want to cut down the nets again. No, I’m not wanting to go back to the glory days of high school. But I miss the power of having such a tangible goal that people can’t help but high five each other in uncontrollable celebration when the goal is reached. Certainly sports have all the right ingredients giving cause for celebration: hard work, sacrifice, individual accountability, group accountability, trust, fans, and… (here comes the secret sauce) a collective, very clear, focused goal (or to use Curly’s words: “One thing.”)

I’m fortunate to either lead or be a member of some pretty amazing teams with passionate, talented people. I find the work that I do both challenging and rewarding. Although there are nights that I feel like we may face a losing season, the majority of the time I take pride in seeing the improvement that we made and feel successful in what we’ve accomplished. But, seeing our team get better or win a few games just isn’t the same as cutting down the nets. We’ve certainly taken moments to celebrate the completion of a difficult project or positive results of our hard work. But, that celebration usually consists of donuts and some coffee, or perhaps an extended lunch, but we quickly re-focus and are faced with the next task, project, or challenge.

I get it. Life isn’t sports. I’ve never entered any place of work by busting through a hoop to the cheers of a deafening crowd and pulsating music with spotlights following me as I hand out secret elbow bumps to my office workers. And, I’m only guessing that even the best teams in any industry probably don’t charge each other in excitement and joy, tumbling to the floor forming a human pyramid in their conference rooms when they reach their goals. But surely we can do better.

So I’ve been asking myself… What would make the technology department at Danville Schools enthusiastically pump their fist in the air, cause teachers to do a happy dance in the workroom, and make administrators jubilantly jump out of their chairs with pride? What is it that inspires us? What is it that unites us and brings us clarity and focus? What not only reminds us why we are in education, but offers concrete evidence that the work we are doing is making a difference and that even some of the most difficult challenges can be overcome when we work together. I’m increasingly convinced that there’s really only one thing that keeps us from working together to our fullest potential and collectively celebrating like sports stars.

So, what is that one thing? That’s what we have to figure out.
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