In South Africa, I had the chance to spend the week with teachers from numerous schools all over the world. We chatted about this and that, students, teaching, traveling, food, and other assorted topics of discussion. One after another said that they’d love to do other work in education, maybe for private organizations or edtech companies, but that then their careers would be, “really unpredictable.” The importance of order was paramount.
It just so happened that over the trip I also read Jordan Peterson’s latest book and a great deal of it focuses around the balance of order and chaos. Without diving into the weeds too much, a theme running throughout is that order and chaos are driving forces within our lives. Hardly a novel concept in isolation (look back to yin and yang in eastern cultures or various gods and titans in western mythology for this idea illustrated time and time again), though I’d recommend it as a read. Peterson is a eminently professional yet simul- taneously deeply personal storyteller and his examples are fun and insightful.
In short: Order is when circumstances are predictable. You know exactly what is going to happen next. Too much order and life is boring. Too little order and you are constantly stressed and nervous. Chaos is when circumstances are unpredictable. You don’t know exactly what is going to happen next. Too much chaos and life is anxiety-inducing and stressful. Too little chaos and life is boring.
If you’re reading this, you might already be able to guess my (equally unoriginal yet hope- fully relevant to you by the end of this reading) viewpoint: You need a little cocktail of both, but willingness to at least tolerate chaos is vital.
Multiple forces in our lives play to the extremes: Democrats and Republicans - one has a platform of change and the other about staying the course. Superheroes and villains - villains induce chaos and superheroes restore order. Spirituality at large - it provides order and reason to an otherwise chaotic world. Startups and corporations - young companies are chaos trying to find order and large stodgy corporations are perfect representations of order and bureaucracy seeking innovation, or chaos.
The week after WIDPSC in South Africa, I traveled to the Annual Global Leadership Con- ference for EO. When meeting new people that are more successful/interesting/insight- ful than me, I make it a habit to ask as many questions as I can (hopefully without appear- ing too bothersome!). One question I asked to anyone who would take the time to talk to me at this conference was, “If you had one secret that leads to the greatest proportion of your success, what is it?”
Over half of them, or about 30 of the 50 I asked replied variations of, “confidence in dealing with the unknown.”
I was floored. I had been speaking about this exact idea with high school teachers in Cape Town not 4 days earlier and how it held back many of their dreams and aspirations.
On the flight back to China, I had the chance to reflect on the various learnings of the week in Toronto. Many of the key takeaways were EO specific, while others were related to general entrepreneurship. Some of them were family-related. Others were personal. Finally, some of them were individual-focused while others were team-focused. The idea that kept resurfacing in my head again and again was this:
Whatever got LearningLeaders through our first four years (considering I left my last job on April 2014) will likely not be the key attributes that pushes us through the next four (or even two)! Exactly what those are, I definitely need to find out. But I am pretty sure what- ever we’re doing today is not enough to break us through the next set of thresholds.
We must develop an organizational capability to keep one foot firmly planted in current successes and yet simultaneously be unafraid to continually reinvent ourselves. The old tropes are true: “Only the paranoid survive.” “Innovate or die.” “What got you here won’t get you there.”
What I want to call your attention to specifically is that is true for us as a Partnership, as Teams, and as individuals.
We are in the process of adding Partners to our team faster than we ever have before. And we’ll simultaneously be welcoming nearly a dozen of ridiculously qualified interns for our summer program. Our summer internship program has a lower acceptance rate than Cornell, for goodness sakes! Our students (knock on wood, BDC) haven’t lost a competition in 2018 in China to other high school students. We’re about to host (to my knowledge) the largest English public speaking competition held for middle schoolers the country has ever seen.
We’re doing something right.
We are the industry leader. We are literally the best in the business. And that’s exactly what concerns me.
Because right when everything looks rosy, right when we can do no wrong, our old friend chaos enters from stage left.
How many times have you heard stories about market leading companies losing to up- starts. Maybe you’ve once or twice read a headline with the word ‘disruption’ in it? (While that phrase is terribly mis-appropriated on a regular basis, it’s broadly describing a new market entrant taking down an incumbent.)
So how do we ready ourselves for the chaos? Whether it’s an economic recession, multi- ple upstarts in our industry, defecting customers or Partners, or a mix of everything, how do we get ready to embrace this chaos? How do we brace for impact?
We must acknowledge uncertainty is about to come.
As a Partnership, we have to be able to keep one foot planted in our successes and yet stretch out to grab what’s coming around the corner. When the winds of chaos blow, they will strive to force us backwards. We can anchor ourselves in current successes but must strive forward against the buffeting winds of resistance if we ever want a hope at moving forward.
In our Teams, we have to be able to examine everything we are doing and shed dead-weight loss. Just because ‘we’ve always done it that way,’ doesn’t mean it has to be done that way. When waves of chaos pour down over the side of our boat and threaten to sink us, we don’t immediately call ‘Abandon Ship,’ but instead rigorously interrogate what bar- rels should be thrown overboard, what should be kept, and how we move on from that moment.
And as an individual, I think you’ve chosen to be a part of this team because you see how fast others here have grown and you see how quickly you too can grow. When chaos wrings you by the neck, makes you feel anxious, tired, and frustrated, you look in the mir- ror and say, “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”
That’s exactly what we need from everyone right now to pull through this next significant change phase shift as a Partnership. Especially with many of us taking time off in the summer, especially with the move to the new LearningCenter, especially with the semester coming to a close in just over a month, it is going to feel like LearningLeaders is changing fast. Whether or not it’s true, I promise you, that will be the feeling around the team.
I view it as a positive Partners at LearningLeaders are ‘long-term greedy.’ We’re long- term thinkers ready to forego immediate gains to maximize our personal and professional development in the long-run. And I think that is one of the defining characteristics that sets apart every person in this Partnership from our competition. We Take No Shortcuts.
Being comfortable balancing between order and chaos is a competitive advantage to grow our business and ourselves. We don’t know what the future holds. That’s chaos. But we’re willing to take a risks and do our best to plan for it. That’s order. And at the same time, when we feel there’s too much order around our work, we need to be willing to shake it up a little bit and stretch for something greater. You have to really nail the stuff you’re working on first before you can move on. But here, we want you to move on as the company grows. We want you to grow because of the growth LearningLeaders, not in spite of it.
This is learning, is it not? Being willing to step away from what you know and risk failure in trying something new?
We are at a critical juncture where we must continue to dream of new ways (that lie within our Core Values) to innovate and improve. I know I can be stubborn about ideas I believe deeply about. But this is everyone’s responsibility - if you think this is a place where every decision is made at the top of the org chart, you are sorely mistaken. This comes down to every one of us.
As the semester comes to a close, we can’t dog it. We can’t mail it in. This is the exact moment when we need to be ultra-reflective and consider what is working and what isn’t. Will you be brave enough to leave behind some things you are great at and reach for a new set of responsibilities and really give it your best shot? Or are you going to ‘sort of commit’ to it, because you like where that those two feet are firmly planted in current successes already?
Where there is chaos, there is someone who is afraid to go near it. And that someone - that someone is going to be left behind.
We’re going to go from success to success. There might be wrong steps along the way, sure. But I’m not afraid of the chaos. I welcome it. I embrace it. I long for it.
You should too.