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10 Things I Learned in 2021

When I was growing up, my mom had a tradition where she asked my siblings and I to share our "highlights" and "lowlights" during dinner. One by one, we would share the best part of our day (highlights) and the worst part of our day (lowlights).

At first, we loved sharing our moments, to the point where we argued over who got to go first. However, as the years went on, we got a little too "cool" for her games and developed elaborate excuses to not participate ("If I don't share tonight ... I'll share TWO highlights and lowlights tomorrow night!")

My mom - who was quite the clever woman - caught on to our tricks. Eventually, she instituted a rule which read, "No one will leave the dinner table until everyone has shared the moments from their day." Although the term "mic drop" was not in vogue in the early 1990's, it was clear my mom was not messing around.

Now that I am older, I understand why my mom had us partake in this activity. Not only did it force us to talk to one another ... it also gave us an opportunity to learn from our experiences. Slowly but surely, we learned to keep doing the "highlights" and stop doing the "lowlights."

As someone who wrote a whole book on lifelong learning, I believe it is important that we find time to reflect and learn from the "highlights" and the "lowlights" of our lives. This post highlights (pun totally intended) the ten biggest things I learned in 2021. You will notice some are professional, some are personal, and some are both.

To be clear, this process is not just about looking back; it's also about looking forward. This review forces me to look at my actions from last year and ask, “Are my choices helping me live the life I want to live?”

Don't let the smiles fool you, us Smith children were a rowdy bunch.


Encourage Employee Feedback: In early 2021, our Director of Curriculum and I set a goal to meet with all 265 employees to ask for feedback on the district. This resulted in meeting with approximately 30 focus groups over the course of two months. This process was highly beneficial as not only did we receive great feedback, our employees truly felt like their voices were being heard. Given the effectiveness of the focus group conversations, I arranged for individual "rounding meetings" with all certified employees in late 2021. These meetings have been one of the best things I have ever done, and will likely be a professional practice for years to come.

Our bus drivers were one of our most engaged groups!

Leadership is About Asking Questions: Early in my career, I was told that leadership was about asking questions. At the time, that concept didn’t make sense. “How can I possibly lead if all I’m doing is asking questions?” However, in 2021 I finally "saw the light" ... realizing that asking questions is one of my most important roles as a school leader. Any time a situation, problem, or dilemma comes to my attention, I immediately think "What questions do I need to ask the people who will be impacted by this decision?" When staff are asked to share their opinion, they feel like a part of process and are more likely to buy-in to a solution. In 2021, I made more collaborative decisions - and less isolated decisions - than ever before in my leadership career.

Don't Take Things Personally: Let's be honest: most leaders are used to getting their way. So when others don't agree with an idea or push back on their thinking ... leaders take things personally. For years, I struggled when others disagreed with my thinking. When I didn't get things my way, I would dwell on the incident for hours. "Who do they think they are," I would tell myself at night while laying in bed. However, in 2021 I stopped taking things so personally. I realized that in the big scheme of things, most decisions are fairly insignificant. Rather than think I have to come up with all of the ideas, my goal is to create a safe space where diverse opinions are shared. Saying things like "feel free to push back on my thinking" and "there are no right or wrong answers" are common in my conversations with employees.

Ignorance is Bliss: For years, I have tried to stop giving so much time and energy to things outside my control ... so that I can focus on things within my control. 2021 was huge turning point for me in this regard. The first was with politics. While I have never been wrapped up in politics, during 2021 I gave zero attention to politics. I didn't look at the newspaper, I didn't read political posts, and I never watched the news. "But Jared, don't you care about the world?" Of course I want our world to be a better place, but honestly politics does nothing but drain my energy and put me in a bad mood. Another example - surprisingly - is sports. In the past, sports consumed my life. My happiness during a fall weekend literally depended on whether or not my football teams were winning. Whereas some people can watch a game just for fun, I found myself getting incredibly anxious and unable to focus on anything else. When my teams were losing, I was no fun to be around! Eliminating politics and limiting sports were two of the best things I did in 2021.

Pay it Forward: In June of 2021, I wrote a blog called The 3% Rule, which contends when educators accept an administrative position, they must assume that three percent of their salary will go back into the school or district. This year I have embraced this concept and given back to our schools, employees, and community more than ever before. While I wasn't raised in poverty, my siblings and I were on "free lunch" status for most of our life. This frugal lifestyle taught me to be humble, responsible, and to do more with less. It also taught me to give back whenever possible, as I can empathize with what others may be going through. Now that I am in a financial position to give back to my community, I have adopted a "this is part of my job" mentality.

Positive Energy in Every Interaction: When people meet me, they assume I'm a positive and confident guy all the time. What they don't realize is that I'm a natural worrier and my self-confidence runs hot and cold. To help improve this aspect of my life, towards the end of 2021 I started reading a lot about interpersonal relationships. One of the best concepts I picked up was, "Assume attraction until proven otherwise." While originally meant to be dating advice, I have found that this wisdom can apply to every interaction. When I meet new people, I tend to worry too much about about whether or not they "like" me as opposed to just being myself. Now, my goal is to approach every interaction with charisma and confidence. While still a work in progress, I have already noticed positive results.

Limit Aimless Social Media Browsing: This may seem contradictory for those who follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram .... hence why I used the words "aimless" and "browsing." But in reality, my social media use consists mostly of posting and responding to my content, as well as adding value to others. In 2021 I started a rule where I no longer have social media on my phone (other than Snapchat). The only time I do have social media on my phone is during the weekends for a short time when I post on Instagram. Like many others, I have found a negative correlation between aimless social media browsing and my general happiness. Given how addictive social media can be, 2021 has been a year of taking intentional steps to limit social media use.

Divorce Is A Mixed Bag: I have learned a lot during my divorce - which was finalized early in 2021. During the early stages of divorce, I was excited about being single for the first time since 2013, and driven by the fact that I was about to publish my first book. However, I will say that divorce can be a roller-coaster of emotions, even if you are the person who filed (as I did in our case). While I am excited about my professional trajectory, sometimes I can't help but wonder if I gave up too quickly on my marriage. While I'm fairly certain I made the right decision ... I've learned that it's super easy to focus on the good moments - the "highlight reel" of the relationship - and ignore all of the reasons why the relationship didn't work. In short, 2021 has taught me that divorce brings both ups and downs (hot take!).

Healthy Habits Are Vital: How could I write a reflection on 2021 without mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic? First of all, I have been very fortunate with my health, and will never take my health for granted. However, I do believe that healthy living comes down to healthy habits - meaning that those who practice healthy habits seem to have few issues with COVID-19 or the other health issues (heart disease, diabetes) of our time. 2021 reinforced the idea that if you are doing the right things - working out, getting good rest, eating right, limiting alcohol - most health issues are avoided. I didn't miss a day of work in 2021 due to illness - which was the third year in a row and fifth year out of six. I'm not trying to brag (or jinx myself), but rather explain that my healthy habits are to thank. In fact, years of monitoring my health suggest the only time I get sick is when I neglect my healthy habits (don't get enough sleep, eat too much junk food, go drinking with my buddies, etc.)

Fountain of Youth: As I near 40 years of age, I can confidently say that I look and feel better physically than ever before. My biggest takeaway during 2021 was that less is more. In the past, I believed that every workout had to be "balls to the wall" or I wasn't going to see much progress.

"Do you even lift bro?" Actually, just four days a week for 20 minutes!

Not only was my body in pain, I was getting to the point where I didn't enjoy working out. This year, I have focused more on "listening to my body" when I need rest, as well as implementing activities I enjoy. My new routine has replaced lifting every day with a HIIT cardio day (Wednesday), a stretching/yoga day (Friday), and a 60-minute walk day (Sunday). Whereas I thought I would lose muscle ... I now look (and feel) as strong as ever.

2021 By the Numbers

Working Out = 45 Minutes/Day

Reading = 28 Minutes/Day

Writing = 121 Minutes/Day

Website/Branding = 63 Minutes/Day

Daily Productivity = 257 Minutes/Day

"Cheat" Meal Days: 71 (19 percent)

Workouts Missed: 9 (2 percent)

Books Read: 41

Podcasts Recorded: 54

Books Sold: 423

Website Visitors: 25,000

Subscribers Added: 506


If you liked this article, you'll love my new book Learning Curve!

Learning Curve is 360 pages and PACKED with useful ideas on leadership, education, and personal growth.



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