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Highlights & Lowlights

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 shared 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 avoid participating ("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 their highlights and lowlights." Although the term "mic drop" was not in vogue in the early 1990's, it was clear my mom was not messing around.

Don’t let the smiles and the silk shirts from K-Mart fool you, us Smith children were a rowdy bunch.

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 create more "highlights" while avoiding previous "lowlights."

I now realize the importance of reflecting on the "highlights and lowlights” of our lives. One of my most productive habits is journaling what I've learned from my experiences – especially those experiences that don’t go so well. Too often, we go through a bad situation and say, “well that sucked” but never take the time to pinpoint where things went wrong. By documenting the experience, the goal is to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Another reflective practice I enjoy is to complete an annual review where I outline the most important things I learned over the past year. In early January, I spend time reviewing the biggest turning points of the past 365 days, and then describe how my mindset was changed. Similar to daily journaling, this process subconsciously helps me continue doing the “good stuff” while avoiding the “bad stuff.”

As you can see, this process is not really about looking back … it’s about looking forward. Completing an annual review forces me to look at my actions and ask, “Are my choices helping me live the life I want to live?”


To give readers an idea of what the process could look like, the following is the annual review I wrote for 2021:

Encourage Employee Feedback: In early 2021, our Director of Curriculum and I set a goal to meet with every district employee to ask for honest feedback on the district. This resulted in meeting with more than 250 employees across nearly 30 focus groups over a two-month span. This process was highly beneficial because in addition to receiving valuable feedback, employees felt like their voices were being heard. These successful focus groups were the impetus behind arranging individual “rounding meetings” with certified employees (see page …). Rounding meetings quickly became a favorite professional practice, and will continue for years to come.

Our bus drivers were one of our most engaged focus groups!

Become a Better Listener: Early in my career, I heard that leadership was about asking questions. At the time, that concept didn’t make sense: "I thought leaders were supposed to tell people what to do?” However, in 2021 I finally saw the light and realized that asking questions is a highly effective leadership practice. Now, when faced with a difficult decision, I immediately think "What questions do I need to ask the people who will be impacted by this decision?" Staff who are asked to share their opinion 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 and would dwell on the incident for hours. "Who do they think they are!" I would seethe while lying in bed at night. 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 assume I had to produce all of the ideas, my goal was to create a safe space where diverse opinions were shared. Saying phrases like "feel free to push back on my thinking" and "there are no right or wrong answers" became more common in conversations with employees.

Telling employees “It won’t hurt my feelings if you say no” helps remove emotion from decisions.

Ignorance is Bliss: Over time, I have learned to stop worrying so much about things outside my control and instead focus on things within my control. 2021 was a huge turning point for me in this regard. The first area was politics. While I have never cared much for politics, I gave zero attention to politics in 2021. I didn't look at the newspaper, I didn't read political posts, and I didn't watch the news. "But Jared, don't you care about the world?" Of course I want our world to be a better place, but I have discovered that politics does nothing but increase my anxiety and drain my energy. 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 sports just for fun, I can’t help but fixate on the game which limits my ability to focus on anything else. When my teams were losing, I was no fun to be around! Eliminating politics and limiting sports resulted in a much more productive – and happier – year in 2021.

Pay it Forward: A few years ago, I created the “The 3% Rule” (see page…) which contends when educators accept an administrative position, they must assume that three percent of their salary will go back to the school or district. In 2021, I fully embraced this concept by giving back to schools, employees, and the 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 empathize with others and donate whenever possible. Now that I am in a financial position to give back to my community, I have adopted a giving 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, I read a lot about interpersonal relationships in 2021. 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 meeting new people, I tend to worry too much 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.

Don’t Worry, Be Thankful: My divorce was finalized in early 2021. Even though the ending of our relationship was my idea, I still battled constant feelings of regret and disappointment. Sick of the recurring negative emotions, I decided to journal about all of the things I was grateful for in our seven-year relationship. While there was plenty to be frustrated about … I also realized there was plenty to be thankful for. “Wow … I wouldn’t be who I am today had I never met Lindsey” I quickly realized. Rewiring my brain to look for the positives in difficult situations – whether it be a problematic co-worker, a nagging injury, an unexpected expense – was a huge turning point in my personal development.

Healthy Habits: How could I reflect on 2021 without mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic? This year I was fortunate to maintain optimal health while others experienced severe health complications. I share this not to brag, but rather to support the notion that healthy habits are vital for living life to the fullest. I am convinced that those who are disciplined around working out, eating right, and prioritizing rest rarely struggle with COVID-19 and the other health issues (heart disease, diabetes, etc.) of our time. I haven’t missed a day of work due to illness in several years, and I believe my healthy habits are the reason why.


My mom still asks us to play “highlights and lowlights" when gathering for family meals.

While this request may garner the occasional eyeroll from me or my siblings, there is little doubt that this “game” has played a significant role in my approach toward life.


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



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