“It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get back up.”
-FROM Run to Daylight
By Vince Lombardi
“You’re just not ready.”
Those were the superintendent’s words when he informed me that I did not get the middle school principal job.
This was not the first of these calls. I had now interviewed for three principal jobs within the Waterloo Community School District, and all three times I was told “you’re not good enough.”
The year was 2014 and I was in my sixth year as an assistant principal. Whereas my administrative peers were getting opportunities to lead buildings ... all I was getting were rejection calls.
Upon hanging up the phone, I sat motionless in my tiny corner office. Sick to my stomach and unable to focus, I said “screw it” and left work early without telling anyone.
When I got into my black 2005 Yukon, I grabbed my case of burned CD’s and pulled out a disk with the word “Revenge” written in black sharpie. During my drive to the gym across town, I blasted Linkin Park’s Numb, Eminem’s ‘Till I Collapse (NSFW), and Tupac’s Hit ‘Em Up (definitely NSFW).
During my workout, several thoughts went through my head:
What am I doing wrong in my interviews?
I know I’m better than whoever they picked!
Does someone in the district office hate me?
My friends and family will think I’m a loser!
Do I have what it takes to be a principal?
The next few days were more of the same. Feelings of embarrassment, anger, and inadequacy cycled through my mind like a washing machine on spin cycle. These constant negative thoughts made it difficult to eat and impossible to sleep.
Eventually I reached a point of extreme mental fatigue which forced me to stay home from work. Staring blankly at the ceiling while lying in bed, I realized I was at a crossroads:
Do I quit education and transition to another profession?
Or, do I continue to grind and trust that I’ll get my chance?
I grabbed my laptop and searched several job sites looking for opportunities outside of education. “Website developer – I could do that.” I thought to myself. “Ooohhh - personal training sounds fun!”
After going down the job-search rabbit hole, I switched my attention to YouTube. Searching for inspiration, I typed “how to move up at work” into the navigation bar.
Three pages-worth of results later, I stumbled upon an interview of comedian Steve Martin. In this particular video clip, Martin was asked to give advice on how to be successful. The following was his response:
When people ask me, “How do you make it in show business?” what I always tell them is not the answer they want to hear. What they want to hear is, “Here’s how you get an agent … Here’s how you write a script.” But what I always say is, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” If you are really good, people are going to come to you.
Little did I realize that Martin's advice - more specifically, "Be so good they can't ignore you" - would be the exact words needed to jump-start my stagnant professional career.
Fast forward to 2022.
On a cold, blustery day in late January I had another job interview. As is usual in school leadership, the full-day interview involved meeting with several teams of staff, parents, and community members over the course of the day.
When the process ended in the late afternoon, I grabbed my materials and headed home. For the next several hours, feelings about my performance swung like a pendulum. From "What a great day - you nailed it!" to "What a stupid answer - you bombed!", the interview committee's looming decision consumed my thinking.
Too worried to eat dinner and too exhausted to change out of my suit, I sat at the dinner table - eyes glued to my phone. Knowing the school board planned to make a quick decision, I pleaded for my phone to ring.
When 9:00pm passed without a call, my optimism waned: “They wouldn’t call this late,” I thought while brushing my teeth. “They must have picked someone else.”
And by 9:30pm, I had completely given up: “Forget those guys,” I vented. “They wouldn’t know talent if hit them in the face!”
But at 9:42 – the exact moment I placed my phone on its charger before heading to bed – I received a phone call that would change my life:
"How would you like to be the Superintendent of the Waterloo Community School District?”
When the consultant said those words, I couldn’t believe my ears. Whereas I had been told I wasn’t good enough to lead one school … I was now being asked to lead all twenty schools.
In the same exact school district.
Talk about full circle.
We all experience turning points.
Turning points are moments in life when significant change occurs. Turning points happen within our jobs, our families, our relationships, and our selves. Some turning points are obvious - such as an ended marriage or a career change. Other turning points are more subtle - such as how a passing compliment (or criticism) becomes part of our self-identity.
My job requires me to regularly deliver speeches to large audiences. During these opportunities, I often discuss the turning points of my youth. Recalling both high points and low points, I explain how pivotal childhood moments impacted my life trajectory. When finished, spectators are asked to reveal their own turning points with a partner. Initially hesitant to share their ideas, soon the room is abuzz with audience members swapping life stories.
As it turns out, turning points are universal.
This book uses life's turning points to teach universal principles in the areas of leadership, education, and personal growth. Each chapter contains bite-sized pieces of content related to the overarching section. By meshing relatable anecdotes with research-based concepts, readers will discover practical ideas for use in their professional and personal life.
Despite its deliberate structure, there is no right way to read this book. Feel free to read from cover to cover, or bounce around and choose topics that pique your interest. Think of this book as a buffet: you can start with the salad bar and proceed to the main course … or you can go straight for dessert.
Given this book tackles numerous issues, there may be topics that do not pertain to your current situation. Simply skip those sections and come back when you believe the subject is more applicable.
However, understand that books change as you undergo different life experiences. As time passes, concepts initially deemed unimportant may later prove meaningful. Avoid permanently rejecting any ideas as they may deliver future value.
Finally, you will notice that Learning Curve is referenced throughout these pages. Although you are encouraged to check out my first book, doing so is hardly a prerequisite for reading Turning Points. Think of Learning Curve and Turning Points as interchangeable compliments as opposed to a linear series.
John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.”
My hope is that you view this book as an opportunity to reflect on your own experiences. Whether you are looking for a few helpful ideas – or are searching for a complete mental makeover – realize that lifelong learning is always time well spent.
What are you waiting for?
Let’s get started.
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