A little more on Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank this month:
So ‘self-help’ really isn’t my preferred reading genre, but in addition to Dunk Tank, I highly recommend 10% Happier, by Dan Harris (yes, that Dan Harris). Much of what Harris ultimately uncovers (spoiler alert) is that our own perceptions of situations factor greatly into how they impact us. Not that it’s as easy as saying, “Don’t let anything bother you” – obviously that’s not possible, nor is it always the best way to handle conflict or problems. What I take from it – and what I have been trying to do in my own life – is focus on responding to the things within my control to change, and trying to let the things beyond my control go as much as possible. The last year or so that I’ve been practicing this – well, it hasn’t been 100% stress-free, but I stress about far fewer things and am stressed less often. As Harris says, I’m definitely at least 10% happier than I was before.
Before coming to this realization, I had a definite tendency to perseverate, over things both within and not within my control. Perhaps I’m getting more patient or mellow in my old age, but I’m finding it easier to look at situations more objectively than I used to and respond (not react) accordingly. Coda & Jetter speak to this proactive approach throughout Dunk Tank, and one section of their book that I think deserves highlighting is their “Eight Tasks to Optimize Triumph Over Tragedy”. They’re survival skills for when you do find yourself in the dunk tank, but they’re also pretty good habits to get into regardless.
NB: This list is presented under the assumption that there are not more serious underlying medical or psychological factors present. Nothing on this list is a replacement for counseling, addiction treatment, and/or medication as deemed necessary by a professional.
List Your Gratitudes: It’s hard to be perpetually stressed, upset, or otherwise in a bad place if you can list – mentally or physically – the things you are grateful for in your life. Periodically taking stock of the good things in your life is helpful for avoiding getting stuck in the mire and reframing your outlook. Not professionally related, but our house has been on the market since January, and we haven’t had a lot of action. I’m not happy about it, believe me; I could focus on that and stress about not making progress in the last 3 months, but I choose to focus on my gratitudes: if we don’t sell, I am grateful to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. My kids go to great public schools, have friends they enjoy with minimal drama, and are involved in activities they love and that make them feel good about themselves.
Recognize Your Talents: “Self-talk” can be positive or negative. In times of great stress, negative self-talk may come easier than positive, so it’s important to deliberately focus on positive self-talk. Even if you have not had many concrete achievements in your position, Coda & Jetter say, focus on the contributions you make. How do you make your workplace/home a little better every day? Even if it has no tangible impact on the dunk tank situation you face, the worst-case scenario of this strategy is that you are in a good place to talk yourself up at your next job interview.
Create and Use Affirmations: A little bit of overlap with the previous section, but this is more concrete in terms of developing positive things to say about yourself and then reviewing them regularly. It helps prevent you from falling into a perpetually negative mindset. I recall speaking with another dad (teacher in another district) at our sons’ Cub Scout meeting at one point during my dunk tank experience. He had asked me a simple question about work and I went off on a jag that probably made him feel uncomfortable. He made a joke; I don’t remember the exact words but it was something to the effect of what a drag it was to talk to me. He wasn’t wrong.
Allow Yourself to Be Vulnerable Again: Sometimes we stay in bad work situations because leaving is scary and requires us to be vulnerable (opening up to rejection in the job hunt process; risking repercussions of having people in our current workplace find out). Having been there myself, I get it, but it’s an important mental block to overcome. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable puts you in a good position to either fight the necessary fight in your current workplace and not shrink and be a pushover, or break out of your comfort zone and move on to a potentially better situation.
Strategize Your Game Plan: So you’re in the dunk tank. What are you going to do about it? Specifically, I mean? And what if that doesn’t work, then what? What’s your Plan A, B, C, etc.? At what point is enough enough and you need to eject? What Coda & Jetter call “proactive paranoia” I’ve always referred to as “playing chess” – thinking about multiple possible courses of actions, outcomes, and responses.
Redefine Yourself: Does your game plan include any changes in how you view yourself professionally? Take the opportunity to develop new goals. If you are an assistant principal, maybe now’s the time to look for that principal position. If you are a building administrator, what about a position in central office (or vice versa)? It’s no coincidence that artists with the most staying power – Madonna, Bowie, Prince – have been able to successfully reinvent themselves (and please don’t read too much into the fact that two of those examples are now dead).
Develop Yourself into a Behind-The-Scenes Expert: Knowledge is power, so do some “deep dive” self-directed learning and learn more about topic or topics relevant to your field – it will either make you more confident, make you better able to navigate the dunk tank, or help you represent yourself well in an interview if/when you decide to leave. The worst that can possibly happen is that you know more afterward than before you started, and it may even help with the recognizing talents/affirmation/positive self-talk.
Empower Others: Cultivate a Think-Tank for Your Colleagues: In the most basic terms, this involves you creating a support system for yourself where one doesn’t currently exist. Coda & Jetter give the example of getting superintendents together from around the local area to share advice, information, and experiences, but you can do this regardless of your position. Reach out to your counterparts in other districts and get together once a month – not as a “bitch session”, but to discuss current events, share interesting articles, and generally compare notes. If you can’t bring yourself to do it locally (either within your district or outside of it), develop your PLN on Twitter, LinkedIn, or your preferred social media service. It’s good for the soul to be able to rub a friendly elbow with people who do or have done your work and can commiserate, support, advise, and celebrate.