Elephants on Parade

04/09/2015 13:24

I had to know, so I asked the classes directly. “Where is the elephant in this room?” Once students explained what I meant to a couple of their puzzled international classmates, and after the obligatory ten seconds of awkward silence, elephants were on parade.

Here I serve as a reporter who believes the items on the list below represent beasts hiding in classrooms across the country:

1.      Adderall –  a key reason for highs and addictions

2.      The considerable profitability of drug sales on campus; resentment on part of students supporting selves with “real jobs”

3.      Fear of failing in class and everywhere else

4.      Depressed selves and friends. More student deaths on campus. Some anger; fear; feelings of vulnerability.

5.      Exhaustion – jobs, projects, classes, paying all the bills, children, family crises. Relates at times to #1 and #2, definitely linked with #3

6.      “Force-ranking” of students; competition for grades; often relates to #5;  feeling not good enough, disorganized.

In our management classes, we folded this into a discussion about leading and motivating in projects and the workplace, when we can’t know everything that is really going on. We reserved judgment as the process itself tested biases and assumptions. Students who rarely spoke found their voice.

Some individuals around us are apparently clear of dysfunctional habits, depression, need for special support; for them, life is all good. Or not. Apparently getting as much on the table to be acknowledged and discussed can be quite the eye-opener, even for the chronically bored.

The king of beasts as far as we could tell was prevalent anxiety. Here's what I'd wish my students to know:

The Metrics of Personal Growth – Or, Render Unto the Professor the Capital of the Realm. However…

Grades are what instructors and the university decide they are. They are not the sole determinants of personal growth. How many students/ others have developed their own criteria by which to measure personal progress in areas that matter to them personally, and if so, exactly what areas are they tracking with care? Wealth and property acquisition? Health and wellness? Civility and intelligence? Other evidence of continuous growth?  So, one way around the elephant is to decide in general, and then quite specifically, what it takes today to transform into the person we’d want to be. Today decides tomorrow, or so they say.

“Will there ever be awards given to average students who do remarkable things?” a student asked. Maybe someday.  What message would such acknowledgement send?

Foundations for Continuous Growth and the Good Life

At the heart of Aristotle’s political philosophy, and that “thing” we strive for throughout our lives, is eudemonia – personal thriving, the state of being happy and healthy and prosperous. How do we get it? I use this schematic from the Sustainability Leadership Organization quite often in my classes. How does this address anxiety the students expressed as the beast-most-legion?

One secret to having fewer worries is to replace them with ideas, and those come from the connections we make.


 Peter Koestenbaum’s Reminder:  "Anxiety is a Positive Force ”

Peter is a philosopher, leadership consultant and Holocaust survivor. He thinks fear generates energy we can put to work for our benefit. Peter cites three positives of anxiety I've listed below. What makes us feel uncomfortable can be a powerful force driving us toward a "higher level experience" that could transform our lives:

Anxiety generates knowledge and tips us off to the existence of our freedom: It reminds us of our huge responsibility to choose who we are and to define our world.

Anxiety leads to action. It's pure energy.

Anxiety makes you a grown-up. It's the experience of growth itself. In any endeavor, he asks, how do you feel when you go from one stage to the next? You feel anxious. Anxiety that is denied makes us ill. But anxiety that is fully confronted and fully lived through converts itself into joy, security, strength, centeredness, and character. The practical formula for growth, according to Peter:  Go where the pain is.

Peter says that deep thinking and astute, expedient decision-making seem on the surface to represent polarities, but together, they represent freedom.  “Reflection doesn’t take anything away from decisiveness,” he insists.  “Reflection generates the inner toughness needed to be an effective person of action – a real leader able to actually do things. To be decisive, to choose, and to help others make choices for progress is what leaders do. Think of leadership as the sum of those two vectors, reflection and  action -  expressed as manifest competence.”