Essentialism (New York: Random House Audio, 2014)

I’m back for the 2016-17 school year with my first book review of the season. This review is for both teachers and students!

Trivial Many? Vital Few? Author Greg McKeown sounds like a Six Sigma instructor. I am a huge proponent of the Pareto Principle, and the author puts forth a solid argument for focusing on what matters, or that which is essential. A priority is just that — the one overarching thing that is most important. Only in the last last generation was the word priority even pluralized. As I listened, I couldn’t help but think of Napoleon Hill’s description of one’s chief major purpose.

Recently on Michael Hyatt’s This is Your Life Podcast, the author’s description of the closet analogy was masterful at helping me recognize that I have way too many clothes, so to speak. Mr. McKeown explains that the stuff we have in our closets have a higher perceived value, because we already own them. That is, there is a tendency to overvalue rules and beliefs that we have already worked hard to acquire.

Forget the Undisciplined Pursuit of More

Many of us have so many irons in the fire that we suffer chronic mental, physical, and spiritual exhaustion. As teachers (and students), you no doubt feel overworked and underutilized many days. What I realized after reading this book — kind of obvious now — is that I have been majoring in minor things. Granted, much of the “administrivia” we teachers do is necessary to our jobs. Attendance. Incident referrals. Phone calls.  However, these functions are hardly essential to educating children. As a result, I am eliminating any task that is not essential (as long as it won’t get me canned!). To hear Greg McKeown talk about elimination is liberating.

Aim for the Disciplined Pursuit of Less

As I continue on my path of teacher as leader, I can’t help but think that this book should be required reading for all in any leadership role. Professors warn of becoming the newbie administrator that tries to micro-manage it all. And who is more busy than a school administrator? (other than the teachers, of course!) If you are at your wit’s end looking for more margin in your crazy hectic life, give this book a read/listen. Mr. McKeown says if what you’re doing would NOT be lamented on your death bed, then it is not essential.

Happy reading/listening!

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The Fred Factor: How Passion in Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary into the Extraordinary (Random House Audio, 2006)

Fred FactorThe Fred Factor is a short book by Mark Sanborn about a mail carrier named Fred. The author relates anecdotal stories about his postman, a man named Fred. Fred is no ordinary mail carrier. He consistently performed his job better than he had to for no other reason other than he wanted to provide exceptional service to his customers. And so the term “Fred” is coined.

Sanborn goes on to explain what a “Fred” looks like in an organization and why people like Fred do what they do. He also explains how to find Freds, hire Freds, and encourage Fredness throughout the organization.

Of course, I try to relate everything I read in some way, shape, or form to the classroom. While I lead by example, I am always looking for ways to encourage Fredness in my classroom. Fred 2.0 is now in my “to read” stack, and my goal is to create a Fred Oasis, as Sanborn calls it.

If you ever find yourself in a place where you are feeling disenfranchised then read this book. The audio book is just two and a half hours — faster if you speed it up. It may help restore your faith in what you do. Exceptionalism does still exist. We have to know where (and how) to look and be able to recognize it when we see it.

Do you know anyone like Fred?

Mastery (New York: Penguin Audio, 2012)

Thanks for reading installment #3…

In Mastery, author Robert Greene tells a series of vignettes about inventors, athletes, and celebrities to describe the 10,000-hour process of mastery. All math and science teachers (and their students) should read this book. Greene completely explained the frustration of helping struggling students that may seem incapable of learning. The problem is often that we are trying to teach a concept for which the proper foundation skills have not been cemented in the autonomic nervous system. If you’ve ever heard the expression, “it’s like riding a bike,” then read (or listen) to Robert Greene’s Mastery.

What resonated?

The author explains how new and challenging activities are processed in the frontal cortex. He relates how the process of skills acquisition requires a great deal of “band width.” Skills acquisition requires so much band width, in fact, that trying to learn anything new can be frustrating, often seemingly fruitless. Only after a skill is mastered does its storage place move to other parts of the brain where its recall becomes like “riding a bike.”

This resonated with my classroom math-teaching experiences. To me, Greene’s explanation of skills acquisition completely described what I see in the classroom. The educational culture of feeling good (as opposed to doing good) has resulted in the social promotion of many students prior to skills acquisition. When these students arrive in a high school math class, like algebra, their band width (i.e., frontal cortex) is tied up processing what were supposed to have been rudimentary skills. As a result, the acquisition of the conceptual is effectively blocked by the continuing process of still trying to acquire the concrete operational skills of grade school.

What else?

The other area of the book I see reflected in the classroom is when the apprentice tries to move on too fast without learning all he can from the master. Greene explains how the inability — or sometimes unwillingness — of a protege to fully submit to his mentor often slows the protege’s growth. While the hope of all good masters is for the apprentice to eventually become an even better craftsman, this will not happen if the apprentice wants to skips the blood, sweat, and tears of being a journeyman. Our instant-fix society tells American youth that they are special and can “hack” tried-and-true learning methods.

Although this is more prevalent than it should be in a classroom, it is often not the student’s fault. As I mentioned, so many erstwhile students are products of social promotion that the level of expectation is such that the “apprentice” student may not acquire the necessary foundation skills, yet still be promoted to “journeyman” student. In fact, I see many average to below-average students who fancy themselves as perspicaciously extraordinary.

The verdict?

Mastery is the first Robert Greene book that I have read/listened to. Fred Sanders narrates, and he is easy to understand, even at speed of 1.5X. This is nice as the book is listed as 16+ hours in length.

I give Mastery two thumbs up! It contains some of the best content I’ve consumed, and I read/listen to 2-3  books a week. There was no part of this book that I felt was slow-moving.  It delivers interesting, if not gripping, information that helped me not only identify peculiar classroom behaviors, but how to approach the behaviors and move my instruction into a whole new realm.

The Obstacle is the Way (San Francisco: Tim Ferriss, 2014)

Note: This is the second installment of a new monthly feature where I review books that I think would be great reads for students.

What do Abraham Lincoln, John D. Rockefeller, and Steve Jobs have in common?  Stoicism. Each of these men achieved greatness while enduring immense hardships. And they did it without complaining. Each made decisions based on deep-rooted principles, removing any tendency to be emotive in their processes.

The admirable trait of stoicism was written about by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was the last of the Five Good Emperors. Aurelius was not the first to write about this notion, but he is perhaps best known Stoic philosopher. Meditations is still viewed as a literary testament to his philosophical thinking.

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Stoicism is exemplified in having the intestinal fortitude to persist through the obstacles in our way.  It’s about clear thinking. The practice of stoicism has allowed men like Steve Jobs to recognize that the very obstacle was the path to the solution to a problem.  The stoic recognizes that the best solution to a problem is often found in going through the “messy middle.”  Reaching goals is hard, otherwise they wouldn’t be worth achieving. No one aspires to mediocrity, right?

What does this have to do with students? The solution to their problems often lies in confronting the very obstacle that they are trying to avoid. Suppose you hate a subject. Math seems to be a favorite subject to dislike. If you absolutely hate math, the best way to cope is to analyze and confront your difficulties. (Sorry, the teacher doesn’t teach it right does not count.) Unfortunately, trying to remove the obstacle is a leftist model that many university students are all too familiar with these days.

The points is, if you struggle in a particular subject, your struggle is most certainly not with the content provider; it is with the hard work of learning the content. School is hard work. One of the reasons that having an education is so coveted is because it tells the rest of the world that you did something challenging, that you have faced obstacles and comes through a success. And an education is the one thing you own that no one can take.

Author Ryan Holiday delivers a compelling indictment of societal expectations on our youth. I am reminded of the student who thinks that hating something enough will make it go away and not be true. Of course, the truth is undefeated, and no amount of commiserating is ever going to alter truth.

What obstacles have you overcome? What achievement to you attribute to the your staying the course and facing down a tough obstacle?

Start (Brentwood, TN: The Lampo Group, 2013)

Note: This is a new segment for the growing Planet Numeracy platform. Once a month, I will review a book that I think students would benefit from reading. Chances are the books being reviewed are in the SHS library. I usually donate them for Mr. Mensch when I’m done reading them. Enjoy…


Start should be required reading for anyone anxious about their education, wanting to extend their influence, or embarking on a new path. In this follow-up to his Wall Street Journal best-selling book, Quitter, Jon Acuff struck a chord with me yet again.

The author’s conversational writing style makes this book an easy read for students. Jon Acuff is also one of the most witty writers, and he has a great satirical sense of humor. As I read, I found myself — and listening, I do most of my books read/listen from Amazon/Audible — smiling frequently, even chuckling aloud.

As a fan of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, I enjoyed Jon’s 21st century take on the notion of the proverbial road less traveled — that road being the road to Awesome. As he describes it, the road to Average is a wide, well-worn, easy-to-follow path that usually just leads to old age. While I suppose the road to Awesome also leads to old age, Jon describes it as a far more gratifying journey in spite of its narrow twists and turns. He details a winding path through the lands of Learning, Editing, Mastering, Harvesting, and Guiding.

The content was easy to relate to my own life. I came away with three overarching themes:

1. Stop Thinking You Aren’t Good Enough

Jon is inspiring, pushing the reader to stop thinking that they are not good enough to start something. My starting this blog was in part inspired by following Jon’s blog, pre-Dave Ramsey. You are good enough, and you live in America. You have every right to start and every tool to be successful. And don’t worry about what other people think of your choice to be Awesome. These “thunder-stealers” are usually jealous. Your path to Awesome threatens to expose their path to Average.

2. Stop Thinking Life Has Passed You By

After detailing the typical journey through the five lands to Awesome, Jon smashes the conventional wisdom that we pass through these lands at predetermined ages. Starting is a frame of mind not related to your chronological age. I didn’t start teaching until I was 30! I started three other careers path prior to teaching, some less successful than others, but I started and learned from the process.

3. Stop Thinking That You Have to be Perfect

Jon addresses what Steven Pressfield coined the Resistance. Sometimes, by thinking we have to be great from the start, we end up in pre-start limbo. Today’s automobiles seem like extraterrestrial transports compared to a 1908 Model T. But if Henry Ford had not started, where would the industry be today? Think about it. Does anybody remember the Commodore 64? Or a cordless telephone with a retractable antenna? We didn’t start with laptops and smartphones. Settling for an A-, so you can start is not a bad thing. You can always make modification on the road to Awesome.

Don’t Forget the Hustle!

As you read, you won’t help but notice Jon’s passionate case for hustle. My little league coach had nothing on Jon when it comes to hustling. Hustle is an often overlooked ingredient of wannabes. Nothing happens without hustling. Jon says the journey to Awesome is tougher (if not impossible) without the essential habit of mind known as hustle. In education, lack of hustle manifests itself as entitlement. Just because he grew tall and had loads of talent, Michael Jordan still had to train hard — the NBA didn’t just give him MVP awards because he showed up and tried really hard.

When are you starting on the road to Awesome?