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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Lessons for Young Leaders and Changemakers

By Guest Blogger — March 31, 2017 4 min read
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This month, Rick is off talking about his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer. Letters won’t be officially released until late April, but you can learn more about it here and order an advance copy here. While Rick is away, we’ve got an illustrious line-up of guest stars. This week, Celine Coggins, CEO of Teach Plus and an Entrepreneur in Residence at Harvard University, will be guest blogging.

I’m a huge Elizabeth Warren fan. Even though I’m in my mid-40s, I’d say she’s the person I most want to be when I grow up. Like her, I started my career as a teacher. Like her, I’m a policy nerd with a doctoral degree who makes sense of the world through writing. Like her, I’d be more likely to get mistaken for a librarian than a rebel. But like her, I’m a passionate advocate for underdogs and have a strong internal compass. These are the attributes I’ve led with in my career. The only thing that’s ever mattered to me professionally is making a contribution and fighting for equity. My goal for the second half of my career is for people to say, “She persisted.”

At the mid-point of my career, I feel fortunate to be a part of a larger community of people who, like me, are trying to change the world. What is striking to me is the visible differences in approach between the world-changers who are younger than I am and the world changers who are older than I am.

There’s a paradox at play when it comes to changing the world. To get started—to get that first promotion or your first grant as a social entrepreneur—you need to show you care more than the next person, that you give more figs. We put our faith in early career folks who act like they give a lot of figs; we trust that they will persist. However, you’re best positioned to change the world when you’ve got no figs left to give. Elizabeth Warren, no figs left to give.

Giving your figs to an issue is never purely about pursuing the substance of the idea. You must give figs to the substance and also give figs to the “stuff” that surrounds your ability to contribute. A short list of that “stuff” includes:

Starting Out (20s)

  • If I gave a fig, would it matter in the world?
  • Even if I did give a fig, do I actually know anything of value or have any noteworthy skills to contribute?
  • I would like to give more of a fig, but will I ever get a full night’s sleep again?
  • Why do the people and causes you give a fig about constantly have to break your heart?
  • Why does it seem like all of my friends don’t give a fig, but are making more money than I am?
  • If I want to gain credibility as someone who gives a fig, which “me” do I present to the world: the graduate of an elite college or the poor kid with real struggles growing up?
  • If I were to go all in on giving a fig, would I still be attractive to that guy I have a crush on?

Making Your Move (30s)

  • If I give a lot of figs about an idea, does that mean I should turn it into a business?
  • If I threw all my figs together and tried to lead something, would anyone follow?
  • Do I give enough of a fig to handle the pressure of launching my own venture?
  • To actually be successful at the thing I give a fig about, will I need to compromise my values or integrity?
  • In the early days when my venture is something only a few people give a fig about, will the big guys who oppose it crush us?
  • If I put my figs on the line for something controversial, would those who support me walk away?
  • Could I give enough figs in my professional life to make a difference and not implode my home life?
  • Am I doing the best I could possibly do in service of the issue I give so many figs about?

I can be the bearer of great news for all of you twenty and thirty-something readers: I’ve given all of those figs and it feels great to have them out of my basket. Every day, I feel closer to having no figs left to give. I feel ready to stop giving figs. However, you really don’t get to “give no figs” until you’ve reached a rarified level of respect and financial security for all of those figs you’ve given over the years. I’m not there yet.

The figs you have to give in your 40s are fewer, but they’re biggies. It’s the “Era of Responsibility.” I need to keep up the hustle on fig-giving if I hope to afford college for three tweens, pay the salaries of dozens of employees, and be a good role model to young people learning to give a fig.

All of this brings me back to Elizabeth Warren and persistence. For those of us who are trying to change the world, career and life are intertwined. The system is irrational and it makes you want to stop caring so much. But in the end, figuring out how to persist through decades of fig-giving makes for a worthy life and, inevitably, some important markers of success along the way. For those of us who can hang in, the “no figs to give” marker is on the horizon and, past that, transformative leadership.

—Celine Coggins

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.