After choosing #oneword to set my intentions for the year ahead for five years—CONQUER in 2015, MOMENTUM in 2016, NOURISH in 2017, METAMORPHOSIS in 2018, and LIGHT in 2019—I was so immersed in travel last January that I didn’t get around to choosing a word for 2020, though the year taught me plenty!
14 days into 2021 I haven’t yet been willing or able to set goals or intentions for the year ahead. The events and experiences of the last year, and current realities around the world, are playing on my mind. What word or individual targets could possibly do justice to what we all need to focus on now? Humanity. Equity. Celebration of diversity. Democracy. Unity. The goals seem too big and the destinations too far. What can one person focus on that might make a difference? How might we, individually and collectively, move onward and upward from here?
To move onward and upward is to move deliberately. It is not rudderless, purposeless movement, but purpose-full, advancing towards a destination, anchored by values and vision. Yet the moving forward happens one step at a time.
Perhaps, step by little step, we can edge towards the future we want to see. Lao Tzu is attributed as writing, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s 1991 protest song about Aboriginal land rights in Australia notes that “from little things big things grow”. James Clear in his book Atomic Habits writes “success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.” Writing a PhD, and then a book, were examples of eating the proverbial elephant one bite at a time. When I wrote my book Transformational Professional Learning, I had a visible reminder to myself that simply said: “Start now.” Write. Begin. Do. I stuck a word count list in 5K increments on the fridge, and crossed off each milestone as I passed it. Training in powerlifting also reminds me how small consistent effort can accumulate into big results. Chipping away. Being disciplined rather than motivated. Turning up regardless of how I feel and just doing the work (mostly this looks like arriving at the gym at 5.15am and doing what my coach tells me). In 2020 I hit some powerlifting personal bests: 112.5kg squat, 110.5kg sumo deadlift, 140kg trap bar deadlift, 67kg bench press. In 2021 these numbers will go higher, not because of any big move or lofty goal, but because of small regular actions that add up to progress over time.
And so, I have settled on a word to guide me in 2021: EXCELSIOR.
Excelsior is a Latin word meaning ‘ever upward’ or ‘still higher’. It is about striving for better. A catchphrase of Stan Lee and reminiscent of Michelle Obama’s famous motto, “When they go low, we go high”, excelsior is about aiming high, going high, being part of the world as we wish it to be.
This early in the year I am focusing on habits. What achievable micro actions can I implement, teeny step by teeny step, to make a positive difference for myself and my circle of influence? How might I fill my own cup, and pour into the cups of others? I am starting small. Very small. The first week of January had me focusing on quality sleep (via a regular sleep time) and increasing my water intake. Simple and achievable habits on which I can build.
I was back at work today, so I am beginning to consider what kinds of habits I can integrate into my work day. Prioritising what matters over what consumes. Returning constantly to values, purpose and context. Continuing to listen widely and intently. Moving more. Engaging with positive and productive people and behaviours that will move our care for our students and our school forward. Baby steps to move us onward and upward in the direction of those things that will make a real difference for our community.
I’m wondering, to what might I contribute this year outside of work that can be part of nudging education ever upward, to a more equitable, democratic, human, humane place? I’ve been editing a book that I hope will make a positive difference in the education world. Little by little it moves forward. Soon it will be time for me to consider: What more? What else? What next?
To move ‘ever upward’ means to advance, to move in a positive direction, to be part of creating what’s good (as in the common good, the greater good, good for all). Excelsior speaks to being in motion while focusing on the next steps as well as the big goal or distant horizon. Those hopes and dreams are there, but it’s the actions we all regularly take that will add up to making our world a better place.