At Higher Ground Education, we seek trust, respect, autonomy, and an opportunity to better understand one another
The team at Higher Ground Education recently celebrated our organization’s three-year anniversary. As part of the occasion, we reflected on our mission, which is to modernize and mainstream the Montessori movement, and we talked intimately about the importance of trust, transparency, autonomy, and respect for the work and those around us. These values are placed here, not as a placeholder, but as a guidepost for all that we do for students and families across the world.
Make the ideal real
The idealist’s curse is to be frustrated by reality, to see so clearly what could be but to be stymied in making it real.
The realist’s curse is to lose the spark of the grand cause, to work to effect change that doesn’t add up or mean what it could.
Don’t get frustrated and don’t give up on the spark. Practical idealism is the fusion of a mission-orientation with a focus on outcomes. It’s having a bias to action while never losing sight of the yet-unrealized world. It’s idealism outside the ivory tower. It’s realism without cynicism.
The practicality of the realist is all the more powerful when driven by the fire of the ideal. And ideals exist solely to be realized.
Being a practical idealist means acknowledging the full scope of work that it takes to achieve one’s ideal: the time horizon, the challenges, the stages of partial achievement. It means, for us, tackling challenges in understanding the intricacies of human development, challenges in building and implementing systems that will help humans grow, and challenges in advocating for our approach in the face of resistance, ignorance, and inertia.
Being a practical idealist is being relentlessly clear-eyed about everything about one’s goal—including the path to get there.
“What you think is going to happen?”
“What we make happen,” says Joseph…
“That’s easy to say,” says Frank.
“Not if you mean it,” says Joseph.
–James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk
Mission without Martyrdom:
Make it your mission
Mission-driven work is expansively difficult. In caring deeply about and working towards a mission, one can lose oneself, and even work against oneself, creating dissonance and alienation between oneself and the mission.
The work at Higher Ground is demanding. Whether it’s the demands on a leader who feels the burden of an entire school, the demands on a teacher who must bring energy, attention, and exactness to both her students and parents day in and day out, or the demands on a professional who must maintain mastery over a domain even as it expands and changes in a rapidly growing organization—each and every employee must do not only the direct work, but the work of reflecting on, romanticizing, and continuously, consciously choosing their work.
Never forget yourself. Guilt, externalization, and wishful thinking makes one a martyr. At the end of the day, your work is about you. It’s your convictions, your values, your choices, and your life—and the fulfillment and joy should be more than proportionate to the effort.
We want for the children and students in our care that they learn to find and engage in work about which they are passionate, and which is meaningful primarily to them—not work about which they feel anxiety and frustration, and which is meaningful primarily to others.
Work to embrace the positive vision of the mission, and to fully choose and integrate that mission into your personal motivations.
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
–Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”
The Child in Children:
Think in principles by conceptualizing concretes
Montessori spoke of “the child”—the characteristics of childhood shared by all children, about which one could learn, and of which one could generalize universally. In lovingly observing particular little humans, she found their common humanity.
By putting things in terms of “the child”, rather than either any particular child or children collectively, Montessori expresses that Enlightenment process of seeing the universal in the concretes. It is a view that takes seriously the need to discover and command powerful explanatory principles, as against either redeploying stale or off-center ideas, or treating each particular case as somehow its own thing.
Our mission is to impact many, many particular children. Our means of doing it is abstraction: identifying universal causes and methods and codifying them into principles. We reach each particular child by conceptualizing what children generally need. And so we address any particular challenge by conceptualizing it as a type of challenge, one which comes up repeatedly and can be addressed generally. Freshly drawing principles from and applying principles to particulars, repeatedly and over time, is the process that leads to novel and systematic solutions—that creates and enacts the system that is Higher Ground.
It is no small feat to be constantly going back to the beginning, constantly seeking ever-more articulated truths, constantly interrelating subtly different particulars, constantly wordsmithing formulations, designing brands, and architecting systems and processes that crystallize our deepest understandings into impactful tools. But these are the feats demanded of us, in perpetuity.
Theories, scale, systems of thought and industry exist as powerful means to understand and affect particulars. Conversely, our best means for understanding and affecting particulars are these systems of thought and industry. Abstract, conceptualize, and identify truths at the level of principles. Reach children through the universal child.
“Seeing things from the higher level isn’t just seeing other people’s point of view; it’s being able to see every situation, yourself, and others in the situation as though you were looking down on them as an objective observer. If you can do this well, you will see the situation as ‘another one of those’, see it through everyone’s eyes, and have good mental maps or principals for deciding how to handle it.” –Ray Dalio, Principles
To Care is to Measure:
Push to quantify all aspects of work
We work in an industry where many aspects of measurement are difficult. Educational assessment is not a fully solved problem, and much of what we do to support children—hiring and training educators, creating beautiful environments, designing and updating programs, reaching and convincing people of our message and approach—is not easily quantified.
But “not easily quantified” doesn’t mean unquantifiable. And even when it is qualitative, the value of explicitly measuring things cannot be overstated.
We work in a complex organization to further a complex mission. In this context, the only way to keep it all integrated, the only way to actually know we are having an impact, the only way to diagnose problems and to create new solutions, is to be measuring the different dimensions of our work. The alternative is vagueness, unreliable intuition, problematic diagnoses, and disconnected solutions.
Measurement is key evidence of our own performance, evidence we badly need for our own self-guidance. One should know where one is falling short and where one is excelling. One should know that one is getting out more one is putting in. One knows by measurement the shape of one’s work and one’s returns on investments.
Enrollment and profits are high level metrics that ground and provide context for many others. How many children are we impacting? How much margin is being generated? Our mission necessitates that we create and capture tremendous value in a quantifiable way.
Build the foundation for teamwork
Collaboration with great minds is the ultimate amplifier of work—but it brings with it its own challenges. Do your part to ensure it is an amplifier and not a drag. Be vulnerable, give feedback, and offer and expect greatness.
Above all, countenance no breach of trust.
Trust is widely recognized as the necessary condition for successful relationships, and with good reason. Collaboration takes place atop the bedrock of confidence shared by each collaborator with all others. What is less widely recognized, and what must be actively taken up as a guiding principle, is that maintaining and building trust is a certain kind of work, one for which each person has responsibility.
Commit to understanding and doing that work. Make yourself trustworthy: be vulnerable and visible in your work, roll out the red carpet for feedback, offer your best, and communicate clearly. And when you find yourself wondering whether trust has been damaged between yourself and a colleague, own it. Don’t let it slip by unspoken and become a new normal. Raise it in conversation, diagnose it to its root, and restore the trust to totality.
Open Kitchen Autonomy:
Identify ownership and create transparency
A productive division of labor in a complex, integrated, fast-moving organization requires both a high degree of autonomy and a high degree of transparency.
Autonomy without transparency creates silos, unhealthy compartmentalization that is inoculated from proper feedback and prioritization. Transparency without autonomy creates a diffusion of responsibility, an unhealthy reticence towards action and a failure to efficiently achieve outcomes.
Open kitchen autonomy combines a drive toward ownership with a drive toward transparency.
Autonomy enables one to take ownership over projects and domains, to judge and act quickly, and to independently drive key outcomes. A culture of autonomy demands that one continuously clarify issues of ownership — not that one necessarily takes more ownership of oneself, but that one is inquiring into who owns what, especially when it isn’t clear.
Transparency allows for integration: giving insight into your workflow, your priorities, and your methods enables feedback, broader institutional self-awareness, and additional opportunities for collaboration. It demands that one ensure key aspects of one’s work are accessible to and are seen by one’s colleagues.