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Failing forward through a year of COVID

Today marks the one year anniversary of pandemic conditions at my school. One year ago today was the last day of "normal" school. That weekend, the teaching team hopped on a conference call to make the decision to close the school to students on campus. That Tuesday, we released our first distance learning packet.

What a year!

I’m pushing pause to take stock of the past year. It’s time to look back at the really tough parts and figure out what I’m taking with me into a post-pandemic future.

For me, this year has been an exercise in grit. Psychologist Angela Duckworth says,

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint.”

Grit is what the best of us do when times are tough. We hold to our calling, our mission, our purpose and stay with it. Like basketball star Michael Jordan who says, "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

So here are my top three personal failures this year, and the lessons I learned from them.

ONE: Last spring, the stress of the emerging pandemic and the responsibility I felt for my school community had me working 60 hours a week, sometimes 70, to the detriment of my family, marriage and health. All my hard work over the years to stay present, practice mindfulness, maintain healthy boundaries, and take time for myself went out the window. Vacations and game nights were cancelled and replaced with work.

With a ton of grit, I re-learned it all, added new strategies (my favorite: “manage your energy not your time”), and topped it off by training with the Center for Mind Body Medicine, the world’s largest research-based organization for teaching people self care and resilience strategies in response to trauma and stress. I feel a work-life synergy I’ve never felt before and it’s transformed me.

TWO: I clung too tightly to the role of school leader. I had occupied the principal chair for so long that the school had become a third child to me, and "school leader" became an intimate part of my identity. So when the talented, passionate, exceptional woman we hired to step up arrived, I failed her by being unable to let go. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was bossy, in her way, and attention-seeking.

I have since learned the essential skill of reframing. Initially, with the help of my own coach, I reframed this leadership transition as my third child going off to college. This felt better, but not entirely satisfying because I still felt left behind. Another round of expert coaching allowed me to reframe again, this time with me as the graduate, leaving home and heading off to a bright new future. I had a heart to heart with the new administrator and, I think, I am finally exiting with grace.

THREE: Throughout the pandemic, there have been regular bouts of miscommunication with my husband as we navigated this year of uncertainty and disruption. We’re constantly short-tempered, in each other’s spaces, trying to get on the same page regarding COVID safety, integrating new data as it emerges, creating new routines and schedules for the kids, then changing the new schedule, then changing the new new schedule.

My amazing husband and I have had more fights this year than ever before, but I’ve also gained a new understanding about who I am, who he is, and who we are as a couple. Our marriage is better for it.

This year, I am proud to say that I failed forward with passion and perseverance. Honestly, in retrospect, it’s been a really great year because of just how much I’ve grown: the best midlife crisis ever.

A failure, however spectacular, isn’t actually a failure if you learn from it and grow. Celebrate mistakes and failures because that’s where the best learning, the really sticky learning, happens. May I invite you to pause and take stock of your own failures and lessons learned from the pandemic.

Fail forward.

Read More

Read Grit, by Dr. Angela Duckworth or Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck. And if it’s too much to read a full book, the TED talks by Dr. Duckworth and Dr. Dweck are fabulous starting points.

Just for fun, check out this awesome video from Space X on “How not to land an orbital rocket booster”. It took a ton of grit to achieve the success Space X is seeing today.

I couldn’t find a place in the article for my favorite grit story of all time. Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, was visited by a good friend and associate, Walter S. Mallory:

“I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve to fifteen feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters. He was seated at this bench testing, figuring, and planning. I then learned that he had thus made over nine thousand experiments in trying to devise this new type of storage battery, but had not produced a single thing that promised to solve the question. In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: ‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’ Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.’”

The number one lesson I learned from my PhD → Grit. I had a two year stint of my PhD where I simply could not get a certain technique to work for me. Two years of learning thousands of things that won’t work. Grit is what science and engineering is all about -- failing forward by learning from each and every mistake.

If you are struggling with communicating with your partner like I was, take a peek at the research and strategies coming out of Dr. John Gottman’s love lab. Their “Marriage Minute” email list is one of the few that I highly recommend adding to your inbox.

Going Further

Fortunately, there's post-pandemic light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines are starting to roll out. Our county has moved into a lower tier. The CDC says vaccinated people can gather indoors without masks. I hugged my mother in law yesterday. There’s hope. Here’s three hope-filled invitations for you:


The Oxford English Dictionary defines synergy as “the extra energy, power, success, etc. that is achieved by two or more people, companies or elements working together, instead of on their own.”

What if work and life could synergize instead of compete? What if you had an intimate mastermind team of eight gritty, passionate teacher / school leaders in your corner to sustain you, celebrate your wins, and fail forward with you into the new school year?

I am launching a group coaching program called Synergy: Creating Work-Life Synergy, Resilience, and Career Sustainability for Educators. Its focus:

  • Learning what we can from 2020-21

  • Developing stress resilience

  • Practicing self care

  • Managing our energy

  • Creating healthy boundaries

  • Living into our calling in education and in leadership

  • Creating joy for ourselves and those around us

Synergy launches in June over the quiet summer months. We’ll celebrate a much deserved summer vacation in July, then meet regularly August through November to sustain, grow, and thrive together as the new school year launches. Email me at if you are interested or sign up for a free Resilience Session on my calendar to discuss.

Book Club

If you’re a mid-career professional looking for community, consider joining the Inquiring Minds Book Club! We just started a new book -- Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s perfect for anyone trying to establish new habits as we emerge from the pandemic. We meet the last Thursday of every month, 4-5 PM Pacific time. Note: we’re a “to read or not to read” book club so no judgement if you don’t have time to read the book.


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