Education Matters

Head Master: The value of taking one step at a time

Posted by Tim Bowden on Oct 14, 2019, 6:00:00 AM

Head Master: The value of taking one step at a timeBy Tim Bowden, Head Master

I have never really understood the appeal of mountain climbing. That’s OK. I have never really understood the appeal of avocado either. We all have different tastes.

However, mountain climbing does punch above its weight in providing stories of heroism, drama, and metaphors that can be leveraged into life lessons. I was reminded of this last week when I attended a conference where the first Taswegian to climb to the summit of Everest was speaking. John Zechendorf was the 96th Australian to reach the top of the world, and is only one of about 20 Australians to have ascended the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. As you can imagine, he had some good stories to tell.

In recounting the day on which his party reached the top, Zechendorf was battling gastro-enteritis, as well as the debilitating effects of altitude and climate. He described the experience of looking up at one point, and being overwhelmed by the distance to go. As he thought about the immensity of the task before him, he became paralysed with hopelessness. He recognised, on a bone-deep and existential level, that this task was beyond him.

After that moment, he didn’t look up again. Instead, he looked down, at his feet. Instead of contemplating the big picture, he focused on the smallest one. Instead of asking, ‘Can I get to the top?’, he started to ask ‘Can I take the next step?’ His answer to this second question was ‘Yes.’ So he did. And the next step. And the next step. You can imagine how the story went – and its successful conclusion. He was able to do it, taking one step at a time.

It was a great story, reminiscent of the cliched proverb about eating an elephant. How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time. His story embedded the cliché in a narrative, which drew us along as listeners, where rolling out the cliché would likely have triggered a cynical defensive reflex.

Nonetheless, clichés become clichés because they capture an idea that has power, even if that power fades through familiarity over time. The only way to eat an elephant is to do it one mouthful at a time. The only way to climb a mountain is one step at a time. The only way to become fit is to exercise one session at a time. The only way to master the violin is one practice session at a time.

At this time of year, some students become despondent at the prospect of formal assessments that lie ahead. Examination timetables, assessment tasks, revision regimes and all the rest of it can loom forebodingly over them. Sometimes, our boys can be paralysed by the perceived immensity of the challenge. Sometimes they divert their attention to those tasks that they feel as though they can conquer, often on a games console. It makes good sense to remind our boys that focussing on the next step is all they need to do. Can you do half an hour of Maths? Of course, you can. And then, when the half hour is done, can you do half an hour of note summarising? Of course, you can. And then, when the half hour is done, can you do the next step?

One step at a time will get us there. And, remember, consistency is more powerful than intensity.


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Topics: Parenting tips, Raising boys, Pastoral care, Improve learning, Study tips, Mental health