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The Business (and Educational) Sense of Selfless Service

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Last weekend, I was at a conference in Boise, ID, and it was hosted by a company that used to call itself ConvertKit and now calls itself Seva. (The name means “selfless service,” and they’ve got a brief and hearty video explaining the name change — and full disclosure, it briefly mentions me — at the top of this page.) Seva's conference is the one professional event per year that I attend that’s not about teaching. It’s about how to earn a living making things for other people, things that you believe in and that make the world better.

As I met fellow attendees — people in online niches ranging from goat farming to female entrepreneurship to travel journalism to coding to refined manliness — several themes rose to the top that make sense to me as a teacher. It seems that the best online businesspeople have a good deal in common with the best teachers, at least in three ways.

First, they are students of their crafts. They are learning, teaching, making, learning, and so on, all in a perpetual cycle of improvement. In the best of them, there's a submission to the ongoing nature of learning, and this makes them humble and winsome. As a result, they are trustworthy in an Internet that’s not, and it threads them through with a lack of entitlement. (Wait, you can't be threaded through with a lack of something. So let's say they are threaded through with gratitude, or a servant's heart.) “I'm not entitled to your business — I only get that if I do great work” — that's what the best online creators seem to say.

So too with teachers. When we humble ourselves to the “never finished” nature of teaching, it makes us better and more believable. This credibility is one of our master tools. “I'm not entitled to be called or treated like your teacher — I only get that if I do great work and actually teach you.”

That can all seem kind of dour — submit yourself humbly to the craft — which is why the next bit is really key.

These online creators also exude a certain joyfulness. Even though the work is hard and often frustrating — they make an epic video on YouTube and only a hundred people watch it; they write a book for the masses and only a few hundred people read it; they write the best blog post of their life and nobody cares — doing it long enough helps them to see that perfectionism is folly and improvementism is the way. Experience has taught these people — like it teaches us teachers — that failure is normal, and it can even be generative for future success.

With these twin attitudes — joyful never-finishedness — success is not intoxicating, and it does come (so long as we define it wisely).

And finally, the best of these creators aim at other-centered, Everest-esque results. What I loved about this conference was its strongest through line: when you aim at the highest good for your audience — the best book for them, the best course, the most transformative teaching — you can get pretty great lower-level results thrown in, too. We discuss this all the time on the blog. In teaching, when we aim at the highest good of our students — their long-term flourishing by way of mastering our course material — we get the rest thrown in. That's basically the premise of These 6 ThingsAim at long-term flourishing and at the six areas of our craft most likely to get our kids there, and you get student achievement thrown in, too.

You don't aim at high AP pass rates — you aim at the long-term flourishing of the kids in your AP class by means of as much reading- and writing- and knowledge- and argument- and speaking/listening- and motivation-rich learning experiences as you can muster. You aim at Everest, you do less but better, and eventually, you'll get above-par test results thrown in. It's not a secret formula, it's not fancy, but it works.

It can't be lip service — none of this, “We want what's best for kids” when we really just want them to score high on the state test. I’m talking about earnestly aiming for Everest:

  • What’s this school year about, in a single sentence? It’s not about test scores, it’s about the long-term flourishing of kids. When I shoot for long-term flourishing in my AP class, then a lot of my ninth graders might pass the AP exam (and this year, a pretty sweet amount of them did), but all of them will benefit from the course because the course was never really about a test — it was about them and the transformation that can happen when we aggressively seek to learn and master as much of world history as possible in a school year. Don't get me wrong — I can give you all kinds of nerdy things that I've learned about the AP exam over the past three years, so I'm certainly not ignoring the test. It's just that the test gets a seat in the back of the airplane — it doesn't get to be the pilot.
  • What’s my new book about, in a single sentence? Helping us to do less work but much better for the sake of our sanity and our kids’ long-term good. (Who needs complete sentences anyway?) I want the book’s message to spread into every department in every secondary and upper elementary school in the country. Why? Well, it's not for the $3/copy I earn, I can tell you that. Rather, I think These 6 Things can create beautiful and professionalizing conversations in any PLC or department that chooses to read it. I think it gives a clear roadmap for sustained school improvement while still allowing room for school-level tweaks. It's both simple and deep, research-rich and practice-proven, and that's what I want in a PD book, and so that's why I wrote it — for us. We need a physical thing we can point to and say, this. Just read this. No doubt, I need strong book sales to get the ideas in the book to spread, and so I'll work to earn those. But ultimately, the book is for us so that we can do the right work.
  • And finally, what’s a company like Seva about? Well, on its face it’s about email software for folks who make things online. So as a company, I'm sure it would be easiest for Nathan the CEO and Barrett the COO to say, “How do we increase our profits? How do we add to our sales? How can we make this company run more efficiently?” And I’m sure that Seva has goals around those things, just as I have goals about how I hope my students will achieve, and how I hope my book will sell. That's part of the work — it's silly to skip it. But at the end of the day, those dudes changed the name of their company because they're that serious about Everest. That change is going to take a lot of work — I can't even wrap my head around how much work it would take for a company that size to change its name and URL and All The Details. But they're doing it because they believe in selfless service, and they believe that building an email software company around the ethos of selflessly serving others while helping creators better serve their audiences is going to make the world better.

And you know what? I bet they'll get growth and sales and success thrown in, too.

Eyes up.

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