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The #1 Problem with New Years Life-Changey Stuff: Clarity of Purpose

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Maybe you're a “one word” person, or a classic resolution-setter, or a jaded New Years apathist. Regardless, here's all I have to say: without clarity of purpose, resolutions, goals and words are destined to disappoint. Importantly, this principle extends way beyond efforts at personal improvement; clarity of purpose is critical with things like school improvement initiatives and literacy frameworks.

In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown shares insights from his study of over 1,000 teams in an entire chapter dedicated to clarity of purpose:

Clarity of purpose… consistently predicts how people do their jobs… The fact is, motivation and cooperation deteriorate when there is a lack of purpose. You can train leaders on communication and teamwork and conduct 360 feedback reports until you are blue in the face, but if a team does not have clarity… problems will fester and multiply. When there is a lack of clarity, people waste time and energy on the trivial many.

Listen to me: goal-setting is important, and January is an especially ripe time for it. When my students and I returned to school yesterday, you can bet I was excited to get Zach and Taylor and Abby and Max reflecting on their goals for 2016. Likewise, I enjoyed sharing with them a bit about my own aspirations for the year, my own list of “hard things” I want to do.

But again and again and again when I travel around the country or read reader comments, I see educators languishing for lack of clear purpose. Every year in my classes, I see students of every background and ability level frustrated by what they see as the purposelessness of high school.

And so the best place to start with New Years goal-setting is with solid thinking about purpose. After that, we're more likely to build goals we'll keep for the next 365 days. Additionally, I think we'll find that clarity of purpose isn't something we need to wait to receive.

Starting with clarity of purpose

When I became a teacher in 2006, my purpose was vague: I wanted to “make a positive impact on students' lives.” Several years ago, I modified that into the clearer “Mount Everest” of promoting long-term student flourishing [1]. My working life is dedicated to that single purpose: every lesson I teach and word I write and workshop I lead is aimed at promoting long-term flourishing, either for my students or for yours.

Working from this clarity of purpose, I'm less likely to, as McKeown says, “waste time and energy on the trivial many.” Put positively, clarity of purpose makes me far more likely to do the right work, the work that benefits my students and my career long term.

  • Instead of attempting a “hit every standard” approach to lesson planning, I can adopt “These Five Things, All Year Long.”
  • Instead of a “treat all job responsibilities equally” approach to time management, I can ask myself: which tasks that I'm required to do are most (be strict with that word) likely to promote the long-term flourishing of my kids? Tasks that pass that test get most of my time. For tasks that don't, two additional tests need be applied:
    • Which tasks can I conceivably not do at all and still retain my job? (After all, it will be difficult to promote long-term student flourishing if I lose my job.)
    • Which are non-negotiable tasks if I'm to keep my job? Non-negotiable but unimportant (if they don't promote long-term flourishing, they are not important) tasks have to be completed with a heavy emphasis on time/effort minimization. [2]
  • Instead of “it's smart for me to be up each night until the wee hours grading essays,” I can prioritize things like sleep and family. After all, modeling how one lives a flourishing (and therefore balanced) life is one way I seek to promote long-term flourishing in my students.

You can apply this same “clarity of purpose” logic to what you hope to achieve with your life. Whether you're setting New Years resolutions or just trying to become the teacher you set out to be, this is worth your time.

Ending with clarity of purpose

I can't tell you off the top of my head what my resolutions and goals were for 2015. If you gave me time to pull up a few key spreadsheets and docs, I could prove that I definitely had them and that I even accomplished some of them. Specific goals and broader themes were important for my growth in 2015, and I've enjoyed creating new ones for 2016 over the last month.

But I can tell you, off the top of my head, what my purpose is, and I can give you examples of how I work toward that purpose day in and day out. Ask me one hundred times, “Dave, what are you ultimately driving at?” and I'll give you the same answer each time.

That, I think, is invaluable. That's what McKeown means by clarity of purpose. For you and your students and the people you care about, start there if you want your New Years life-changey stuff to pan out this year.


  1. Promoting the long-term flourishing of students may seem very unclear to new readers. But each word stands for something:
    1. “promote” — I can't guarantee that all of my students will flourish, but I can always improve how well I increase the odds that they will. This word is essentially a reminder to be humble: education is a cooperative endeavor; there is no “forcing” someone to flourish.
    2. “long-term” — while I want my students to do well on end-of-unit or -year assessments, my lens on their success begins at a much more distant five, ten, or even twenty years out from my class. I believe that in aiming at flourishing years from now, I'm likely to hit many shorter-term targets, but by aiming solely at shorter term targets, I'm unlikely to hit much in the long-term.
    3. “flourishing” — I happen to teach classes that students are required, by state law, to take: world history and, in every year before this one, English. I'm glad my students are required to take these classes; at the same time, the paths to flourishing in a compulsory class will be many: college, technical school, military, and so on. The word flourishing reminds me that narrow approaches (e.g., everyone must go to college) won't cut it.
  2. I don't mean to be subversive toward authority with either of these questions, and I'm thankful to be in a district that highly supports, rather than places egregious limitations on, teacher efforts toward long-term student flourishing. However, almost every time I write an article or speak at workshops, I hear another horror story about places where there is functionally zero clarity of purpose.

Thank you to Jim Burke for encouraging me to continue developing my article-writing process, and Beth Shaum for talking up Essentialism in her NCTE session, of which I was privileged to be a small part.

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2 Responses to The #1 Problem with New Years Life-Changey Stuff: Clarity of Purpose

  1. Yvonne January 5, 2016 at 9:45 am #

    Thank you for this. You are right that clarity will lend to balance and prioritizing. For example, we have had many snow days and interruptions at my school and my lessons are off due to this. We left for the break in the middle of writing an essay, but getting right back to it wasn’t the wise choice on the day back. what worked best was for me to look at what was important day one, setting our goals, and discussing how to achieve them. January is FAFSA time for the seniors I teach so it was natural to discuss goals and how to apply for student aid and to finalize college choices as well as to begin on scholarship essays. We are still doing my plan, writing an essay that forms an argument, but the topic must change with what is important. Thank you for the reminder and reassurance I am on the right track.

  2. Lisa Moose January 5, 2016 at 12:08 pm #

    Thank you, Dave! I scrapped my (what I now realize) flimsy first-day-back plan for a modified version of your plan. At the end of the day, I felt good about my and my student’s work and thinking. Because many of my sophomores are now realizing the importance of final transcripts, college entrance exams, class selection, etc… in “black and white,” this will be something we will return to again and again. I also had my students briefly discuss New Year’s Resolutions – yay or nay and why – and had them map out their goals step-by-step through the SMART model. (The mapping out of the goals came as a suggestion from one of my students. Love how “smart” they are already are!). Great way to ease back into the semester, and my students enjoyed it.

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