When Tracy DiNunzio was born, her vertebrae didn't form around her spinal cord. Her spina bifida meant a childhood characterized not by the rambling around and bumps and scrapes that my kids experience, but rather by the pain and surgeries that her condition required.
DiNunzio recalls that during this time, she “tried complaining and being bitter [but] it didn't work.”
It didn't work.
When I talk to teachers about complaining, I often hear excuses for the behavior.
- “It's how I vent.”
- “It's therapeutic.”
- “It's the only way to stay sane.”
But as I've written before, I don't think complaining helps much at all. At an age far older than DiNunzio, when I was early in my teaching career, I noticed two things:
- The teachers and leaders and mentors I respected most didn't seem to complain, despite circumstances similar to or worse than mine.
- Complaining never seemed to help much.
In fact, I think complaining helps a teacher out a little worse than smoking a cigarette might.
In Tim Ferriss' Tools of Titans* where I first learned of her story, DiNunzio shares that Stephen Hawking was particularly helpful to her: “When you complain, nobody wants to help you.”
DiNunzio goes on to elaborate: “If you spend your time focusing on the things that are wrong, and that's what you express and project to people you know, you don't become a source of growth for people, you become a source of destruction for people.”
My question, dear colleague, is this: Did you hope, when you started your career, that you might daily serve as a source of destruction for people? For your spouse, or that colleague down the hall, or that trusted friend?
You didn't. People like you and me don't ever set out to be like that.
But I think DiNunzio is right. I think that, when we complain, we become a destructive force. Rather than serving our purpose — the promotion of long-term flourishing — we submit to our anti-purpose — the promotion of long-term frustration. The seeds of burnout are sown one complaint at a time.
I say this not to condemn, as heaven knows how many minutes of my life I've spent complaining. I'd hate to see that sum.
Rather, I urge you to consider the idea that eventually turned DiNunzio around.
“At one point… I just decided to put myself on a ‘complaining diet,' where I said, ‘Not only am I not going to say anything negative about the situation I'm in, but I'm not going to let myself think anything negative about it.‘”
“It took a long time,” DiNunzio continues, “and I wasn't perfect at it, but not only did replacing those thoughts help me start moving my life in a better direction, where I wasn't obsessing over what was wrong… it also made me not feel physical pain as much, which is very liberating and kind of necessary if you want to do anything.”
What I love about DiNunzio's concept — “a complaining diet” — is that it's entirely within our control. You and I — no matter how many kids we have on the roster, how many initiatives from on high that we don't agree with, how many students we are currently struggling to reach — can absolutely work to control the negative thoughts we voice and entertain.
I hope this helps.
*Thank you to Tim Ferriss, whose fascinating Tools of Titans proves worthy each time I pick it up. Whether picking a page at random or reading a section through, the book's collection of insights from all kinds of people makes it a title that I'm quickly wearing in.