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Successful v. Useful: Lessons on Teaching from Jim Collins and Peter Drucker

By Dave Stuart Jr.

When management researcher Jim Collins was 36 years old, he was invited to spend a day at the home of Peter Drucker. Drucker is someone I've just started reading, as I'm in the research phase for a course on time management. The more I read on this topic, the more I find people reverently referencing Drucker's work. The guiding question of Drucker's career was, “How might society be made both more productive and more humane?” ​(Now there's a worthy, long-term flourishing question.) ​

At the time of his visit, Collins was on the brink of a decision to leave his professorship at Stanford so that he might go into full-time research and writing. He was nervous about this, and so he was grateful for the invitation to visit with his longtime hero Drucker.​ By this point in Drucker's life, the man was 86 years old. His life's work was printed in 26 books. (He would go on to write 10 more.) On Collins' visit, Drucker's status as one of the 20th century's great management thinkers was all but assured. He had achieved outrageous success.

And yet Collins was surprised to find that Drucker lived in a modest home, did his daily writing at a simple desk on a simple typewriter in a simple spare bedroom, and visited with guests like Collins in a living room while sitting on a wicker chair. Drucker's life, in other words, was practically monastic when compared to today's über-successful. Drucker did not even have an assistant.

As the day's visit was getting through, Collins writes that Drucker gave him a special challenge pertaining to Collins' preoccupation with whether he should leave the Stanford spot or not. I'll share an excerpt here in full (taken from Collins' foreword to Drucker's The Effective Executive), and then I'll write why I find it useful for me as a teacher and a writer.

At the end of that day, Peter hit me with a challenge. I was on the cusp of leaving my faculty spot at Stanford, betting on a self-created path, and I was scared. “It seems to me you spend a lot of time worrying how you will survive,” said Peter. “You will probably survive.” He continued, “And you seem to spend a lot of energy on the question of how to be successful. But that is the wrong question.” He paused, then like the Zen master thwacking the table with a bamboo stick: “The question is: how to be useful!” A great teacher can change your life in thirty seconds.

There are several takeaways for us here:

  • First, we ought to resist the idea that success — as measured by tests, micro-analyzed by evaluation frameworks, or awarded by Teacher of the Year awards — is the goal of teaching. I like Drucker's word change: the goal is to be useful. What's liberating about trying to be useful v. trying to be successful is that success is all about me, but usefulness is all about others. This other-oriented life is almost entirely countercultural yet littered with the riches of a life well-lived. And as Drucker found, striving to be useful often leads to the most enduring kinds of success. Usefulness is both a lead and a lag measure for the kinds of lives you and I are trying to build, day by day.
  • Second, our anxieties are often overwrought. We, too, fear that if we stop giving the evaluation rubric 100% of our professional attention, then surely we will lose our jobs or be relegated to last place in our schools. But as Drucker says, “You will probably survive.” Certainly, losing our jobs would be a great inconvenience, and it may mean some difficult short-term circumstances. But really, if that did happen, could we make it? If we had to? If we're smart enough to teach, then surely we would be smart enough to figure a way to make a path in a worst case scenario where we lost this job. From Drucker's vantage point, this is easy to see. He was 86 years old. He'd seen plenty of worst-case scenarios play out.
  • Third, there's productive power in living beneath one's means. A part of Drucker's confidence and success must surely have been that he was living so far beneath his means. By the age of 86, Drucker was a millionaire multiple times over, from book royalties alone. Yet there he lived, in the simple house with the simple visiting room. The high-powered CEOs who visited Drucker while he sat on his wicker chair weren't there for his nice things. They were there for his usefulness. Drucker had figured out that you don't need the trappings of success — titles, houses, fancy offices — to succeed at being useful. I think we are also wise to live beneath our means, as this cultivates contentment in a discontented world and minimizes anxiety in an anxious one. (I know, I know — this isn't a blog about money. But money matters.)
  • And finally, leading business thinkers — like Collins and Drucker — recognize that teaching is one of the most powerful things a human can do. Both Collins and Drucker view themselves as teachers. Rather than pursue the much more lucrative paths of CEO-ship that these men could have pursued, they instead dedicated their lives to be as useful as they could be to as many folks as possible. For them, that path was in researching and writing. A lot. (In the same source, Collins shares that he strives for 1,000 “deep work” hours per year.) For us, the path is teaching. A lot.

And this just goes to show me, once again, that there are few kinds of reading that can't reap fruit for the thoughtful teacher. What do you think?


Note: I'm working on a course about managing our time better so that we have more of it and can be less stressed as a result. Think of it as an extended study of how to go from survival to thrival (that's how my friend John puts it). Right now, I'm in the research phase. To be the first to hear when that phase is done, sign up for the waitlist here.


Author's Addition: While reading Matt Perman's What's Best Next, I came across this related line from 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon's writings:

Let us be on the watch for opportunities of usefulness; let us go about the world with our ears and our eyes open, ready to avail ourselves of every occasion for doing good; let us not be content till we are useful, but make this the main design and ambition of our lives.

7 Responses to Successful v. Useful: Lessons on Teaching from Jim Collins and Peter Drucker

  1. Mari Bradley February 19, 2019 at 7:11 pm #

    This article just freed up a whole lot of space in my spirit. As a teacher in a Title I Middle School for the past 13 years and also having just turned 60 and not ready to stop teaching, I have been feeling both a sense of not being “successful” (no numerical testing results are good enough) and feeling obsolete (as in I can’t keep up with the technology, I haven’t “flipped” my classroom.).

    You helped me reclaim myself as classroom teacher. Not a teacher of the year, not striving to become an administrator, not looking for one more degree. I show up and do my best to do the impossible everyday, have good days and bad days, know that a two minute conversation with a student about something besides school may result in an u expected card or email from that student when he/she is in college.

    I so appreciate you sharing your thoughts and insights.

    • Dave Stuart Jr. (@davestuartjr) February 19, 2019 at 8:17 pm #

      Oh Mari, this is such a treat, because I really didn’t know if this one was any help. Thank you. Thank you.

    • Helga Collins February 19, 2019 at 8:56 pm #

      I can only say “Amen” to all of the above. This is why I love teachers and this field. We are public servants, one little person doing the very best that we can. I absolutely love this story of the virtuous 86-year old still being useful. May we change the culture with this practice of being useful in our careers and personal lives. Thanks again, Dave!:)

  2. Chris Carey February 19, 2019 at 8:03 pm #

    Reminds me of the final lines of “Famous,” one of my favorite poems by Naomi Shihab Nye:

    I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
    or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
    but because it never forgot what it could do.

    Another great post, Dave!

  3. Cassie Coggburn February 20, 2019 at 7:27 am #

    As a “new” teacher who started professionally teaching five years ago and who just turned 50, this is immensely useful! I struggle daily daily with feelings of inadequacy because I don’t always know the latest buzz words or have the most exciting and interactive lessons planned. But this serves as a reminder that being useful as a teacher means Being. There. For. The. Kids. Period. Thank you!

    • davestuartjr February 21, 2019 at 10:06 am #

      Yes, Cassie — teaching them toward long-term flourishing is the precious work.

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