Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Lesson on Staying Focused – With Thanks to a Terrific Teacher

My high school days are well back in the past but some memories remain fresh. Hearing of the passing of my AP US History teacher, David LaPonsee, moves me to relay one of them, even though the lesson learned came at the price of some personal embarrassment.

Dave was brilliant, with multiple degrees from prestigious institutions. He expected a lot from his students but they received much in return. There was a lot of memorization expected but he always created context. The discussions were usually intense and politically-charged.

Beyond academics, he was always available and happy to engage. I can remember spending many hours in Dave’s office discussing current events as well as our work together in student government.

The class was assigned a final paper, which could be on the topic of our choice. With a WWII Army pilot father, I chose to explore the development of the US military from the Depression through the World War. Essentially, the birth of the Superpower.

Even back then, I enjoyed research. The sources – and the tangents – grew rapidly; so many interesting lines of inquiry opened up. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before I was spending more time exploring the rise of our geopolitical adversaries than I was on my stated topic. The pursuit of knowledge was illuminating but I failed to conduct a reality check. I lost focus.

I handed in my paper, proud of the time and effort that went into its development. When the graded papers where distributed, I looked for my reward. All I found was a note: “Excellent paper but what does this have to do with US history? Please see me.”

Gulp. I wanted to crawl under the desk. I felt so foolish and, worse, I embarrassed myself in front of one of my favorite teachers.

The time soon came to meet with Dave. I explained the trajectory of the writing and he was comforting. Then, he asked what grade I deserved. Wow.

It was years later, when I came to teach strategy, research and communications at NYU, that I’d tell this story semester after semester and convey the lessons of Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian General. Focus, he said, “necessitates strict economy.” As strategists, if we do something “here,” it means we’re consciously not doing other things “there.” That episode from my past also prompted me to check in with each student throughout the term to ensure they stayed on track. But it’s not just about focus; it’s the feedback along the way that gives people the information and confidence they need to succeed.

I’ll always be grateful for the time I had with Dave. His intellect and empathy will always be remembered. And I’m happy I’ve been able to pass along some of his lessons, which are now used by the hundreds of students I had the privilege to teach.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

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