Re-Reading on the Road

Ryan Smith

Wrote this several months ago, but forgot to post it. Hope you like it.

The first time I read Tim O’Brien’sGoing After Cacciato I was sitting on the roof-top terrace of the Rex Hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

It was dark, I was 22, sipping a gin and tonic, and listening to the common night-time sounds of an incredible city in Southeast Asia.

This time I’m 40, on a business trip, sitting in a hotel bar in Houston, TX. I’m still sipping on a gin and tonic and this time listening to the common sounds of hotel bars across North America.

It’s amazing though how taste, words, and sounds tie a life together. I’ve re-read several books lately from my younger days and can’t recommend it enough. Rather than chasing the latest writer, revisit the favorites of your youth.

  • The same story means something different to…

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Patience, FOF, FOMO, And A 9-Year-Old

My oldest son turned the corner to 18 recently. Nine years old seems so young, but considering the blur that was the last nine, it’s hard to believe the next will be any different. Should I be doing more? Less? Am I more worried about failing or not doing everything I can? Fear of Failure (FOF) or Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)?

I look at him and can’t imagine loving anyone any deeper. He is me. I want so much for him. I see a game plan and at the same time, I recognize that even at nine he is he. Even now, it’s not my game plan. It’s his. The goal can’t be to give him the same experiences and thoughts I had as a kid. It’s not to turn him into a better version of myself.

I thought I was closer to figuring him out, and now we’re turning a new corner. Now the choice is to either lean in and allow this corner help build positive momentum and embrace the ambiguity the next nine years are sure to bring. Or we can resist and allow the corner to take longer and pull us apart.

He came to mind while recently listening to this Dharma talk from Jack Kornfield. He was sharing about the perfection of patience. Helping us to think about the growth of others and ways we can approach them with the same patience we yearn for ourselves. And of course, if you have ever listened to more than a few minutes from Jack you came out the other end better for it.


He shared the parable: Frog and Toad Together: The Garden, by Arnold Lobel.

Toad learns how hard, but necessary it is to leave seeds alone if you want them to grow. You can’t yell, poke, and prod at seeds and expect them to grow of course. Make sure they have good soil, water, and sunlight. Beyond that, our interventions may get in the way rather than help. Maybe doing less is better. But how do we reconcile doing less with our insatiable thirst for more? Our need to do something in order to feel better about ourselves. When do interventions get in the way of personal development? It seems that so often our FOF leads to over-intervention. I fall prey to this need to intervene both at work and at home. At some point, our interventions turn selfish. At some point, are we intervening to make ourselves feel better that we did everything we possibly could rather than giving the other person the time and space to grow?

Perhaps it’s this need to act that elevates our FOF and FOMO and in the end often a feeling of discontent. Tara Brach and Jack recently forced me to confront both. Thank you so much. Tara has been my companion through many life passages and I encourage you to find a quiet hour sometime soon to listen to any of her talks or read her books.

Her recent talk on this topic is below, and the podcast is here.

Is it Fear of Failure and Fear of Missing Out? A fear of failure as a father and fear of missing out as a father and human. I think it’s both and neither. The older I get the more I realize it is everything at the same time.

Perhaps this struggle with FOF and FOMO is something new he and I can bond around. I see both in his eyes as he struggles with turning the corner from kid to pre-teen at the same time I’m working through the passage from my third to fourth decade. I’m not sure anything is more useful to help him learn over the next nine years than the ability to recognize these two emotions. Recognizing the anxiety these two emotions creates and cultivating the ability to work within it will carry much more weight and continue to pay dividends long after GPA or class ranks are long forgotten.

Thanks for listening.

A Lovely Reunion Born From Tragedy

I looked over at the passenger seat and my heart sank. Empty. They should be there. I drove all the way downtown to make the most of a couple free hours and now it was all for naught. How could I be so careless? Maybe I should just turn around and drive back to my big box in suburbia.

Or maybe, just maybe, I could go for a run without my headphones. Perhaps I could run without a Podcast, audiobook, or playlist filling my airwaves? Somewhere in the ether of memory, I recall a time when I used to run without someone else’s voice accompanying me on on the journey. But that was a different time. A different world. There were no Podcasts and my Walkman was pretty bulky.

Nevertheless, I gave it a shot. And to really walk on the wild side, I even left my phone in the truck. The first mile or so was filled with disappointment. A new Revisionist History podcast has launched the day before and now I needed to find another time to listen. Tragedy.

A key benefit of running the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike trail in downtown, Austin is the multiple opportunities to cut your seven-mile loop short. Cut back across the river at the Pfluger bridge, 1st Street, or Congress Avenue and you can high-tail it back to the comfort of your truck, plug back in, and continue your quest to wow your friends and colleagues at meetings by quoting the latest episode of Radiolab or High Resolution. Such podcast hubris.

Luckily, something kept me from cutting the run short. Maybe it was the novelty of being unplugged and unreachable. Perhaps my ears were able to breathe better. Whatever the reason, the voice I heard about an hour into the run thanked me. The voice was familiar the same way you recognize voices imprinted on the soul during your youth. You can’t place it, but the voice makes sense.

It took me back to runs from my twenties. I was back in Big Bear Lake running the Pacific Crest Trail. I could feel the salty air enjoyed during a quick morning run along the boardwalk in Huntington Beach. Even more than returning to a previous time and place, it was the sound of that voice that made me feel at home. Made me feel more like myself again. I don’t remember much of what it said, and even though I didn’t learn something new from Two Guys on Your Head, I finished that run feeling at peace.

So I’ve stopped outsourcing my headspace to Krista Tippett, Debbie Millman, and Ben Greenfield. They’ve been wonderful companions, but that time on the roads is too important to share. It’s too important because we so rarely combine physical activity with disassociative boredom. That time of productive boredom is why running is a time for creation, not consumption. It’s a time to go wherever that voice takes you.

So it was a lovely reunion and hopefully the beginning of a new affair. I’ll save my podcasts for the gym.

My Pillars of Stoicism and Design Thinking

Peas and carrots, biscuits and gravy, Tango and Cash, impressive duos all. Complimentary ideas and systems help us navigate the world. They help us find balance and understanding. And a current obsession of mine is the duo of Stoicism and Design Thinking.

I can’t remember if it was a podcast, blog post, book, video, or conversation that led me to learn more about Stoicism a couple years ago. But, it was during a season of change and the tenants of Stoicism have rippled through on almost a daily basis. The basic ideas according to The Daily Stoic are:

The (Stoic) philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment be based on behavior, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.

Stoicism has just a few central teachings. It sets out to remind us of how unpredictable the world can be. How brief our moment of life is. How to be steadfast, and strong, and in control of yourself. And finally, that the source of our dissatisfaction lies in our impulsive dependency on our reflexive senses rather than logic.

When we work through a time of change our perception guides our reaction. A situation is neither positive nor negative. It just is. Our internal and external reaction is all we can control. Isn’t it freeing to understand that fact? Isn’t it liberating to believe that we are in control, and not passive victims to the reactions of those around us?

We were fortunate to recently learn from Ryan Holiday, author books such as The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, and The Daily Stoic, at the Round Rock ISD World Class Summit – our annual leadership gathering of campus and district leaders. I do my best – to vastly varying degrees of success – to follow the teachings of the Stoics as a personal operating system leading my teams and projects supporting our students, campuses, and departments.

Holiday shared many quotes and stories from the ancients as well as present day leaders who trusted the process, valued living in the moment, and embraced intentionality around their emotions. He spoke of the four disciplines associated with Stoicism – The Discipline of Perception, The Discipline of Action, and The Discipline of Will.

If Stoicism is an operating system for interacting with the world, then design thinking is a system for creating purposeful experiences.

I do remember how I was introduced to Design Thinking around that same time of personal and professional change. If Stoicism is an operating system for interacting with the world, then design thinking is a system for creating purposeful experiences. The Teacher’s Guild, a part of IDEO, revealed the world of Design Thinking to me and many others a few years ago and the idea has resonated in nearly every project since. Pair their website with the Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit and you will be well on your way incorporating this process for designing solutions and learning experience for students and staff.

Doreen Lorenzo kicked off day two of the Summit and shared the way the University of Texas at Austin is incorporating the tenants of Design Thinking into the work of undergraduates. A key idea we are incorporating into our work supporting students, campuses, and departments throughout our organization is directly influenced by design thinking. We create systems, resources, assessments, and experiences through the lens of those we serve. If there is a disconnect in the understanding or implementation of curriculum or an instructional initiative, then that is on us (designers), not teachers (users.)

Public education is mirroring many industries during this time in history which operate in shorter iteration cycles. If Google has a product change it believes may occur more than two quarters away, then it’s considered a long-term horizon possibility. Is six-months long term? We may not be working within such rapid cycles in K-12 education, but it’s difficult to have even a three-year plan.

A blend of Stoicism as a personal operating system and design thinking as a professional operating system will allow us to thrive where others are stifled by either fear of ambiguity or fear of sharing control. Constant iteration, flatter organization structures, open communication, and growing teacher agency all provide us opportunities to design systems to better serve our communities. It’s an incredible time to be a leader in public education. In recent memory, there have never been more obstacles in our path. With each of those obstacles, there are opportunities to use them to our advantage – to flip the perception of critics and create raving fans of bystanders.

Let’s finish with a poem from my favorite children’s book from one of my favorite coaches John Wooden which embraces our bias toward action and honoring of effort along with results.


I scurry ‘round and ‘round each day. Taking Action is my way. I get up and go and give it my all. When Action’s needed, I never stall. And when I look for lunch to eat, I’m not afraid to risk defeat. Don’t fear failure. Try your best. Take some Action for Success.






Make Service Your Lens

I was lucky to have the opportunity this week to speak at the Walsh Middle School National Junior Honor Society induction ceremony and wanted to share my thoughts on service. Thanks for reading.

Before I even begin I want to invite our inductees this afternoon to take a moment and thank those who support their growth and development. It’s not easy being a parent/guardian/teacher/principal and none of us would be sitting here without the dedication of others. So let’s take a moment and give them a round of applause.
I want to thank Dr. Agnew and Ms. Zunker for asking me to share a few thoughts this afternoon. I have so many wonderful memories working with many of your older brothers and sisters when I was lucky enough to serve as the assistant principal here from the day the campus opened and for the next five years. If anyone wants the inside scoop of how they acted when they were in middle school, I’ll stick around after the ceremony.

And one free tip before I jump into the meat of my thoughts today. Always thank your family when you’re giving a speech. So, Kelley, Lincoln, and Harrison, thanks for being here to help me celebrate these students today.

But the major reason I’m excited to talk with you all at this event is to celebrate a community that honors the five pillars of NJHS – Scholarship, Service, Leadership, Character, and Citizenship. We’re going to be hearing about each of those in more depth shortly so I’m only going speak about one – SERVICE.

We are the lucky ones. I do believe that hard work breeds luck, but I also believe that the more we do for others without the expectation of anything in return the happier lives we will lead.

So, my challenge to you, new inductees, is to embrace the idea of SERVICE as much more important than hours, projects, a box to check, or something to enhance your college application. Look at SERVICE as a way of life. Look at SERVICE as a lens to see the world.

In every situation you find yourself, whether it’s navigating a crowded Walsh hallway, working in a small group on a project, welcoming a new student, witnessing a conflict between two peers, or being a son/daughter/sister/brother/friend, ask yourself “How can I be of SERVICE?” “How can I make this situation better for those around me?”

And then take ACTION! Go FIRST! Err on the side of ACTION rather than HESITATION! Don’t be a BYSTANDER!

Be GENUINE, take your SERVICE seriously, and amazing things will happen for each and every one of you.

Thank you.